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VirtualDayz: Remediated Visions &

Digital Memories

a “blook” (blog + book)

© 2008 by Elayne Zalis

This excerpt contains:

“Annette Kuhn and Memory Work: Reflections on


Family Secrets”

“Enigmatic Fascinations: Re-viewing Memory Texts”

Note: VirtualDayz, my original blog, remains online at


http://virtualdayz.blogspot.com/. Entries that I posted from June
2005 to July 2006 are preserved in a “blook” (blog + book), which is
available as a paperback (http://www.amazon.com/VirtualDayz-
Remediated-Visions-Digital-Memories/dp/1434841138), as a Kindle
download (http://www.amazon.com/VirtualDayz-Remediated-
Visions-Memories-ebook/dp/B0019BIWOK/ref=kinw_dp_ke), and
as an e-book at (http://www.lulu.com/content/1099952).

VirtualDayz: Remediated Visions & Digital Memories is part of a quartet


that also includes two fictional texts, Arella’s Repertoire and Vagabond
Scribe (Leah’s Backstory), and another work of nonfiction, Video-Graphic
Alchemy: Transforming “Dear Diary.” For additional background, please
see my personal Web site (http://www.TheMemoryChannel.com).
Annette Kuhn and Memory Work:
Reflections on Family Secrets

Wed Jul 27, 2005 | 04:58 AM |


I’ve been reading Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, a
memoir by British film scholar Annette Kuhn1 (1995/2002). A blend
of cultural criticism and cultural production that engages both the
psychic and the social, the hybrid text brings together a series of
autobiographical case histories that use private and public images
from Kuhn’s past as prompts for memory work, which Kuhn defines
as “a method and a practice of unearthing and making public untold
stories” (9–10). In a manner reminiscent of Roland Barthes in Camera
Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Kuhn reflects on her family album, as
well as on news photographs and film scenes, to “unravel the
connections between memory, its traces, and the stories we tell about
the past, especially—though not exclusively—about the past of living
memory.” While chronicling this process, she reveals “the collective
nature of the activity of remembering” (Kuhn, 4, 6).

A cultural critic concerned with “how images make meanings,” Kuhn


admits that addressing her own memory material was what made the
writing of Family Secrets possible—and necessary (153, 156). The
model of memory work that guided her acknowledges the
performative nature of remembering, and thus encourages

1 http://www.lancs.ac.uk/staff/kuhna/
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practitioners to produce new stories about the past from the memory
traces in their repertoires (158). According to Kuhn:

For the practitioner of memory work, it is not merely a


question of what we choose to keep in our “memory boxes”—
which particular traces of our pasts we lovingly or not so
lovingly preserve—but of what we do with them, how we use
these relics to make memories, and how we then make use of
the stories they generate to give deeper meaning to, and if
necessary to change, our lives today. (158)

In an effort to synthesize the lessons she learned from her own


memory work, Kuhn offers six theses:

1. Memory shapes our inner worlds. Unconscious processes often


are involved, thus explaining why remembering may introduce
thoughts and feelings that defy rational explanations (160).

2. Memory is an active production of meanings. “Memory is an


account, always discursive, always textual. At the same time, memory
can assume expression through a wide variety of media and contexts”
(161).

3. Memory texts have their own formal conventions. Because


they tend to be metaphorical rather than analogical, memory texts
typically have more in common with poetry than with classical
narrative. They may be represented as “a montage of vignettes,
anecdotes, fragments, ‘snapshots’, flashes” (162).

4. Memory texts voice a collective imagination. Oral histories, for


example, frequently mix “historical, poetic and legendary forms of
speech, whilst still expressing both personal truths and a collective
imagination” (165).

5. Memory embodies both union and fragmentation.


Traditionally, the telling of family stories has provided the model for
remembering in other types of communities, e.g., of ethnicity, class,
and generation, although “the condition of modernity” has
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introduced new modes of relating to and producing memory that suit


the needs of individuals in “the era of mechanical reproduction and
electronic simulation.” During this era, Kuhn argues, new outlets are
offered for “the circulation of collective memory: sound recordings,
photographs, television programmes, films, home videos are all part
of the currency of daily life.” Equally significant, as she notes, are
“new ways of imagining a past that . . . transcends the life of the
individual.” Yet, as memory texts proliferate across a range of media,
at the same time “memory-communities” shift, and collective
remembering changes, too, going in any number of directions—
becoming divided, fragmented, blended, united, and/or enriched
(167).

