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Picturing pain and pleasure in Annie Ernaux's L'Usage de la photo.

French writer Annie Ernaux has long foregrounded physical and emotional sensations as the building blocks of her autobiographical writing. (1) However, it is in L'Usage de la photo (2005) where the connection between the body and subjectivity most powerfully emerges. Co-written by then lover Marc Marie, the text is organized around fourteen photos of different rooms after a night of lovemaking and the authors' reflections on the images to offer a plurinarrative recounting of Ernaux's battle with breast cancer and her love affair with Marie. The text's visual imagery thus has an evident temporal function, since it situates the author's battle with breast cancer and relationship with Marie between March 2003 and January 2004. Yet the photos play out a second and more significant epistemological instance in that they represent the limits of transforming corporeal experience into narrative. (2) Indeed, L'Usage's concerted juxtaposition of the struggle to survive with a sensuous connection to her body brings new insight into an enduring feature of Ernaux's oeuvre: the strained relationship to the body as a source of knowledge formation, gendered identity, and empowerment. While the book works within her traditional framework of sexual discovery, gender, and everyday life and showcases Ernaux's characteristic blend of autobiographical writing, journal in-time narratives, and episodic remembrance, (3) its primary thematic concerns of desire, health, and illness reconfigure the relations between the body and identity that have previously emerged in her work. Whereas dominant cultural markers such as marriage, education, and family relations underscore the body as a driving force that enables her to assess the intersections of the self and society, the role of the body in transformational experiences of self-knowledge takes on a new urgency in light of Ernaux's diagnosis with breast cancer. Distilled to their most insistent forms of pleasure and pain, corporeal sensations in L'Usage de la photo become the testing ground for her experiments in self-representation. Showing that her experiences of pleasure, pain, and illness are more than a solitary confrontation with her own mortality, Ernaux challenges the depersonalized medical narrative of her body's vulnerability by imagining her physical self outside of binary configurations of health and sickness. Even as the autobiographical portrayals of her diagnosis with cancer and sexual desire entail an unsurprising emphasis on the singular body, then, they do so in such a way that prevents familiar categorizations of individual and collective identity. In so doing, she makes a compelling claim for physical sensations as proof of individuality and self-understanding, while testing the limits of autobiographical writing as a resource of communal knowledge about living with pain.

As the recent volume Textual and Visual Selves; Photography, Film, and Comic Art in French Autobiography (2011) suggests, Ernaux's inclusion of images in L'Usage coincides with an increasing prevalence of hybrid autobiographical narratives within French literary production. Although some essays revisit well-trodden notions of multiple or fractured selves in women's autobiography, they also effectively highlight a feminist use of visual narratives for navigating the gendered spaces of public and private and prohibitions on self-disclosure the genre invokes. As such, they point to a feminist topography committed to dismantling the sociocultural and political underpinnings of the public and private spheres through acts of testimony. Many critical readings of L'Usage have convincingly argued how photography represents Ernaux's confrontation with death and will to survive a life-threatening disease within such discourses of public and private. (4) Her deployment of image and word certainly displaces boundaries of individual and social life without obscuring what Shirley Jordan identifies as "the connection between women and intimacy and the social proscriptions and taboos that have traditionally regulated women's association with the private sphere" ("Chronicles of Intimacy" 73). Despite the value of this perspective, however, the role of photography in the text is best understood as an instrument that measures how self-narratives contribute to notions of a collective existence. Reading the images as an expression of the cultural and narrative conventions of sharing, comparing, and exchanging experiences that construct a feminist approach to autobiography not only opens up the connection between the body, knowledge formation, and autobiography, it demonstrates how the text's visual components redefine the ethical conditions of understanding pain through another's suffering. An initial consideration of the photographs confirms Ernaux's attentiveness to how autobiographical narratives stage the entanglements between the self and society. Because the images generate a sexual landscape that evokes the body as the privileged locus for constructing gendered subjects, they inscribe Ernaux's personal experiences within a broader social and historical context. As such, they initially serve to create a foundation for shared knowledge about the intersections of gender, sexuality, and daily life. More importantly, they provide the most immediate example of how the text navigates the space between individual experience and collective existence. (5) Yet these acts of communal knowledge formation do less to create inter-subjective bonds than one might first be led to believe. Indeed, the very premise of the images is strained by the absence of the body in these photos, (6) an absence that implies the limits of what can be learned about another's experiences of pain by reading self-narratives. Such visual and narrative gaps, in turn, require a shift in attention to Ernaux's silence about the physically painful aspects of cancer. The most striking moments of the author's battle with breast cancer are undoubtedly evoked through writing, so that the traumas and triumphs of her body emerge most clearly outside of the photographic narratives, and, more compelling still, in her references to the unpublished medical images taken during the course of her treatment. The intersections of word and image thus condition the reader to assess the challenge of portraying physical and emotional suffering as analogous to the tenuous connections between self and other feminist autobiographical writing often produces. This essay will therefore examine how the unresolved tensions between the visual and written narratives configure sensory experience as a marker of collective life, even as the terms of this understanding are consistently displaced by Ernaux's opaque narratives of pain and pleasure. Furthermore, by approaching L'Usage de la photo as an example of the contradictions and uncertainties of autobiographical representations of physical experience, this article will foreground the genre's ambivalent role in prompting individual and communal acts of learning as a way to delineate the intersubjective bonds formed by life-writing.

