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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 Entries that I posted from June 2005 to July 2006 are preserved in a “blook” (blog + book), which is available as a paperback ( Remediated-Visions-Digital-Memories/dp/1434841138), as a Kindle download ( Visions-Memories-ebook/dp/B0019BIWOK/ref=kinw_dp_ke), and as an e-book at (

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 (

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 Kuhn 1 (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




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”


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



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


(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



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

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 ago 1 ), 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




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.



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.



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

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.



Technorati tags: memory, archive, home movies, autobiography, childhood