This post is in the Autoethnography category

My master’s thesis (Webber, 2005) followed three theatre productions with Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre, examining the process of collaboration through narrative and interviews, and building a model of that practice. This model was tested via review by other practitioners working in similar environments, in a process I referred to as co-reflection. In the model, particular areas of vulnerability were identified where the potential for collaborative breakdown or difficulty was high for all the co-reflective participants. These tended to be points where communication of intent, emotion and ideas were focussed. This co-reflection did not attempt to be autoethnography, as I would now describe it, rather an analysis of the generated texts and discussions between the participants and the “co-reflectors”.

In light of new information and understanding of my own autistic traits, it was essential to re-investigate this collaborative model and apply it in a much more personal manner that could examine my personal ways of thinking and understanding that I now understand to be rather less mainstream than I thought. It was clear that the questions asked of the research must be informed and shaped by my own experiences, both historical and current, but should also delve into the literature and experiences of others in the situated cultures, that is, both musicians and autistic persons. It was also clear from the outset that the research would be a transformative process in itself, that I would not be “the same” afterwards, indeed during the research period, that I would observe, analyse and apply learning in something akin to an action research model. The outcome was not to be simply about “what is, and why” but also “what could be, and how”, along with an inherent risk that the whole thing might have no “explanations” at all. In this sense, Ellis and Bochner’s assertion that “we think of ethnography as a journey” (Ellis & Bochner, 2006) is very attractive and fits with the aims of this work. The concept of “epistemology of emotion” (Denzin, 1997, p. 228) or emotionally understood knowledge  bears some fears, due to my difficulties with understanding my own emotions.

This work also incorporates elements of a variation to Ellis’s approaches to autoethnography, that partly resembles what Leon Anderson proposes as “analytic autoethnography” (Anderson, 2006). He defines five aspects to that definition – (1) complete member researcher (CMR) status, (2) analytic reflexivity, (3) narrative visibility of the researcher’s self, (4) dialogue with informants beyond the self, and (5) commitment to theoretical analysis.

In this instance I am certainly a complete member researcher, a composer with a diagnosis of an autistic spectrum disorder. I move within circles that are populated by other musicians and composers. I don’t consider myself so much a part of the “autistic” community, despite a certain affinity, but there are several individuals “like me” who are close friends or acquaintances. I am also lucky to have access to a very small group of autistic composers.

As mentioned above, there is a strong element of analytic reflexivity about my work and method. I am analytical by nature rather than emotional and am very conscious of the effect that my writing and research has on my own processes and state of being. I am also aware of how the research is affecting those around me. As one who is incapable of keeping such things to myself, I have seen changes in my “community” in terms of its responsiveness to and adaptation to my “peculiarities” that would not have occurred had I not begun to research, write and talk about it.

As the writer/subject/researcher my narrative is clearly visible. The dialogue is somewhat less constructed than conversational, but it exists as a movement between emotive thought and the “thought about thought” that inevitably follows in my own context. In the writing process, and in the written outcome, both the evocative and the analytical writing shed meaning upon each other, much like they do within my own mental processes of meaning-making. The semantic web format assists in this by providing an “intelligent” means of linking concepts through defining related texts dynamically, as well as allowing a forced relationship.

Dialogue has been sought with others beyond myself. This is not a story from a singular point of view, despite its “self focus”. Access to the experiences of others has been sought through interview, both formal and informal, video analysis, literature and published accounts. These thoughts, observations and understandings of others are focussed on a comparison to my own thoughts, observations and understandings, providing a point of departure for analysis. The comparative rarity of my situation however, does not provide a “community” in the traditional sense. There is not a village of Asperger composers, either physical or virtual, no support groups, no internet forums are that specific. Aspies are also individuals. Asperger’s Syndrome is not a personality type, or a definition of a clone, so the Asperger population is comprised of people as different from each other as found in the general population. It is an aim of the research that many individuals will recognise something of themselves, or something of their colleagues or students, and the village will form.

The last of Anderson’s criteria is much less within my domain in the sense of a sociological analysis. There is however a strong aspect of “seeking to explain” the nature, origins, affects and implications of the narratives. This is in opposition to Ellis and Bochner’s insistence on the purity of evocation in the construction of meaning. They write

If you turn a story told into a story analysed, as Leon wants to do, you sacrifice the story at the altar of traditional sociological rigour. You transform the story into another language, the language of generalisation and analysis, and thus you lose the very qualities that make a story a story (Ellis & Bochner, 2006).

It seems to me that much evocative writing risks this simply through its context in academic journals, and through its often carefully constructed wordplay. While it is unlikely to be useful to publish an accurate transcription of a thought process or conversation, I would argue that any alteration, refining, re-membering, editing and re-writing of an experience to transmit the desired meaning is indeed engaging in analysis.

This document is constructed in such a way that allows the reader to tread a variety of paths. The two “voices” of evocation and analysis can be read or ignored at will. I have deliberately avoided multiple re-writes and editing of the evocative material, in order to maintain as much of the thought process as possible. I have also refrained from including constructed dialogue or script, and I have included images and music that I hope will speak evocatively through their content and context. On the other hand I have “analysed” and “generalised” in separate text elements – the two voices are in many cases reactions to each other. At the risk of developing a schizophrenic voice, I have tried to separate the two as much as possible.

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