JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

5. The sacrifice of autobiography

Autobiography is not generally a genre associated with television news. Yet in the context I have presented here, studies of autobiography helpfully suggest that we broaden our understanding of the form beyond traditional literary or cinema studies approaches. Autobiography may be the communicativity of a self making claims on the act of living. The form of the life story may vary depending on the ways and means in which these claims are made. Accordingly, accounting for our technologically mediated social being and the performative aspects of identity will contribute to a more subtle understanding of the ways we make our claims to life. As Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have it,

“Autobiography is contextually marked, collaboratively mediated, provisional. In telling their stories, narrators take up models of identity that are culturally available” (Smith and Watson 1996, 9).

This much may be true in many unconventionally delivered life stories. Certainly, as subject of the reportage, and as its instigator and organizer, Jones relied on a corps of aerial camera operators as much as on a corps of armed police. Yet while his is not a case of individual authorship by any stretch, his method was anything but collaborative.

As to the ways Jones carried out his death, was the HIV-positive Jones availing himself of the cultural identity of the PWA, a person whose death, according to conventional wisdom even after the advent of combination therapy, is inevitable? Even a cursory interpretation of the event suggests that Jones’ death contradicts this suggestion. If anything, Jones carried out a high-wire act between life and death for the greater part of the time he appeared in the camera’s view. It was this more general, more random, and so more ostensibly dangerous possibility of violence that compelled television to cover the event. Further, his death came with a specific if sudden decision, not a grudging acceptance of death by illness. While Smith and Watson’s focus on context, provisionality, and mediation are helpful, Jones’ entry from the freeway overpass into the television broadcast system begs other descriptors than “collaboration” or “cultural availability” in order to account for the agonistic agency exhibited in that event, along with its broadly resounding effects.

More fundamentally, reading autobiography as a tactical construction of viable identities from within the cultural options given doesn’t help us understand the stories of those who do not live on—whose stories produce meaning in death. What stands as the story of a self which no longer has a viable option on life? While Jones’ actions can usefully challenge recent nontraditional considerations of autobiography, of course, autobiography as literary genre has long made a point of recording a life in the face of death. The genre as literary canon is a virtual archive of recorded observations on the meanings of life for posthumous reflection by others. The impending or threatened effacement of the self constitutes one of this genre’s salient features.

Montaigne’s well-known essays, for example, while offering meditations on sadness, government, liars, prompt or slow speech, vanity, practices of taste and distinction, or the lessons of history, return again and again to the question of dying. In “That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die,” Montaigne suggests that since death is always the same, it must be the specifics of the way death happens which so frighten us.

“We must strip the mask from things as well as from persons; when it is off, we shall find beneath only that same death that a valet or a mere chambermaid passed through not long ago without fear. Happy the death that leaves no leisure for preparing such ceremonies.” (Montaigne [1572—1574] 1965, 68.

Whether due to the capacities of the genre, his medium of articulation, the essays’ encyclopedic embrace, Montaigne’s advancing age, or his own experience of painful kidney stones, Montaigne’s essays considered not only learning to die, but more specifically, suicide. In “A Custom of the Island of Cea,” Montaigne relates account after account of suicide illustrating the contradiction between the privilege of the free, self-authorizing subject and death. Not too surprisingly from our vantage point, perhaps, for Montaigne’s privileged subject,

“...the most voluntary death is the fairest” (252).

Yet Montaigne attends to the complications brought by the interests which God and country alike have in human life. Some believe, he writes, that it is up to “he who has placed us in the world” to allow our leave, and further,

“...the laws demand of us, for their interest, an accounting of ourselves, and can take action for homicide against us.”

Even more fundamentally, Montaigne writes, the desire to take leave of the world may be the work of illusion:

“It is a malady peculiar to man, and not seen in any other creature, to hate and disdain himself. It is by a similar vanity that we wish to be something other than we are” (254).

Montaigne presents, in his prolix way, a long and variegated list of suicides drawn from Biblical legend and classical literature, whose depictions well put contemporary media violence to shame and whose enumeration in Montaigne’s hands makes our own debates on television violence seem downright unambitious. There’s the (literal) political suicide of twenty seven provincial senators who, unfortunately, mix their poison with wine at a last supper, slowing the effect of the poison and nearly preventing them from dying with honor before the sure carnage of an approaching Roman legion (259). An Old Testament Hebrew man’s hastily inflicted, and insufficiently lethal, sword wound to his own gut in the face of enemies who would kill or enslave him leads him to stand before them, grasp his own entrails, and project them at the marauders before they finally killed him (257). The list goes on.

Montaigne’s litany closes with the peaceful death of a ninety year old woman, fulfilled with memories of a happy life, but now bedridden, and who, in full presence of mind, directs her two daughters and their children to live in peace and unity, and ends her life by swallowing poison. Still, Montaigne concludes,

“...unendurable pain and fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable motives for suicide” (262).

Similarly, sufferers of HIV/AIDS have experienced both painful physical devastation and social exclusion, especially in the years before combination therapy became available but by no means completely alleviated at the time of Jones’ death or since. Here, the term of choice may often be a rather different one. Rather than suicide, we may discuss “self-deliverance.” This phrase compounds the motivations of medical euthanasia and the language of political liberation with a confidence finally resting in the spiritual.

Of course, Montaigne’s autobiography is not an act of suicide. Nor are the cases of refigured autobiographical practices which appear in Smith and Watson’s analysis. To read Jones’ death as an act of autobiography might impose a distorting lens in two ways. Kaplan (1992) cautions as to the viability of autobiography understood as a Western genre dedicated to recounting psychosocial growth stages over time in an individual life (118,127). More to the point, Kaplan argues for narratives articulating life in resistance to the laws of the privileged Western subject and the laws of autobiographical genre alike. For Kaplan, testimonial literature, women’s prison narratives, and other documents marginal to the practice of autobiography as literature constitute crucial “out-law” genres which, in the context of a transnational feminist criticism, are seen to challenge the generic conventions and forms of autobiography. Kaplan is careful to say that these “out-law” genres must be read as more than merely autobiographical.

“Instead of a discourse of individual authorship, we find a discourse of situation; a ‘politics of location’” (119).

Kaplan’s Gramscian “out-law” autobiographies and Smith and Watson’s emphasis on acts of self-inscription in the everyday remind us that contemporary autobiographical practice may challenge the more traditional life story of the literary subject, and that the stakes of autobiography extend beyond a recollection of life lived and towards resistance to domination. And in these ways, we might read Jones’ death as an out-law autobiography which instead of engaging the melancholy of the subject instead forces a political challenge. Daniel Jones’ last words were delivered in a spectacular suicide made for the local news, designed to present his death to the people of Southern California and beyond.

But might this “out-law” death end in mere mediatic transgression, or worse, capitulation—the satisfying of a phobic desire to maintain order by exterminating the Other? Precisely how would Jones’ display on that freeway interchange constitute autobiography? Is this a performative text or an act of terror? Can an author be produced in an act of self-destruction? If so, is such authorship partially accomplished in the media coverage of that act? Are the protests, debates, or empathies expressed in the aftermath of such an act part of the “text”? What did Jones have to say about HMOs, sex, love, and freedom? And who exactly was Daniel Jones?

Section 6, full text:
Responsibility, abandonment, dehumanization:
Daniel Jones’ life after death

Section 6, abstract


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