Family Archives and the Rhetoric of Loss
In the last few years my subconscious has developed a penchant for letting me know I’m stressed through malfunctioning cameras. Like a washed-up Hollywood director, my dreaming mind repeats the same hackneyed plotline with varying characters. There I am in the midst of a major reunion with someone beloved I haven’t seen in years—my Aunt Yarima, a childhood friend, my first boyfriend—and I can’t quite focus on our conversation because I want to capture the moment through something more tangible than my mind. I want to do what I’ve done since I got my first camera as a teenager and snap a photo of this monumental moment. And yet, no matter how hard or how often I hit the button, it budges slightly yet not enough to activate the camera. The person begins to fidget, tiring of the ineffectual lens pointed at their face. I’ve lost the photo and I’ve also lost the moment. I’ve ruined the reunion by trying and failing to capture it.
Having spent most of my life living in the States while my family still lives in my native Venezuela, it is no surprise that my stress dreams should be crowded with failed attempts at photography. For over two decades I have populated my walls and shelves with the faces of those who are long dead or alive but divided from me by continents and oceans. Photos of us together, in particular, interest me because they’re proof of the fact that in spite of the distance, we do see each other from time to time. Or as my mother puts it to my young sons: “Grandmother sometimes jumps out of her Skype home and stays with us for a few weeks.” And when she’s here my cameras work overtime, sometimes to the chagrin of my mother, the introvert.
The photos we take and the ones we inherit or steal from family albums tell stories throughout our homes. How and where we choose to display them and the other photos and objects that accompany them are ways in which we weave our arguments about those we love (or don’t) and about our own place in a community of ancestors, relatives, friends, and at times even strangers. My guess is that as you’re reading these words, most of you are envisioning your own walls and shelves, beloved images flashing by as you try to decide if what I’m saying fits your own relationship with photos. That is one of the benefits of alphabetic writing scholarship. The words invite you to bring in your own visuals and sounds to what is written, to fill in the blanks with your own history.
As a discipline, Rhetoric and Composition has clung to alphabetic writing since its incipience over half a century ago. In spite of the fact that rhetoric’s first two millennia were primarily focused on oral communication, our collective iteration of rhetoric today is predominantly print-based. Even our digital journals, such as Kairos, Enculturation, and Present Tense (of which I’m a founding editor), publish work that relies primarily on the written word. In the not-isolated case of Present Tense, our dearth of born-digital scholarship is not a matter of the editorial board’s not valuing such work—we desperately would like to publish more of it—but due to a lack of digital media submissions. The reasons for our discipline’s lack of digital scholarship production are varied. Creating digital texts requires learning new technologies, sometimes expensive ones. Moreover, some departments don’t value digital work as highly as print, so it feels as if a digital project requires a lot of extra work for smaller rewards. And then, of course, there is the fact that we’re so used to expressing our ideas in alphabetic writing that it doesn’t even occur to us to think of a project as working better in other media. And yet some projects do work better in a medium like video.
What you’re about to experience needs to be viewed, not read. The video tells the story of the objects from a family archive (mine) that go as far back as the 1920s. I could describe these objects for you, but alphabetic writing’s reliance on the reader’s imagination—exquisite as that imagination may be—is a limitation here. From handwritten letters and manuscripts, to press clippings, to a cloth woven by this story’s protagonists, the experience of the objects themselves is vital to my arguments about family archives. And then, of course, we have the family archivists and the people whose story this archive tells. Andrew Wille, my dear friend who has read every version of my in-progress family memoir based on this archival research, mentioned that upon watching the video, things clicked for him that I’d never been able to capture with words. The people who jumped at him in the video were suddenly alive with storytelling possibility. In the same way, members of our field will be able to experience people, ideas, and concepts in innovative, transformative ways by bringing the richness of the moving image into their scholarly thinking and production.
Not every project will shine on video. The ability of readers of alphabetic writing to go at their own pace, to reread a piece, and to highlight or take marginal notes is not available in this kind of project. Moreover, our minds are being asked to take in words, images, and music all at once. Quite a feat when the ideas discussed are complex scholarly thinking. Video scholarship is a growing practice. Rhetoric and Composition scholars such as Sarah Arroyo, bonnie kyburz, Cynthia Haynes, Jody Shipka, Robert Leston, Geoffrey Carter, Jamie Skye Bianco, Jonathan Alexander, Jacqueline Rhodes, and myself are publishing video scholarship in our field’s digital venues. As video becomes more prevalent as a scholarly medium—and I have no doubt that it will—we may learn to engage with it as naturally as we do with alphabetic writing. That disciplinary transformation in itself would be a reward for doing this kind of work.
And now I want you to walk into the homes where this sprawling family archive dwells, and to do so, we’ll have to trust my film camera—the one that never seems to falter in my dreams. In a blend of video and photography, I recreate for you the experience of engaging with family archival objects—and more important still, perhaps, with the family archivists who have curated and shared these objects with me. Without the visuals, moving and still, the archives I describe are just abstract ideas in your mind. I want to give you something richer than that, something as tangible as the photographs I never manage to take in my dreams. So come in, please, and thank you for visiting.
A note on permissons: My husband and I filmed and photographed almost all the material featured in this project. There are a couple shots filmed by friends and family with my camera but they have given me permission to use them and they are given credit at the end of the piece. I have shared the piece with most of my family (some of them don't have access to video watching technology because Venezuela has had an economic downturn and they are struggling financially) and they were very happy with the piece and the way it represented our family.