How the Mother-Daughter Exchange Began in 1994
I took Irigaray’s (1993a) advice and talked with my mother about the photos in my grandmother’s photo album, an object, which had been passed between three generations of women. The photo album proved to be a magnificent resource in a dialogue between my mother and I as the photos provided the license for a mother-daughter exchange. They were something concrete, as well as symbolic, that my mother and I could share. The photos acted as a frame for our discussion. They prompted and augmented the act of remembering. The photos were a medium that made the telling of a life history less rigorous and provided it with an anecdotal warmth and humour. The photographs acted as a triggering mnemonic device that generated discussion. As well, they were an alternative dialogue process with which to interview my mother. I think my mother enjoyed my interest and attention to her history, and I know that I savoured our exchange. Many things were left unsaid, yet the photos opened up an opportunity for many things to be said.
I have taken this verbal exchange and de/composed the photographs. De/ composition, for the purpose of this essay, is a feminist methodology of reading/writing photographs. In this essay, it is about building on Irigaray’s call for the creation of motherdaughter encounters, which do not feed back into patriarchal networks of exchange. Irigaray’s theories provide a means to deconstruct prevalent images of (Catholic) womanhood and the mother- daughter relationship and allow different positive representations to filter through in the voices of women.
De/composition, in this essay, involves a re-reading of worn photographs of the past in order to open up the images to ever emerging fragmented subjectivities. From a Cultural Studies perspective Kuhn (1995) explains it involves walking a slippery slope between cultural criticism and cultural production. In other words, not only does the de/composition comment on the production of culture but it also produces culture. It is shaped by two considerations:
The first has to do with the ways memory shapes the stories we tell, in the present, about the past especially stories about our own lives. The second has to do with what it is that makes us remember: the prompts, the pretexts, of memory; the reminders of the past that remain in the present Kuhn (1995, p. 3). The aim then is to untangle the links between memory, its ‘traces’, and the narratives told about what went before.
The photographs are not an object of fact, but in contrast the reader and the photographer socially construct their meanings and understandings. Readers will bring to these photographs’ certain ideas about Catholic womanhood. One of the aims of including photographs, and thereby providing a multi-dimensional image of the women represented in this article, is to generate resonance in the representation of the material (Trinh Minh-Ha 1992). What is more, it is an attempt to contextualize the abstract and linear narrative of print. The intention is to deconstruct the positive/negative binary, thereby opening up spaces for more fluid subjectivities among my grand- mother, mother and myself. It is about emphasizing the album’s openness to composition, decomposition and re-composition.
Tensions and contradictions
Through the viewing of the photo album, I set out in search of a feminist genealogy, and its socio-historical construction within patriarchal discourses and particularly within the discourse and pedagogy of Catholicism. Specifically, I set out to uncover the Catholic maternal body, so that as mothers and daughters we can catch a glimpse of an ‘image of women and thus of sexual difference’ (Irigaray 1979, p. 44). However, the experience of conducting feminist research has left me in a state of tension and conflict, and hence it has been many years before I have decided to publish this essay. For me, the double bind is that this piece of writing opens up a site for Catholic women to articulate their voices, yet, at the same time, it takes away a piece of their private space, especially through the analysis of photographs which are central to this essay. Despite this tension I want to meet the challenge of departing from traditional social science abstractions, as well as the dangers inherent in politicizing the personal without taking the route of self-censorship. As Trinh Minh-Ha (1999) points out, it needs to be remembered that auto/biography ‘does not mean an individual standpoint or the foregrounding of a self’ but rather its purpose is to ‘expose the social (self) and selves’ (p. 19). For Minh-Ha (1999, p. 74) ‘the question is no longer: Who am I? Or what language should I abide by? But which self? Which language? When, where and how am I’? Hence, through this essay, I aim to examine the social ‘selves’ of my grandmother as they are exposed in the photographs, and through the voices of my mother and myself.
Our mother-daughter discussion was relaxed with the conversation coming from both of us and from the album too. However, this is not to deny the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in a motherdaughter reading where there are differences in interpretation. For my mother, a Catholic framework situated her knowledge whilst for me feminist undercurrents shaped my reading. Hence, differently situated women both wanted to make claims on the grandmother.
De/composition is like a natural metaphor for the processes of death and decay. The album, in one sense, becomes a sort of body that can be endlessly de/ and re/composed in the reading. For this paper plays with the grandmother’s body, as well as my mothers. It acts in a similar way to Barthes’s notion of the writer playing with the mother’s body in the process of writing (Barthes 1975).
