Brief definition:

Whether shared with others (through publication, writing, dialogue, gesture or performance) or kept entirely within oneself (as memory or inner speech), serial autobiography is a fundamental model for all narrative forms, both documentary and fiction. Like picaresque tales, it’s an on-going episodic genre, whose discrete modules of variable length are unified by the presence of the central character (the self) who doubles as protagonist and author. As in diary entries, selfies, and dreams, each episode in the series has a specific focus, which requires the omission of other material. In shaping a particular module, the omissions are just as important as what is retained, yet each version (whether visual or verbal) documents or interprets a specific stretch of time. Although the emphasis is frequently on what is new, each episode maintains some connections with earlier versions—as if to create an illusory sense of coherence or demonstrate growth or deterioration. Thus, the serial nature of the form is essential; for, to span a lifetime while accommodating both continuity and change, the story must remain open-ended. That’s why there are so many versions of my autobiography in the section titled “BIO’s”—from highly codified forms of the academic cv to interviews on specific projects, from a photographic montage of a marriage to a narrative about the premature birth of our son, from entries in my Jewish Homegrown History to a conference presentation on my encounters with Antonioni, from an autobiographical preface to my new book in progress—Narrative and Neuroscience: The Discreet Charms of Serial Autobiography and Database Narrative—to footnotes that tell a different story.

Self and Cinema: A Transformalist Approach (1980)
p. 2, “In Self and Cinema, we explore self-realization as theme in the films, as process for the filmmakers, as a key issue implicit within current theoretical frameworks, and as development for ourselves as critics. We share Northrop Frye’s assumption that: “There is always a sense in which criticism is a form of autobiography.” Like any art, films invite collaboration with their viewers, who bring their own experience to the work and discover their own potentialities in the process. It is our aim to enrich that collaboration, both intellectually and emotionally.”

Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games (1991)
p. 2-3, “As a means of structuring events within patterns of space, time, and causality, narrative creates a context for interpreting all perceptions. Narrative maps the world and its inhabitants, including one’s own position within that grid. In acquiring the ability to understand stories, the child is situated as a perceiving, thinking, feeling, acting, speaking subject within a series of narrative fields—as a person in a family saga, as a spectator who tunes in to individual tales and identifies with their characters, and as a performer who repeats cultural myths and sometimes generates new transformations. Ever since television became pervasive in the American home, this mass medium has played a crucial role in the child’s entry into narrative. My study explores how television and its narrative conventions affect the construction of the subject.”

p. 3-4, “In adapting both this transcultural legacy and themselves to a new supersystem in which they prove their own mastery, the Ninja Turtles dramatize the interrelated processes of assimilation and accommodation—concepts central to Jean Piaget’s theory of genetic epistemology. Piaget claims that “in order to know objects, the subject must act upon them, and therefore transform them”; in turn, the subject is transformed, in a constant process of “re-equilibrations.” In this book I will demonstrate how children’s television and home video games construct consumerist subjects who can more readily assimilate and accommodate whatever objects they encounter, including traditional modes of image production like cinema and new technological developments like interactive multimedia.”

Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain (1993)
p. 327, “Thus, in contrast to Hollywood classical cinema where all choices are naturalized, here [in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie] the spectator is constantly made aware of the implications not only of what is included but also of what is excluded both from the visual and audio tracks (e.g., the sex scene between the married couple hidden behind the bushes, the scars of the unfaithful wife concealed behind her organdy blouse, the soldier’s train dream that we don’t have time to hear, or the reasons that the poor woman hates Jesus). As a result, despite the emphasis on repetition, it is always impossible to predict what will happen next.”

MK essay, “Doors to the Labyrinth,” in Catalogue for Interactive Frictions Exhibition (1997), when describing their interactive project Mysteries and Desire: Searching the Words of John Rechy.
This work challenges the borders between autobiography, memory, and history. Drawing themes from Autobiography, a Novel (a work in progress) and passages from most of Rechy’s published writings, it assembles a rich network of personal memories and family documents, setting them against larger collective histories of Chicano culture and the gay world. It also mines the outrageous fictions that circulate around this fascinating literary figure, who, as a gay icon, a Chicano writer from Texas, a longtime body-builder, a gifted teacher of creative writing at USC, and a recent recipient of Pen West’s Lifetime Achievement Award, has long been a subject of notoriety and fantasy.

MK essay, “The Nomadic Discourse of Luis Buñuel,” in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1999)
p. 20, “As in Un chien andalou, this emphasis on dream [in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie] makes us aware of the tension between our immersion in raw perceptions and our drive toward narrativization. Narrative enables us to select certain perceptions and arrange them in elegant structures of meaning, but in this drive toward coherence and closure we ignore many details—subordinating them as minor, casting them as extras, or simply not perceiving them at all. As a medium that mediates between biological programming (through our rhythmic cycles of REM sleep) and cultural imprinting (re-processing images we have absorbed in waking life), dreams daily bombard us with a flood of fragmentary percepts, which are narrativized (inevitably with distortion and censorship) only later in the wake of the dream. Thus dreams force us to confront this tug of war—between the quotidian repetition that keeps enabling us to awaken into a fresh version of the familiar fiction, and the finality of death that forces us to accept this particular version as the end.”