(I’m not sure exactly what time frames Kuhn references here, and I
question some of the generalizations she makes, yet I find her
comments on media especially pertinent to considerations of memory
and memory work in the digital age, an inquiry her book paves the
way for but doesn’t address directly.)

6. Memory is formative of communities of nationhood. “With its


foothold in both the psyche and in the shared worlds of everyday
historical consciousness and collective imagination, memory has a
crucial part to play in any national imaginary” (168).

(This thesis warrants further clarification—What is a “national


imaginary”? What are the implications of Kuhn’s position regarding
the “historical imagination of nationhood” (169)?)

As a reader of Family Secrets, I particularly liked the autobiographical


case histories Kuhn shared and the intertwining of personal and
professional voices she used in those essays. To my surprise, the
stories Kuhn told about her childhood helped me understand better
the “memory work” I’ve been involved with, even though I’ve never
identified it that way before. In turn, my own explorations of the past
helped me appreciate Kuhn’s project in ways I hadn’t expected. One
concern that both our projects address is captured in the following
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passages from “The Little Girl Wants to be Heard,” Kuhn’s


reflection on the film Mandy, which she saw in West London as a
child in 1952:

If a reading of Mandy which properly engages the film text, its


social-historical context, and the emotional responses it
invites, eluded my earlier analysis, this is now made possible by
attending, on the insistence of the little girl who wants to be
heard, to Mandy’s story, the child’s story. The child Annette
[Kuhn] urges the adult to reach back into childhood, to trust
the naïve response and admit it to analysis; to understand that
if she lets it, the film Mandy can return her, with an adult’s
understanding, to the child’s world of possibility and loss. . . .

This detour through the world of childhood, with my own


childhood self as guide, heals and teaches. It heals because it
allows the child and the adult to speak to one another, lets the
adult recapture the child’s spirit of bravery and sense of
possibility. It teaches because it shows that understanding may
be gained by routes other than that of intellectual detachment.

Memory work presents new possibilities for enriching our


understanding not only of how films work as texts, but also of
how we use films and other images and representations to
make our selves, how we construct our own histories through
memory, even how we position ourselves within wider, more
public, histories. (45–46)

Technorati tags: memory work, autobiography, photography, family


albums, cultural memory
Enigmatic Fascinations:
Re-viewing Memory Texts

Mon Aug 1, 2005 | 03:29 AM |


Since reading the “memory texts” Annette Kuhn published in Family
Secrets (which I commented on a few days ago1), I’ve been thinking
about various work I’ve created that shares her concerns: photo
collages, a home-movie compilation, an abandoned autobiography, a
postmodern scrapbook, a computer graphics series based on my
childhood diaries, video art pieces, multimedia compositions, archival
assemblages, and literary experiments, including a novel. Spanning a
time frame from high school to the present—earlier if the childhood
diaries are counted—this work has been reserved mainly for private
viewing, with little or no circulation in the public sphere other than
fragmentary renditions on the Web. Packed in boxes (work that still
exists) or stored in my memory banks (work that’s been lost), this
largely undocumented material exerts a profound influence on how I
approach both critical and creative projects today, as well as how I
engage with new media.

Contributing to my personal archive, the memory texts I’ve created


have themselves taken on the characteristics of family albums and
memorabilia, resources that usually instigate the type of memory
work Kuhn practices rather than document its progress as mine have.
These dynamics became clear to me while viewing a new DVD copy

1 http://virtualdayz.blogspot.com/2005/07/annette-kuhn-and-memory-work.html
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of “In the Beginning,” a two-minute compilation of 8mm home


movies from my childhood that I made for an introductory film class
many years ago. Little did I know then that the shots I spliced
together with Scotch tape would someday be the only moving-image
footage left from my youth. (Although probably rendered unviewable
by the splicing technique I used, the reels of home movies from
which I appropriated the found footage were eventually lost.)
Fortunately, the original compilation I made, which was transferred
to VHS several years ago, remained sturdy enough to survive another
dub, this time to DVD.

In this format, the class exercise captured my attention once again. I


thought about the film while reading Kuhn’s book, which claims,
“Anyone who has a family photograph that exerts an enigmatic
fascination or arouses an inexplicable depth of emotion could find
memory work rewarding” (7). With the four prompts described in
Family Secrets as a guide (8), I decided to initiate some memory work
of my own, starting with “In the Beginning.” I soon realized,
however, that the case history I was constructing involved double
readings at least, given the text’s elusive parameters. So when I
considered the human subject(s) represented, the context of
production, the context in which such images would have been made,
and the text’s audiences over time, I contemplated scenes both from
the early years of my life in the 1950s, of which I remember almost
nothing, and from my undergraduate college years in the 1970s,
which I do recall.

