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Autoethnographic Text

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s 1615 document, Primer nueva coronica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government) is a fascinating document, written by “an ethnic Andean who addressed his 1,200-page work, of which nearly 400 were pen-and-ink drawings of Inca and colonial life, to King Philip II of Spain” with the hope of reforming colonial rule. It was discovered in 1908, sitting forgotten in a library in Copenhagen, and was first published in 1936. Now it is online, thanks to Rolena Adorno at Yale University.

I discovered the site via this post by Language Hat, which points to several excellent essays in English about the history and importance of the document. This one, by Rolena Adorno, offers a good overview:

Guaman Poma’s activities as an investigator and writer are those which hold greatest interest for us today. His reliance on Andean languages and the accounts of the elders who either had survived the Spanish conquest, or had known those who had, gives his accounts of pre-Columbian Andean society an authority found in few other places. His time spent working with colonial church inspectors and civil officers gave him the experience from which to construct an unusually complex view of colonial administration, including its goals at the highest levels and its practices and abuses at the level of the local community. His self-taught knowledge of the European historiographic, juridical and rhetorical traditions reveals the type of Spanish literary and intellectual culture that was available to the native elite.

Language Hat also highlights this article by Mary Louise Pratt which coins the term “autoethnographic text” to refer to “a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them.”

Autoethnographic texts are not, then, what are usually thought of as autochthonous forms of expression or self-representation (as the Andean quipus were). Rather they involve a selective collaboration with and appropriation of idioms of the metropolis or the conqueror. These are merged or infiltrated to varying degrees with indigenous idioms to create self-representations intended to intervene in metropolitan modes of understanding. Autoethnographic works are often addressed to both metropolitan audiences and the speakers own community. Their reception is thus highly indeterminate. Such texts often constitute a marginalized groups point of entry into the dominant circuits of print culture. It is interesting to think, for example, of American slave autobiography in its autoethnographic dimensions, which in some respects distinguish it from Euramerican autobiographical tradition. The concept might help explain why some of the earliest published writing by Chicanas took the form of folkloric manners and customs sketches written in English and published in English-language newspapers or folklore magazines (see Treviño). Autoethnographic representation often involves concrete collaborations between people, as between literate ex-slaves and abolitionist intellectuals, or between Guaman Poma and the Inca elders who were his informants. Often, as in Guaman Poma, it involves more than one language. In recent decades autoethnography, critique, and resistance have reconnected with writing in a contemporary creation of the contact zone, the testimonio.

Pratt’s essay analyses the ways in which Guaman Poma appropriates and adapts “pieces of the representational repertoire of the invaders” to form his critique of colonial practices.

Pratt’s discussion of the illustrations is also quite interesting:

The genre of the four hundred line drawings is European–there seems to have been no tradition of representational drawing among the Incas–but in their execution they deploy specifically Andean systems of spatial symbolism that express Andean values and aspirations.

The caption for this image reads: “The Inka asks what the Spaniard eats. The Spaniard replies: ‘Gold.'”


One thought on “Autoethnographic Text

  1. I recommend you the book edited by Deborah Reed-Danahay, Auto/ethnography. Rewriting the Self and the Social (Berg Publishers Ltd., August 1997)

    “…reconsiderations of the uses and meaning of personal narrative to examine the ways in which selves and social forms are culturally constituted through biographical genres.”

    – Deborah Reed-Danahay, Introduction –
    – Kay Warren, Narrating Cultural Resurgence: The Politics of Genre and Self-Representation for Mayan Activists –
    – David Kideckel, Autoethnography as Political Resistance: A Case from Socialist Romania –
    – Birgitta Svensson, The Power of Biography: Criminal Policy, Prison Life, and the Formation of Criminal Identities in the Swedish Welfare State –
    – Michael Herzfeld, The Taming of Revolution: Intense Paradoxes of the Self –
    – Henk Driessen, Lives Writ Large: Kabyle Self-Portraits and the Question of Identity –
    – Deborah Reed-Danahay, Educational Narratives and the Ethnography of Autoethnography in Rural France –
    – Alexandra Jaffe, Narrating the ‘I’ versus narrating the ‘Isle’: Life Histories and the Problem of Representation in Corsica –
    – Pnina Motzafi-Haller, Writing ‘Birthright’: On Native Anthropologists and the Politics of Representation –
    – Caroline Brettell, Blurred Genres and Blended Voices: Life History, Biography, Autobiography and the Autoethnography of Women’s Lives

    Sample text from David A. Kideckel, “Autoethnography as Political Resistance: A Case from Socialist Romania”:

    “In ten year’s time, during the worst days of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceusescu, Aurel Balan, a pensioned and nearly blind former chief accountant of a village collective farm […], produced over fifty volumes of family histories, autobiography, poetry, and daily logs and financial records. Known at first only to a select group of friends and relatives, this work was hidden in a water-proof, fake window well to prevent its discovery by authorities.”

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