MK essay, “Reorchestrating History: Transforming The Danube Exodus into a Database Documentary” (2011)
p. 242-243, “In the broad cognitive sense, narrative contextualizes the meaning of perceptions and therefore is constantly under reconstruction because it always needs to accommodate new data we encounter. Thus narrative acknowledges the existence of gaps, even if one of its goals is to smooth over these absences and to reduce the anxiety they arouse. The open-ended structure of database narrative, then, is not really strange or counterintuitive—as many people argue. Rather, it is essential to our own life stories and to history. “

MK essay, “The Road and the Room: Narrative Drive in the Films of Luis Buñuel” (2013)
p. 437, “L’Age d’or prefigured Buñuel’s life as an exile, who moved to one foreign context after another (France, the United States, and Mexico) and had to deal with new restrictions in each culture that kept artistic liberty a phantom. Yet, this experience must have made him appreciate picaresque fiction where modular episodes are unified only by the presence of the central character, who is similarly forced to move on to the next adventure.”

From Chapter 2, “One of the driving questions in contemporary science is how does the brain generate consciousness and the mind’s awareness of the self, a question (according to Nature) that has become “the Holy Grail of modern neuroscience.” And what, if any, is the role of autobiographical narrative (or the human capacity for storytelling) in this process, a question that was raised by pioneering cognitive psychologist William James in theorizing a human “stream of consciousness” and that has continued to be addressed by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio who provides a detailed account of the process.

How do we ever begin to be conscious,... [to] have a sense of self in the act of knowing? We begin with… constructing an account of what happens within the organism when the organism interacts with an object, be it actually perceived or recalled, be it within body boundaries (e.g., pain) or outside of them (e.g., a landscape). This account is a simple narrative without words.... A natural preverbal occurrence of storytelling may well be the reason why we ended up creating drama and eventually books, and why a good part of humanity is currently hooked on movie theaters and television screens.
Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999)

Although it begins with a simple visual narrative, the autobiographical self quickly grows more sophisticated with the acquisition of new experience and new capacities like language and with increased access to one’s culture and its stories. Yet even in its earliest stage, the simple autobiographical story is reliable rather than reassuring and recurrent rather than singular, though (as William James argued) neither the discreet images nor the streaming consciousness is ever exactly the same, for the self continuously undergoes transformation. With its “transient protagonist” performing like a pícaro, the narrative structure in the simple core self is inevitably “episodic,” even when it “appears continuous in time.”

Like Damasio, neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga (who was involved in the early split-brain research with Roger Sperry) also assigns a major role to what he calls “personal narrative” in the development of consciousness. In The Mind’s Past (1998), Gazzaniga theorizes the existence of an “interpreter,” a mechanism located in the left hemisphere of the brain that constantly provides us with “a personal narrative for why we feel and do the things we feel and do”.

The very same split-brain research that exposed shocking differences between the two hemispheres also revealed that the left hemisphere contains the interpreter, whose job is to interpret our behavior and our responses whether cognitive or emotional, to environmental challenges. (p. 174)

Despite its specific location, it “interprets actions and feelings generated by systems located throughout the brain.” Given that most human language systems are also found in the left-brain, the stories generated by the interpreter are verbal (rather than visual). Thus, he focuses on the complex kind of consciousness found only in humans without addressing the simpler, non-verbal forms found in other species. His experiments showed that when confronted with questions that could be answered with information that was made accessible only to the right hemisphere, the patient’s left brain “interpreter” would confidently construct a story that provided a false but feasible answer. Thus, his “interpreter” turns out to be a “spin-doctor” who creates an inflated sense of human capabilities. These conclusions led him to assume that all “biography is fiction” and “autobiography is hopelessly inventive”—conclusions not shared by Damasio.

Yet, like William James, both neuroscientists see consciousness as a process rather than an object or substance. Both claim its emergence depends on autobiographical story-telling. Both see this narrative process as combining emotion and cognition and assume it is repeated throughout our life. Both adopt James’s natural metaphors to describe this unifying “stream of consciousness,” which flows like a river yet whose modular parts have different paces, as if, like a bird’s personal life, it were made of alternating “flights and perchings.” Both link this emergence of consciousness to the primary function that drives the Darwinian narrative of natural selection—improving the individual’s chances for reproduction and survival.

Not surprisingly, this belief in serial autobiography as a means of survival has also been held by many writers—perhaps none more powerfully than Marcel Proust, whose entire life was devoted to this genre, and Salman Rushdie, who claimed in his 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton, which described the 10-year-long fatwa that had condemned him to death: “Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was.”