Corporeal Poetics

For Ernaux, autobiographical writing supports more than the pursuit of private memories; it tightens the threads of a collective existence. At the start of L'Usage, Ernaux speaks of the entwined lives of the reader, writer, and text--in a word, literature--to endorse a role for life-writing as a way of assembling patterns of meaning across differences of time, space, and experience: "Le plus haut degre de realite, pourtant, ne sera atteint que si ces photos ecrites se changent en d'autres scenes dans la memoire ou l'imagination des lecteurs" (17). These few lines define the well-known autobiographical excursion into an individuals lived experiences as a means of simultaneously cultivating private acts of self-reflection and validating the bonds between reader and writer. The use of "realite" indeed strikes at the heart of the tensions surrounding contemporary autobiographical narratives because it juxtaposes the ethical dimensions of life-writing with a postmodern deployment of a fragmented autobiographical voice. As Veronique Montemont observes, rather than reinforce referentiality, autobiographical photographs and narratives instead "hint at gaps, tension, or even conflict between the two media" (39). Whereas Ernaux's approach to autobiographical subjectivity disrupts familiar notions of identity because it insists on multiple and fractured selves, (7) her work also consistently deploys a stable alignment of writer and life-events, which allows her readers to respond to the more wrenching aspects of her life. (8) Moreover, the thematic focus on shame and trauma emerges as an ethical imperative to situate painful events within a verifiable historical context (Ender 23), the force of which depends on the reliability of the narrating "I" (Lauritzen 37). This helps explain in part the strength of Ernauxs work, which derives from her willingness to share difficult events from her past even as the unpredictable acts of remembrance, writing, and creation shape her life-narratives. Ernaux indeed takes the salutary vision of autobiographical writing, which Evelyne Ender identifies as a dual structure that "is both very private (the ultimate in subjectivity) and most broadly historical (an embodiment of the conditions or laws of our human existence)" (23), as a given. Unlike some recent autobiographical projects that trouble the correlation between self-narratives and singular identity, (9) Ernaux instead aims to destabilize her readers through her unadorned self-disclosure, which reverses practices of self-censorship that might be felt most sharply by women (Miller "The Ethics of Betrayal: Diary of a Memoirist" 157). Such a deliberate invocation of "realite" thus encapsulates Ernauxs commitment to push at deep-seated categories of public and private, (10) and plays out feminist concerns with autobiography and relational identity. As such, L'Usage de la photo stages an ironic portrayal of the genre's "narcissistic" dimensions, (11) to engage the communal even as this interdependence "exists in tension with a sense of [her] own uniqueness" (Friedman 44). (12)

