What does it mean to do autoethnography? What even is it? To the critics, autoethnography is rather disparagingly labelled ‘mesearch‘ and a form of personal story-telling that is far too narcissistic to be considered proper research. However, such a view tends to resolutely align traditional scientific objectivity with truth, and so personal accounts become far too unscientific to be able to produce generalisable results. But it is painfully obvious by now, that the truth has a rather variegated existence these days.
Many urban cultural geographers (and indeed, those beyond the discipline) will utilise autoethnography in their own research: some of the most compelling (albeit not entirely unproblematic) research monographs of late have been autoethnographical; Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’ and Bradley Garrett’s Explore Everything come to mind. But we also teach it. Students are extremely receptive to it as a method, and not just because it can avoid anxiety-producing encounters with strangers in the field. I find that those students willing to embrace it properly will wield it as a potent critical weapon against the stifling striation of the contemporary city. Yet despite our best efforts in the classroom beforehand, there is always some confusion as to what constitutes autoethnography as a methodological perspective in the field.
Autoethnography (which can embrace psychogeographic elements but is not synonymous with them) involves immersing yourself in the city with all the various human and nonhuman equipment at your disposal. Ellis et al (2011) argue that it is the combination of biography and ethnography. They argue that methodologically, it “must use personal experience to illustrate facets of cultural experience, and, in so doing, make characteristics of a culture familiar for insiders and outsiders” (ibid: 276). While being rather too insistent with their modal verbs, it is important to emphasise that this ‘cultural experience’ that is the focus of study, could be anything from the smell of a new book, to the ethnic diversity of an entire city neighbourhood. What’s important is that an autoethnographer describes and critically analyses that experience in light of the complex assemblages of which it is actively a part of, or marginalised as distinct from. Within urban studies, this means understanding the deep and rich fabric of city life, and how it contributes to, and is a symptom of political, social, economic, ethnic, technological, representational, mediated and yes, cultural processes (and all those unidentifiable processes in between).
Much to the dismay of some students, to undertake such a task then is far from easy. It requires a deep comprehension of how urban life is stitched together and how it can be torn apart; a comprehension that can only come about through exposure to that which has been analysed, written, filmed, recorded and/or represented before. It also requires the ability to add your own narrative to that with your own recording and representation. The medically normalised quintet of senses that form the traditional foundations of the sensing body is more or less enough. But extending this to non-human appendages (most readily a smart phone but it can be anything, it doesn’t have to be smart at all – I’ve always enjoyed etching the surfaces of random bits of the city) all adds to the experience and the potential for representational distortions one way or another. A recent study by Jackson et al. (2019) has exemplified this expertly with their multi-sensory ethnography of two sites in Peckham, South London. Their analysis critiques, extends and augments most vociferously the ‘vertical geographies’ literature, but they could have just as easily (and no doubt, just as poetically) talked further into the literatures on gentrification, ethnic diasporas, architectural geographies, identity politics or smart city development.
So, having spent the last few years leading Royal Holloway’s New York field trip – for which this most esoteric of methods has become a firm favourite among students – I wanted to re-familiarise myself with the method I so often extol. And so I put myself in front of myself as one of my students, embarking upon a quasi-psychogeographic, but no less autoethnographic walk down Roosevelt Avenue with a colleague of mine, Dr. Ben Newman. In so doing, the hope was to understand in a little more detail part of the city I seldom visit, and, as Ellis et al (2011) inspire us to do, to ‘make its characteristics familiar to insiders and outsiders a like’.
I say psychogeographic, only in so far as it was an unplanned walk after a spot of lunch. The morning had been spent wondering around Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, a site constructed for the ’39 and ’64 World’s Fair. It’s a place steeped in rather laconic historical voices that speak of googie-soaked utopian visions of an exciting near-future (see Figures 1 and 2). A gaze that we can retrospectively say was totally naïve (given the privatised and narrow-minded world that has been created since), but one that is no less in dire need of resurrection.
