Laura Wexler, Chinese Photo, and Forced Forgetting
November 9, 2009
Laura Wexler, the Chair of Women’s Studies at Yale and also an esteemed professor of American Studies and photo history, presented an amazing paper on Chinese photography this weekend at the ASA. She is also the beloved undergraduate teacher who turned me on to women’s studies, feminist film theory, and visual culture and also politicized me to the misogyny of academia when she was brutally denied tenure for reasons personal and familial. She must certainly be enjoying that last laugh at Yale…
While teaching at Peking University, she asked her students the verboden: would they share their family photos with her. It seems within the intellectual context she produced they were happy to oblige: exposing the usually hidden shape, class, possessions and other details of their private lives. However, Wexler learned that her students could only share photo albums of their own lives, as their parent’s (and grandparent’s) albums had been expunged, for fear of retaliation regarding the politics of personal life during the cultural revolution.
She shared her findings about the “staging of inaccessibility” in places like contemporary China where forgetting is what sustains people (in part, Wexler thinks, because of the absence of a human right’s discourse to create a framework for remembering). She learned that continuous telling, and continuity between telling, is often the function of our (ever growing and easily sharable archive of) home images of self and family.
It was painful and perplexing to think about the gaps between (visuality of) Chinese generations (also being discussed this week around different generations of Germans ), but I’ve been thinking about such gaps myself (ones that actually occur outside of systems of the state sanctioning of ongoing forgetting and within a society where human rights discourse prevails), in relation to gaps across feminist generations, as well as my father’s forced forgetting and remembering of his own Holocaust trauma.
Along this vein, it was truly interesting to learn that while (after twenty-five years!), neither of remembered the other’s face, the other’s voice, intellect, and shared feminist ethos were as vivid as they had been in the 1980s, photos to record or no.