The opening pages of L'Usage provide a vivid example of how autobiographical representations of the body illustrate the genre's complexities. Ostensibly introducing how photography captures "l'irrealite du sexe dans la realite des traces" (17), the first moments of the text are in fact designed around the limits of photography and writing as a means of concretizing corporeal sensations: "Pour la premiere fois, j'ai pense qu'il fallait photographier tout cela, cet arrangement ne du desir et du hasard, voue a la disparition" (12). If this passage provides an initial outline of the sexual backdrop that is inseparable from the author's diagnosis with cancer, the images themselves are relatively innocuous, and are more noteworthy for what they never show: the human body. (13) Instead, the photos often showcase distinct markers of sexual identity, such as high heeled shoes and undergarments, so that a first reading reminds readers of the intersection of gender and everyday life that characterizes the author's work. Playing out an "exhibitionism of the banal" (Jordan, "Chronicles of Intimacy" 73), (14) the photographs, in this instance, do little to push the thematic concerns of her books in new directions. Yet, since many of the articles of clothing are often indistinguishable, the reader is forced to turn to the complementary written narrative in order to decipher the photograph. By providing descriptions of the more readily identifiable aspects of the photos, such as living room chairs and kitchen appliances, Ernaux exacerbates the opacity of the images, conditioning the reader to question his or her own ability to understand the text's visual components. Furthermore, the sexual content of each photo only comes forth through the writer's reconstruction of the events that provide its context, deepening the ambivalent role of the published images.

It is this last point that gestures to the complex role of photography in the text. The dependence of each visual component on the writer's interpretation certainly evokes the text's uneven juxtaposition of word and image. Perhaps most importantly, Ernaux's inclination to undermine the narrative force of the photos reveals a starting point for understanding the productive tensions between the sharable and the inexpressible that suffuse the book. In its initial stages, Ernaux's photographic project seems to provide a means of capturing the sensations of sex; grafting writing to images, she generates a hybrid narrative structure that strives to elucidate the human experience of physical pleasure. However, the venture quickly begins to disintegrate, as if strained by the absence of writing, or as Ernaux comments, "Comme si ce que nous avions pense jusque-la etre suffisant pour garder la trace de nos moments amoureux, les photos, ne l'etait pas, qu'il faille encore quelque chose de plus, de l'ecriture" (15-16). Crucially, this return to writing emerges at the same time as the author discloses the central impetus behind the text: the need to recount her battle with breast cancer: "En ecrivant, tres vite s'est imposee a moi la necessite d'evoquer 'l'autre scene', celle ou se jouait dans mon corps, absent des cliches, le combat flou, stupefiant--est-ce moi, bien moi, a qui cela arrive?'--entre la vie et la mort" (16). The comforting inaugural moments of remembered pleasure culminate here in vaster meditations on life and death. Evoking the violence of "the other scene" of her struggle to survive within the existential conceptions of her body's ability to feel, Ernaux assesses subjectivity not only in the wake of elusive experiences of sensual fulfillment, but at the cusp of the body's degradation. Moreover, the use of "cliche" denotes not only a reference to photographic images, but also an ironic refusal of platitudes to depict her confrontation with mortality, despite death's enduring salience as a sign of the human condition. Thus the photographs paradoxically point to Ernaux's belief in writing as something distinctively suited to capturing the dimensions of human suffering and well-being, as well as to one of the text's persistent questions: What is the use of photography in a project that seemingly undermines the stability of the visual text and, perhaps most significantly, the ability of photographs to elucidate the uniquely human predicament of understanding one's impermanence?

As these inaugural pages suggest, the central subject of desire and illness behind L'Usage de la photo does not give rise to a surplus of representations of the body. Rather, the most compelling configurations of the body reside in the references to the unpublished photographs that document her illness. To return to the seemingly redundant act of describing the fourteen photographs in the book, Ernaux accentuates the mild tone with which she describes her illness, for in choosing to draw the readers attention to the easily discernible details of the pictures, she initially situates her story of cancer within an ambiguous and apparently superfluous narrative space. Yet these fluctuations of descriptive abundance and scarcity encourage the reader to assess such repetitious moments. The text's footnotes, particularly the two associated with her medical treatment, require such a form of attentiveness. (15) The first occurs in the book's inaugural chapter and is designed to contribute to a shared knowledge about cancer and its treatment. It thus highlights autobiography as a practice of private introspection and a narrative of collective consciousness. The second, for its part, makes a claim for autobiography as a narrative of empowerment even as it strains the connections between self and other that life-writing purports to strengthen. The first describes the catheter that "consiste en un fin tuyau de plastique enfonce sous la clavicule jusque dans la veine jugulaire, relie a un reservoir, implante sous la peau, qu'on perce a chaque chimio pour introduire les substances qui detruisent les cellules malignes. Je decris avec precision ce dispositif, parce que tout cela est inconnu a la plupart des gens. Jetais, avant, dans la meme ignorance" (23). These details undoubtedly suggest a new medical knowledge about the body and the resources available to combat cancer, yet they more importantly convey the need to supplement physiological explanations of well-being and sickness with personal evocations of experiences of illness. For here Ernaux retrieves her "medicalized" body for instructional purposes. Behind this apparently banal presentation of a medical instrument lies an impulse to teach a valuable lesson about the life and death forces that individuate as well as anchor us to a collective existence. The singularity of her experiences with cancer, much like her meditations on motherhood, marriage, and sexual discovery in her previous books, (16) transforms into a broader message of survival. If Ernaux never completely eschews the physiological aspects of her battle with breast cancer, it is perhaps because this knowledge serves not merely her journey toward self-knowledge, but an attempt to illustrate the conditions of pain, healing, and endurance. This first footnote is thus infused with a sense of pedagogical urgency that brings together reader and writer through a collective act of learning. Endowed with the medical story of her body's illness and her experiences of pleasure and desire, the author points the reader toward a conventional use of autobiography: that of deploying personal experience in the service of humanity at large. However, as the narrative progresses, and as the second footnote indicates, Ernaux increasingly questions how common knowledge about pain can be attained through autobiographical writing.