The collective work of reading my grandmother’s photo album opened up a channel of communication between my mother and I, which had not been present. However, the de/composition although apparent in the scene of co- reading the photographs became a more pronounced feminist agenda through the act of writing. The act of writing to a degree distanced my mother from the project. My interpretation is a re-presentation of persons, events and narratives. Any re-presentation positions persons and their narratives in ways that is different from an original telling and intersubjective encounter. Moreover, the discourse demands of an essay and of theory inevitably reframe the qualitative texture of the ‘fieldwork’.
As the author of this text, I acknowledge that I hold a privileged position as participant and text producer. I regard my (historical) story as an integral part of the stories of the researched. As the author of a text, I acknowledge that this essay is framed through my interpretation and registered in my voice; that is the study is ‘author’ised and narrated’ (Wheatley 1994, p. 408). As a researcher, I consider my mother, as a research subject a collaborator in the research process. This process provided her with the opportunity to tell her narrative, to negotiate her identities and make meaning of her experiences (Riesmann 2008). As a collaborator, I observe her decision to tell me certain partial stories so as to maintain her sense of privacy. Just as I too tell half-done truths. Spence (1991) states in relation to therapy, ‘I still found it difficult to share some crucial aspects of my fragmented memories or to allow them to penetrate beyond a certain level of my defences’ (p. 228). So, with my mother and I there is a certain silencing not only of our memories but also in our dialogue, which protects us both.
The dialogue between my mother and I took place in the summer of 1995. It was part of the data collection for my Ph.D. thesis on the ‘Catholic mother daughter relationship’. The impetus of this thesis was located in the friendships that I have formed and maintained with my Catholic school friends and in the many intersections and engagements of these friendships with our mothers’ lives. It proved to be an emotional and weary summer as the day after our conversation my mother was taken to hospital with bowel cancer. As I transcribed our conversation, my mother was being prepped for major surgery. My project took on an urgency and fervour, which it had not had before.
As my mother lay in her hospital bed one of the major news stories in Australia was the beatification of Mary MacKillop by Pope John Paul II who, at the time, visited Australia and prayed at Mary’s tomb. Mary MacKillop was a Josephite nun who was to become Australia’s first saint. Mary’s beatification gave my mother great solace and hope. For me, it heralded a contradiction. On the one hand, it elevated women’s status in the eyes of the Catholic Church but only to maintain her subservient positioning within the doctrine of this patriarchal institution.
My mother died some years later in the autumn of 2005 leaving me with the memories, the family photos and the conversations we had about the photos. It is difficult to explain the protracted gestation of this essay, however, as Kuhn (1995) notes in relation to the extended length of time it took her to write her book ‘Family Secrets’, ‘Blocks internal and external, have ranged from the travails of self-censorship and self-doubt (what right have I to subordinate history to my own puny existence?)’ (p. vi).
All in all, in the act of de/composition, I aim to represent some of the seepages, gaps and exclusions that are not provided in a patriarchal reading of the photos. Liz Stanley (1990) writes that ‘There is a commonsensical feeling that photographs can capture and summarize a part of a person’s life and character’ (p. 270). In this essay, a feminist analysis, that provides other stories of the biography of a modern Catholic family, intends to disrupt the (patriarchal) summary. Writing this essay reconnects me with not only the possibilities embodied by my maternal grandmother as a young woman but also to my mother’s embodied narration and a sharing of her life to/with me. De/composition is about the slippage between roles: mother/daughter/ grandmother (pp. 957-960).
Barthes, R. (1975) The Pleasure of the Text, trans. R. Miller, New York, Hill & Wang.
Kuhn, A. (1995) Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, London & New York, Verso.
Irigaray, L. (1993a) Je, Tu, Nous: Towards a Culture of Difference, trans. A. Martin, New York & London, Routledge.
Minh-Ha, T. (1992) Framer Framed, New York & London, Routledge.
Riesmann, C. (2008) Narrative Analysis Revisited, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.
Spence, J. (1991) ‘Shame-work: thoughts on family snaps and fractured identities’, in Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography, eds. J. Spence & P. Holland, London, Virago, pp. 226-236.
Stanley, L. (1990) Feminist Praxis: Research, Theory and Epistemology in Feminist Sociology, London, Routledge.
Wheatley, E. (1994) ‘How can we engender ethnography with a feminist imagination? A rejoinder to Judith Stacey’, Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 403-416.
Excerpt from: Anne Keary (2013) De/Composing Gran’s Photo Album, Cultural Studies, 27:6, 955-981, DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2012.732593