Arranged in loose chronological order, with some mixing back and


forth, the film brings together fleeting images from the first six or
seven years in the life of an American girl, the first-born child of
young, working-class parents who never appear visibly in the
montage. (Unidentified adults are evident now and then from the
shoulders down.) I speak of the girl in the third person, as though the
protagonist of this story, a silent film, has nothing to do with me, yet
knowing she does. The assemblage includes only exterior shots, thus
excluding from inspection family dramas that unfolded inside the
home. The girl’s father took all the movies with his 8mm camera.
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On TV I see a happy, blue-eyed, blonde-haired toddler crawling on


the lawn, taking her first steps, riding a merry-go-round, petting a
dog, and dodging waves on the beach. And then there’s a stunning
three-year-old girl posing for the camera(man) with her newborn
sister, a dark-haired child. A few years later, wearing a light winter
jacket, the elder girl’s performing acrobatics on the slide in her
backyard. One summer close in time—it could be earlier or later—
she’s wearing a bathing suit and sliding into a plastic swimming pool;
afterward, she turns and smiles at the camera, as though looking for
approval. Many birthday parties are commemorated, probably the
first six. They’re all staged in the backyard of the family’s modest
house. For some reason I’m drawn to two scenes in which the
protagonist as a young girl performs. In one scene, maybe from her
third birthday celebration, she’s running deliriously in circles amid
friends. In the other scene, apparently from her fourth birthday party,
she’s blowing out the candles on her birthday cake (five candles, with
one for good luck); she and the friends who surround her are all
wearing party hats. At another birthday party, she’s pinning the tail
on the donkey after being blindfolded and turned around. Later, she
and her sister are twirling hula hoops, and so on.

Toward the end of the piece, unfamiliar footage appears—shots of


mountains, a waterfall, a burning cabin, and a few clips from what
looks like a ride at Disneyland. Maybe these latter shots represent the
college student’s attempt to insert oblique commentary, to
experiment with the potential of editing and the juxtaposition of
images. To me now, the footage seems to be tacked on as an
afterthought. The technique doesn’t work in an aesthetic or a critical
sense, yet the images do hint at a story I wanted to tell but didn’t pull
off. (I notice that I’ve slipped into first person.) Since most of “In the
Beginning” highlights ordinary scenes from conventional home
movies—a better title might have helped—I can understand why my
film professor thought the piece was banal. After all, he didn’t design
the assignment as an exercise in memory work; he wanted to
challenge us creatively, and on that score I disappointed him, and
myself.
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To study how people developed as individuals and as members of


society, an interest that informed my approach to “In the Beginning,”
I switched my undergraduate major to psychology and put media
studies, as well as creative explorations of any kind, on hold. I found,
though, that my fascination with the media arts persisted, and my
urge to experiment creatively—rather than as a social scientist—grew
stronger over time. After many trials and errors, with several chance
encounters thrown in, I found my way back to the media arts and to
explorations of autobiographical narratives—other people’s and my
own. From my current vantage point, the journey I took from that
introductory film class to graduate studies years later makes perfect
sense, as though I had planned the itinerary in advance, but as I’ve
often said, I improvised most of the way, or so I thought. I wonder
now whether on some level I could have known where I was going?

When I think about “In the Beginning” and other memory texts I’ve
constructed over the years, including the examples mentioned earlier,
I sense that these seemingly random and disparate projects, which
I’ve felt compelled to create, somehow resonate with one another
and if interlinked would tell a story I’ve overlooked, for all these
projects, despite differences involving media, theoretical frameworks,
and the circumstances under which they were produced, provide
traces of ongoing performances I’ve been repeating and refining
most of my adult life, usually in private. These performances have
added continuity to an otherwise discontinuous life story. I imagine
that the significance of these acts—variations of the memory work
Kuhn describes—has more to do with the intellectual and creative
processes that have been set in motion than with the apparent subject
matter I’ve addressed. Hence I’m tempted to connect the dots, to
interlink my disparate memory texts, and maybe discover an
alternative personal history, a parallel narrative with strong emotional
valence. Kuhn’s book helped me see the value of doing this. . . . As a
postscript I’ll add that my rediscovery of “In the Beginning” occurred
about two years after my father died, an event that has affected my
reading of the film—and the cameraman—in subtle ways. I’m
grateful to him for leaving behind remembrances of my childhood,
traces of a past that pre-dates my memory.
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Technorati tags: memory, archive, home movies, autobiography,


childhood