If the first footnote offers a recuperative example of autobiography's role in constructing relational subjectivity, the second footnote represents the ambivalent counterpart of L'Usage's evocations of pain and pleasure as well as bears upon photography's intersubjective reaches. Emerging in the text's dual context of medical and autobiographical photographs, this footnote provides the most striking instance of the tensions between image and word and above all how autobiographical narratives convey collective knowledge about pain: "Mammographie, drill-biopsie du sein, echographie des seins, du foie, de la vesicule, de la vessie, de l'uterus, du coeur, radiographie des poumons, scintigraphie osseuse et cardiaque, irm des seins, des os, scanner des seins, de l'abdomen et des poumons, tomographie par positrons ou PET-scan. J'en oublie surement" (194). This passage attracts notice because it is where Ernaux references for the first time the medical documents in which her body exists as an object of illness. Contrary to the photographs that are an effort to consolidate her connection to her body and its ability to feel pleasure, the images she lists here play out as a kind of calculated dismemberment, reading as a photographic autopsy in which her body is reduced to a series of discrete and severed organs. On this level, this collection of photographs represents the disintegration of bodily autonomy which L'Usage strives to counter. At the same time, this footnote seems to play out the same pedagogical impulse of the first footnote because it passes on rudimentary knowledge about the body with cancer. Nonetheless, the absence of these images complicates this intersubjective gesture. If these unpublished photos offer a moment of learning for the reader, their invisibility more significantly stands for the narrative resistance of pain and the subsequent distance between reader and writer, and, more broadly, the divisions between self and other underscored by personal corporeal experiences. With them, Ernaux troubles the intimate terrain a narrative such as L'Usage might suggest because they place the reader into the same diagnostic, medical space that depersonalizes her story of cancer. The reader is thus led into a contradictory pattern of learning in which the photos consolidate the physiological rigors of breast cancer through the erasure of Ernaux's individual body. From this perspective, the photographs invoke a central paradox of autobiography in which the sharing of lived experience aims to solidify interpersonal bonds even as it foregrounds the drift between separate individuals.

Given the strength of this paradox, it is all the more important to remember Ernaux's commitment to autobiography as an avenue of empowerment. This moment is indeed so provocative because it outlines photography's dual orientation in the text as well as Ernaux's complex relationship to self-representation in L'Usage. In the first instance, she undoubtedly distances herself from photography and seeks to free herself from binary categories of health and illness that strip away individuality and the significance of personal experiences of suffering. However, that these photos remain unpublished invites the reader to reassess the text's visible images and how they construct this narrative of pain, pleasure, and, ultimately, survival. Although the absent body in the published images finds a surprising affiliation with the medical photographs insofar it serves as a reminder of the limits of learning about pain from self-narratives, the visible photos take on a life-affirming texture because they are the ambiguous proof of her body's pleasure. More importantly, they imply Ernaux's ability to position herself vis-a-vis her illness in the manner of her choosing so as to function as signs of bodily autonomy. (17) This use of photography, then, demonstrates her refusal to abdicate to a medicalized appropriation of her body and points the reader toward a more salutary interpretation of photography.

