C.29: Memory, Materiality, Media: Re-Composing Unknowable Pasts
Reviewed by Enrique Paz, Miami University, Oxford, OH (email@example.com)
Chair: Jody Shipka, University of Maryland, Baltimore, MD
Speakers: Jody Shipka, University of Maryland, Baltimore, MD
Alexandra Hidalgo, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Erin Anderson, University of Massachusetts, Boston, MA
Presenters Shipka, Hidalgo, and Anderson treated a packed room to an engaging panel of personal stories and archival research in this session. All three presenters employed audio or video compositions in these emphatically multimodal talks. These alternative modes delivered rich explorations of memory, personal histories, and archival research methodologies.
The first speaker, Erin Anderson, offered a new story and reflection drawn from work that began in her earlier Kairos publication, “The Olive Project,” a multimodal and nonlinear oral history of Anderson’s grandmother, Olive. In this presentation, Anderson shared the tale of Gloria, Olive’s younger sister who drowned when she was a toddler. More aptly put, Anderson examined Olive’s story of Gloria’s death while reflecting on her own experience of performing this research and learning about her grandmother’s sister and life. A slideshow displayed images of the sisters, of the landscape they grew up in, and of objects important to the tale, coupled with quotes from Anderson’s research participants. In the middle of her presentation, Anderson sat down and allowed an audio composition to play unaccompanied. Olive and other family members spoke through the speakers, their individual voices blending and overlapping to share Olive and Gloria’s story as they remember it.
The audio composition demonstrates what Anderson had already told the audience: The story she found “was nothing like the story I was after.” Instead, she found “a gnarled and tangled, complex tale.” Anderson complicated this story further, asking about differences between what Olive independently remembered and what Olive remembered because she was told what had happened. What might be, as she put it, the “story behind a story that never happened at all?” Wrestling with this piece of family history, Anderson recognized how Olive and Gloria’s tale was not her own. As she concluded her talk, she reflected on her purposes for doing this research, somberly asking: "What do I want from the telling of a story that isn’t mine to tell?"
Alexandra Hidalgo built upon Anderson with a similar line of inquiry in her presentation, delivered entirely through a video composition. While Hidalgo sat quietly, the video told of her father who disappeared from Hidalgo’s life when she was young, and of her seeking to discover her father through family archives. Her discussion argued for the “value of exploring personal history for research.” Audience members saw clips of Hidalgo as she enjoyed family gatherings in her home country of Venezuela, as she worked through the personal archives of texts, images, and objects her family had stored, and as she shared those experiences with her children. Through these encounters, Hidalgo uncovered more and more about her father and his life, work, and time.
Hidalgo’s discussion articulates what she referred to as a rhetorical performance of loss. She noted that “the curious thing about a family archive is how much you can lose through what you find.” As she learned more of her father and her other family through family archives, the history demonstrated therein argued with the history she had known, challenging her beliefs about her family. The family archive and its contents engage in a rhetoric of loss, a performance reminding of what was and is lost both physically (i.e. people, memory, objects) and emotionally. Yet, the most interesting and moving scholarship, Hidalgo suggested, can be found in the family archive. To work through that archive, Hidalgo recommended strategic contemplation, recognizing that the family archive is laden with complex, dynamic emotion, that we are personally bound and mixed in with the archive, and that we require the assistance of family archivists to understand our collections. Through her presentation, Hidalgo called for us to “reject the notion that families are outside the bounds of our research.”
Jody Shipka turned the conversation towards the consideration of working with the personal and family objects of others. Like Hidalgo, Shipka also deferred to a video composition to deliver her presentation. This video contributed to Shipka’s ongoing projects featuring found texts purchased at estate sales, flea markets, and similar venues. In fact, this presentation seemed nearly a direct follow-up to her 2012 videotext, “To Preserve, Digitize and Project: On the Process of Composing Other People’s Lives.” In this presentation, Shipka again argued for resisting corporate archives and instead for exploring alternative archives—lowercase a—and what they might hold. She established her argument just as she did in “To Preserve,” citing Karen Ishizuka and Patricia Zimmermann’s (2007) Mining the Home Movie and Michael Lesy’s (1980) Time Frames, among others, to challenge traditional views of archives and of what gets archived.
Like her co-panelists, Shipka recounted a particular story of her research, particularly scrapbooks originally belonging to a couple named Dorothy and Fred, recognizing that scrapbooks are partial stories that must be performed to be fully understood. She described the text, photos, and encounters that connected her to Dorothy, including the retracing of a road trip Dorothy and Fred once took to St. Louis, Missouri. The road trip in particular allowed Shipka to inhabit Dorothy’s history and life—that is, the history and life of someone she had never even met. Her presentation turned to describe the “Inhabiting Dorothy” project, a call for others to take up Dorothy’s orphaned images and texts and inhabit them in various ways. First results of the project featured various intriguing modes of participation, including contemporary and personal updates of photos, photoshopped pictures that blended the past and present, and original compositions responding to Dorothy’s photos, among other forms of inhabitations. She concluded with several creative examples.
As a whole, this panel offered this audience, and our discipline more broadly, a complex set of challenges about what we value and consider appropriate for research and scholarship. Anderson, Hidalgo, and Shipka drew from personal lives and (hi)stories for their research: sometimes their own, sometimes not, sometimes both. All three reject traditional views of corporate or institutional archives, turning instead to oral histories, family closets, and flea markets for their stories. However, they also recognized the instability of their stories. Composed from unreliable memories and partial texts, the histories these three encounter are never fully knowable. Lastly, layered in the multimodality of their presentations, they also challenged us to make these stories visible and audible, to employ sight and sound for sharing, for representing, and for inhabiting these stories. As our field becomes more conscious and thoughtful about whose stories get told, who should tell them, and in what way they should be told, these scholars contribute thoughtful arguments that encourage us to research the always complex personal stories that often go untold.
Anderson, Erin. (2011). The Olive project: An oral history composition in multiple modes. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, 15(2). Retrieved October 20, 2015, from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/15.2/topoi/anderson/index.html
Ishizuka, Karen L. & Zimmermann, Patricia R. (Eds.). (2007). Mining the home movie: Excavations in history and memory. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.
Lesy, Michael. (1980). Time frames: The meaning of family pictures. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Shipka, Jody. (2012). To preserve, digitize and project: On the process of composing other people’s lives. Enculturation, 14. Retrieved October 20, 2015, fromhttp://www.enculturation.net/preserve-digitize-project/