Beverley Skeggs, in her book, Class, Self, Culture has an interesting chapter in how even the creation of a self is a classed venture. Telling involves power places in both function and subject: "One had to learn to tell in a particular way if one did not have access to the resources and authority to produce a self. This telling has a long history of making some groups public, whist establishing others with the option of being public or private."(134). In this sense, memoirs are privileged things representing access to things like education, leisure, etc. This makes sense, I think. Even those memoirs written under incredible pressure are written by those who can write which is a privilege. Most of these writers are educated...or in an act that creates even more complexity they have someone else write their memoir. They give their telling to one who has the privileges to be able to write it.
Skeggs points to the acquisition of stories by the middle class: "Just as the middle-class have always been able to use and access the bodies of the working-class for labour, not knowledge of and experience of others are used to shore up the composite of the academic reflexive self"(129). Telling becomes a kind of property. It is delegated to those deemed worthy enough to tell their stories and how the interpretation of those stories is often taken from us. In academia this becomes very pronounced in cases where the testimony is the object of observation.
While I don't always agree with Skeggs, I think the considerations she raises are important ones. While reading testimony is a way to give witness, it is nuanced in particularly cultural ways. One has to ask: who gets to set the guidelines for what constitutes as telling? Who gets to decides which stories are worth telling? What are the conventions that form telling? And how what do these things to do the act of witnessing?
Now I think the idea of being witness is a beautiful idea. But until Skeggs I never really considered that there might be political implications to witnessing and to testifying. What is it to bear witness? And what is it to give witness? What happens when those stories and those witnessings become an academic exercise? Is the witnessing the same? By what right do I interpret such stories? Do I diminish the role of witness when I tackle interpretation?
And lastly, what do we think about a culture that thrives on testimony? Isn't there something a tad voyeuristic about this kind of writing and thus our culture through it's fascination with memoirs? I think of the memoir The Kiss which I read many years ago as an undergrad. It was the story of a girl who never knew her father, meets him as a young woman, and proceeded to have an affair with him knowing he was her father. Mostly as I read the novel I felt repulsed. I didn't feel much sympathy, and honestly felt this was not something I wanted to be witness to. And to be honest I'm not sure if her testimony was about having some witness her story. More there was a kind of narcissistic glee in creating the beautiful out of the shocking. And also a kind of pleasure in the shocking. What does it mean to witness these things? Does not the telling itself motivate what kind of witness will be beared?
I think anyone who tackles memoirs has to ask these questions. We have to be aware that our society demands testimony in order to somehow make atrocity, pain real. And we sit not only as witnesses but judges. This is not a position I am entirely comfortable with but it is a position I am not sure how to change.