Journeys of the Self: Auto-ethnography as Narrative Enquiry

Partially presented at the Crossroads 2004 International Cultural Studies Conference accompanied by a paper presentation titled "Journeys of the Self: Auto-ethnography as Narrative Enquiry," June, 2004, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, USA.


This paper discuss a digital video project I have done, which results from a visual ethnography project about my own life in the past thirteen years. The project began as one to document others, and gradually grew more and consciously in the direction of autoethnography as I became increasingly interested in questions of visual anthropology, ethnomethodology in Cultural Studies, historiography, and women’s writings and autobiography. Alongside, the works of Chantel Akerman, Su Friedrich and John Mekas have opened up questions of performativity, automatism and editing as a concentrated phase of making senses of oneself via organization. While these are also core issues in my project, my concern with the epistemological character historiography, the material emphasis of ethnographic research, and the notion of automatism as a creative impulse/principle/method from my tangential relation to these seminal works. A traveling self of an Asian woman in world cities would be deconstructed as to how useful ethnic identities are in these self journeys.

Conference Presentation

-- Linda Lai (City University of Hong Kong)
June 28, 2004, University of Urbana-Champaign
-for the Crossroad International Conference for Cultural Studies 2004 organized by the Association for Cultural Studies

Up to this very moment of my life as an intellectual trained in cinema and cultural studies, most of the works I’ve done has been purely critical inquiry; and as an attentive learner of academic discourse histories in the West, I have been very much cautioned against analytic models that are text-based, as well as other methodologies that valorize the text and its exegesis.  This time, my project can be described as an unusual attempt on two levels: for it is a focused engagement with media form and text, and I do so by turning myself into a creator.
Beginnings: the quest of narrativity

The paper I’m reading this morning concerns a video cycle in progress of mine, titled 4748 Moons and 13 Elliptical Years, which began as a video project to document others, and gradually evolved into a piece of auto-ethnography.  The cycle has nine parts -

  1. “Camera Exercises”
  2. “Trespassing World Cities”
  3. “Other Space/Non-place
  4. “Love Diaries”
  5. “Chair Talks”
  6. “Body Talks”
  7. “I Told Them My Camera was on”
  8. “One Take”
  9. “The Tickled Faces of Big Mansions”


In forming my “theory-as-praxis” tactics and the integration of criticality and creativity via expressive forms and structures, I have been particularly drawn to Judith Butler’s idea of a “critical intellectual” and the necessary commitment to engage in questioning set norms and “basic” assumptions.  Sara Salih has succinctly summarized Butler’s view in the latter’s recently published anthology, highlighting the task to call into question ordinary language, such as grammar and style, to look at how we structure the world via language in order to bring “newness” to the world.  In my video project, my task to question language has taken a shared concern with a different focus -- in narrativity, and particularly visual grammar and norms that have been taken for granted.