As inspiring as that place was, it’s for another post. Our lunch was consumed at a Columbian bakery under the 111th St Station on the 7 Line, after which a quick stretch of the legs was required rather than long buffeting subway ride back to Manhattan. It became clear that the long stretch of Roosevelt Avenue that cut a gun-barrel straight route through Queens toward Williamsburg was an ideal place (in the most Doreen Massey-full sense of that word as I can possible emphasise) for an autoethnographic engagement, but one that was elicited from the five senses that are available to me as a fully-abled human.
The first thing that imposes itself on yourself was the palimpsest of transport infrastructures that entraps the flow of both fleshy and machinic bodies (see the video below). The elevated train line is oppressively low, with the vanishing point between it and the road frustratingly (from the point of view of the urban voyeur on the hunt for that perfectly geometric photo) out of sight.
The shop frontages begin to invade the consciousness, begging the urban scrapbooker to be captured either photographically or at the very least, in a stand out memory (see Figures 3 – 8). Visually, their varying colours, arrangements of displays, locations on or off the street, shapes and accessories create a kaleidoscopic vision of an urban realm that mixes the globe together into one intersection. As Massey (1991: 29) stated “places do not have single, unique ‘identities’, they a full of internal contradictions”. Sure. I mean, to see a Man City flag (Figure 7) fluttering away certainly brought up my own internal conflicts…
Aurally, Roosevelt Avenue was cacophonous. Ben and I struggled to hear each other at times, particularly when passing the major arterial surgery that was being performed on the 7 Line above by MTA engineers (listen to the clip below). But as we fell silent, the soundscape of the city enveloped us, and we ruminated just how much of the city as an entity was experienced via aural features alone. The blare of Latin beats bleed into the drone of car horns which segues into the shouts of angry pedestrians which was drowned out by the screech of the subway car above; the intoxicating mix of the urban soundscape evidences how everyday urban life takes up so much mental bandwidth that we have become so accustomed to blocking out. So if either of us ask students to be quiet and not talk to each other on future urban walks, you’ll know why. Indeed, sound walks are a tried and tested, but perhaps under-utilised cultural geographic method (see Butler, 2006, 2007). I was also struck about how people who lack the ability to hear may have felt this sound as it certainly resonated deep within my core, something that a revisiting of ‘sound’ walks as a method may do well to uncover perhaps?
Olfactory (and if particularly potent, gustatory), the route was a mix of exotic fruits, vaporising bitumen, cooking meat, car fumes, perfumeries, and that metallic smell that you get near subway stations and knackered old train cars. If there was one urban smellscape that could overcome the lingering taste of the amazing Colombian lunch we’d just had, then it was this inner-city New York thoroughfare.
Tactually, the pounding of my feet (couched in the ever-so-slowly wearing down trainers) against the pavement produced a rhythm that began to take over any conscious attempt to control it. The encounter with each new crosswalk (as tends to happen in New York) blended into one totalising affective experience of traversing the city. The rhythm and pacing of walking, waiting, then walking again combines with the subtle (often) precognition of gauging whether you can make the opposing sidewalk with only 05 left on the pedestrian sign. Also, as you scour the terrain beneath your feet, obstacles have to be overcome, potholes require navigation, and errant trash cans need to be avoided (Fig 9).
Tiredness overtook us, and as we reached Jackson Heights station, it seemed like as good a terimus as any to reintegrate ourselves into the transportation infrastructure. Once in the carriage lurching back toward Manhattan, I gaze out upon the cross-cutting networks of transportation sprawling beneath the elevated track (Fig 10 and 11). Being carried – almost gliding – over the cacophonous, polychromatic and multi-sensory city below, I begin to refer back to Sharon Zukin’s theorisation of ‘authenticity’ (Zukin, 2008, 2010). I wondered whether what we had just traversed was part of the ‘lost soul’ of New York that she so eloquently describes, or part of the reimagining of a newer, but no less sensory authentic urban experience?
Which ever of those I chose to land on, it took an autoethnographic study to find out…