It is this last point that allows us to examine the relationship to autobiography L'Usage conveys. The two categories of photographs in the text suggest that while Ernaux recognizes photography as a counterweight to the medical interpretation of her body, she is never so beholden to the medium so as to release it from its ambivalent underpinnings. Moreover, the visible and unpublished images situate writing as the strongest, albeit incomplete, means of evoking sensory life. To be sure, it is only through writing that she unflinchingly describes the physical transformations her body undergoes during the course of her chemotherapy:
   [J]'ai le sein droit et sillon mammaire brunis, brules par le
   cobalt, avec des croix bleues et des traits rouges dessines sur la
   peau pour determiner precisement la zone et les points a
   irradier.... j'ai, autour de la taille, une ceinture et un sac
   banane refermant une bouteille de plastique en forme de biberon qui
   contient les produits de chimio.... Quand je suis nue, avec ma
   ceinture de cuir, ma fiole toxique, mes marquages de toutes les
   couleurs et le fil courant sur mon torse, je ressemble a une
   creature extraterrestre. (109-110)

Embedded in this image of her body are in fact two visions of writing. On the one hand, the dashes and crosses delineating zones of disease illustrate a form of medical writing that has literally overwritten her body. Divested of any empowering quality, the marks on her body emerge as a narrative that reduces her existence to cancer. On the other hand, this moment also stages autobiographical writing as an agenic process. As one of the precious few descriptions of her body, this episode invokes the benefits of self-reflection. With her emphasis on her body's transformations in illness, Ernaux at first seems to take her cue from the medical portrayals of her identity as a cancer patient. Yet the passage reads through the repetitive deployment of her autobiographical voice, an insistent "je" that allows her to reinvent the conditions of her illness. The writer thus makes a claim for autobiographical writing as a crucial means of shifting the medical narratives that position her on a spectrum of health and illness, and thereby endorses the genre as uniquely suited to support her efforts to maintain her sense of self. But if this moment evinces her investment in autobiography, it also reinforces the difficulties of describing physical sensations. Despite this image of a distressed body, Ernaux carefully avoids any evocations of pain. In so doing, her endorsement of autobiography as an instrument of empowerment is attenuated by her narrative that consistently undermines any certainty the reader might have about her experience of physical discomfort.

Autobiographical Bodies of Knowledge

The tensions between word and image thus illustrate a crucial part of what Annie Ernaux seeks to bring forth in this book, which is the difficult task of taking sensations of pleasure and desire, as well as pain and illness, as the building blocks of self-knowledge and agency, but also how corporeal experiences shed light on relational identity. Elaine Scarry investigates how physical sensations, particularly pain, exacerbate the distance between individuals. For Scarry, pain stresses intersubjective bonds, as pain is at once constitutive of individual subjectivity and a source of human isolation. In a simple yet striking formulation, pain, for Scarry, "may come to be thought of as the most vibrant example of what it is to 'have certainty,' while for the other person it is so elusive that 'hearing about pain' may exist as the primary model of what it is to have doubt" (4). The paradoxical immediacy of experiencing one's own physical distress and the impossibility of sharing this discomfort that Scarry outlines here posits pain as an incontestable proof of individuality--this is my pain and the way I experience it can only belong to me--and disconnection--no one else can ever know what I feel. From this perspective, pain ultimately undercuts the bonds of human relations.

Such a configuration of pain as a confirmation of individuality and basis of seclusion resonates with core questions about how autobiography constructs intersubjective bonds through collective acts of learning. It is indeed L'Usage's subnarrative of pain that highlights its compelling contribution to the field of autobiographical studies because it refuses to reconcile the tensions between the apparently simple task of sharing personal experiences of cancer and sexual fulfillment, and the narrative resistance of pain. As Nora Cottille-Foley demonstrates, L'Usage aligns with Philippe Lejeune's "pacte autobiographique" because the text is the undeniable result of an author recounting her experiences (443). Turning to the carefully crafted conditions of this collective project, the "interdiction a celui qui allait chercher les photos d'ouvrir la pochette; s'installer l'un a cote de l'autre dans le canape, devant un verre, avec un disque en fond; sortir une a une les photos et les regarder ensemble" (L'Usage 14), Cottile-Foley clearly situates Ernaux's autobiographical voice within Lejeune's reassuring definition of autobiography as the shortest possible distance between the author and the narrative of her lived experiences (Lejeune 14). In this sense, Ernaux dismantles any ambiguity about L'Usage's authorship and seemingly establishes stable ground for the reader to learn about enduring cancer.

