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"The past is a place full of energy and imagination": Photographic Seeing and Memory in Colum McCann's Songdogs



Songdogs, Colum McCann's first novel, is a remarkable depiction of how photography re-conceptualizes and reconfigures memory. This novel tells the story of how the protagonist, Conor, retraces his parents' past experiences and relationships through the photographs taken by his father. In Conor's connection to and recollection of the past, McCann highlights the mechanical intervention of photography and the visual codes of its images in reconstructing the past, recreating memories, and entangling past-present relation. The exploration of the mechanical intervention unveils social replacement or displacement as photography repositions the photographer, the photographed, and the viewer in relationships. The intervention takes place between Conor and his parents, since the subject of most of his father's photographs is his mother. But, as the viewer, Conor feels embarrassed and bewildered and does not know how to situate himself while looking at the sexy or nude images of his mother. Moreover, these photos trigger Conor's memory of his mother's stress and suffering after his father publishes these photos. The interrogation of the visual codes of photographs reveals that there are two features of photographic seeing: one is metaphoric and the other, metonymic. In addition, it is owing to photographic seeing that the past is re-imagined and memory, revamped. Prominently, the reconfigured memory does not merely refashion the past-present relation but demonstrates Conor's negotiation and reconciliation with the past. Photographic seeing in Songdogs thus brings forth a vision of memory which is less a representation of the past than a place full of energy and imagination.

Parallel abstracts



Arrowsmith, Aidan. “Photographic Memories: Nostalgia and Irish Diaspora Writing.” Textual Practice, vol. 19, no. 2, 2005, pp. 297-322. Taylor and Francis Online, https://doi.org/10.1080/09502360500091576.
Baer, Ulrich. Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. MIT Press, 2005.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard, 1st American ed., Hill and Wang, 1981.
Bennett, Jill. Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art. Stanford UP, 2005.
Boyarin, Jonathan. “Space, Time, and the Politics of Memory.” Remapping Memory: The Politics of Time Space, edited by Boyarin, U of Minnesota P, 1994, pp. 1-38.