Family relationships are oral. It’s seems pretty obvious. But maybe it really isn’t. I think family photographs may be the best way to present the issue. Photographs, such as the one reproduced here, mean hardly anything to anyone who isn’t either a family member or close enough to really remember the people or the situation, without having to rely on text or images or sound files. And by “close enough” I mean exactly close enough to speak to one another — without a telephone probably (maybe a telephone does work — I’m not sure about that). Maybe many of us sustain many oral relationships, e.g. probably most friendships, some collegial relationships. But family seems like a sort of benchmark, a reference point for the way any one of us positions ourselves with respect to orality. Or, to go a bit further, it might be a way to “diagnose” where we are between primary and secondary versions of orality, to use the terms coined by Walter Ong.
Let’s say we’re between thinking a photograph means “this has been” and a later understanding of a photograph as “this is possible”. In the first case, the photograph is pegged to a specific past point in time and so has a role in any number of potential cause-and-effect relationships. It could figure a moment in some kind of tale about how some contemporary neurosis came to be, for example. It could constitute forensic evidence or prop up sagging confidence. But I might honestly say that if I didn’t actually remember, with my own, organic memory, the image would have no intrinsic meaning whatsoever. If I want a particular meaning, and I want it to have bearing on these people, this event, I’ll have to invent it. I the viewer, I the photographer, and I the critic thinking about this are all integrated as different nexus points, or functions, in the apparatus. If this image is to have any specific, particular meaning, we have to project it. We have to flesh it out with a time and place, some characters, some story. I think we can even say that this meaning must be forged in words. Otherwise, “meaning” will revert to a default algorithm-generated family story, a set of rather sappy conventions that have no use for exceptions and oddities or even careful observation, and that represent family as a smooth, flat, readily-digestible “memory”.
Was it ever “natural,” “normal,” to treat photographs as historical evidence? Only in a determinedly historical framework. Otherwise, photography belongs to a secondary orality.