I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Annette Kuhn and Memory Work: Reflections on "Family Secrets"

I've been reading Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, a memoir by British film scholar Annette Kuhn (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” and in the process to reveal “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” (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, 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 (167).

Although I’m not sure exactly what time frames Kuhn references here, and I question some of the generalizations she makes, 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 responded more strongly to the autobiographical case histories Kuhn shared—and to the intertwining of personal and professional voices she used in those essays—than to the theoretical formulations with which she concluded the text. To my surprise, the stories Kuhn told about her childhood helped me understand better the “memory work” I’ve been involved with, although 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,” a reflection on the film Mandy, which Kuhn 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).

P.S. When I published VirtualDayz: Remediated Visions & Digital Memories, a "blook" (blog + book) based on this blog, I slightly edited both this entry and "Enigmatic Fascinations: Re-viewing Memory Texts," a follow-up post inspired by Kuhn's creative memory work. Given the widespread interest in Kuhn's work, I've posted a pdf of these two entries on my Scribd site. See “Annette Kuhn and Memory Work: Reflections on "Family Secrets.”

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  • At 4:38 PM , Blogger Elisabeth said...

    Hi Elaine

    I'm responding belatedly to this post in your blog written in 2005 because I have just now come across Annette Kuhn's work and I'm interested to read about yours and to link in with you, in case you too might be interested in my work on the autobiographical.
    This is a terrific summary of Kuhn's work and I'm grateful for it. Now I need to get hold of her book.

  • At 11:26 AM , Blogger Elayne Zalis said...

    Thanks for your comment. I also mentioned Kuhn's work in another blog post: Both posts about FAMILY SECRETS appear in the book VIRTUALDAYZ: REMEDIATED VISIONS & DIGITAL MEMORIES, based on blog entries I wrote from 2005 to 2006. My latest blog entry provides links to the book and the kindle adaptation on and to a digital download of the text on A novel I wrote, ARELLA'S REPERTOIRE, explores ideas mentioned in my essays. I'm on Facebook and LinkedIn in case you'd like to stay in touch.


  • At 2:58 PM , Blogger Elisabeth said...

    Thanks Elayne.
    I'll connect via face book to keep in touch.
    Thanks too for all your suggestions. I'm busy reading Annette Kuhn's book now. Your wonderful summary is a great help.

  • At 5:44 PM , Anonymous tay said...

    Thanks for the review. I'm going to studying with Kuhn next semester but I have never read her works. Look like I should check the books out.

  • At 7:17 AM , Blogger BriannaBeverlee said...

    Thank you for this concise and insightful summary of Kuhn's text. "Family Secrets" was cited in the bibliography of an article I was reading for my fem theory course and looked interesting. I really liked the last passage you quoted about film/image being part of 'making' yourself (which leads to creating memories) and the way we eventually use those memories to re-construct our histories. Great stuff. Thanks for the blog post!


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