It would be easy to take the clarity of Ernaux's self-positioning as the basis for our understanding of autobiography as a tool of collective consciousness. However, the fact that Ernaux anchors her narrative to physical experiences that can never be precisely represented requires the reader to return to the text's epistemological uncertainties. To be sure, the text corroborates Scarry's interpretation of the limits of sharing pain so as to trouble autobiography's role in communal acts of knowledge formation. Ernaux's relationship to autobiography is certainly characterized more by her challenging invitation to her readers to take part in some of her raw life experiences rather than an oblique deployment of an autobiographical "I." But as the following passage indicates, her illustrations of pain stress the apparent transparency of this learning terrain because they center on a simultaneous unveiling and glossing over of the rigors of surviving cancer: "Pendant des mois mon corps a ete un theatre d'operations violentes" (111). Embedding her body in a metaphor of theatre, the writer brings her illness to light as a kind of production. More revealing still, despite her frank reflections on death, Ernaux never overtly mentions physical pain in L'Usage de la photo. In fact, the two times in which the word "douleur" appears in the text is in an emotional context when she intuits the end of her relationship with Marie and the ways in which this stands for her potentially succumbing to cancer. While the references to her baldness, her inflated right breast, and the medical contraptions she needs to wear for chemotherapy clearly expose the physical trauma of cancer, she examines her body with cancer from a distant, almost clinical standpoint. Even though Ernaux certainly foregrounds the violence done to her body by the illness, she ultimately privileges masked references to the physical pain she endured during this time.

Where Scarry's investigation brings new depth to L'Usage's depictions of pain and the ways in which they bear upon self-representation, Susan Sontag's patent ambivalence about photography provides an important means for explaining Ernaux's challenging deployment of photography and its role in generating intersubjective bonds. Although Sontag's apprehension ultimately derives from the political perspective that structures her inquiry into the medium (19), she nevertheless gauges photography's pedagogical uses so as to recuperate the medium without relieving it of its underlying contradictions. Sontag's concerns with the voyeuristic appetites unleashed by photography lead her to a sobering conclusion: photographic representations of pain distort perceptions of a heightened relational subjectivity. In a telling assessment, Sontag asserts that "[t]he imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the faraway sufferers ... and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power" (102). Here Sontag measures the drift between images and collective consciousness, and cautions against believing too readily in a photographs ability to connect separate individuals. But if Sontag achieves her goal of showing how pictures lull the privileged viewer into a false sense of understanding about what it means to live with or to have experienced physical, emotional, or psychological pain, she nevertheless attributes a striking didactic feature to photography. "Let the atrocious images haunt us" she writes, for it is only in approaching photographs as prompts for thinking, and not as mechanisms that "encompass most of the reality to which they refer" (115), that human beings can hope to interrupt cycles of systemic violence. With this astute reversal of photographs as symbols of a sharpened collective awareness, Sontag distills visual portrayals of pain into an invitation to assess the limits of what one can know, as well as puts to the test notions of communal bonds.

Sontag's tentative endorsement of photography as a tool for reflection opens up the sub-narrative of pain that permeates L'Usage de la photo because it situates the text's epistemological uncertainties within broader considerations of the shared ties between individuals. While pain constantly suspends expression, Ernaux nevertheless strives to portray this difficult passage through illness. The distinction between working to illustrate the experience of cancer and the ability to do justice to the physical sensations of illness is an important one because it does more than provide insight into the authors use of photography; it prevents the narrative resistance of pain from hollowing out L'Usage's message of hope. The book's rhythmic pattern of visual and written narratives resonates for its alternating emphasis on physical sensations of pleasure and pain and makes clear that pain neither overwrites other life-affirming experiences, nor stands as the final word of her reflections on mortality. For every visual evocation of her body's ability to feel pleasure there is a countervailing allusion to her illness that emerges only in the written narrative. Yet the visual and written narratives disrupt any sense of complacency the reader might experience as a witness to the writers depictions of pain and pleasure because they play out an autobiographical process of disclosure and withholding. Ernaux's excursion into photography is indeed driven by her refusal to concede to a medical appropriation of her body, a defensive gesture that exemplifies her belief in self-representation as a key tactic in maintaining a sense of self. Moreover, representing the ways in which her body is embedded in a discourse of illness as well as her strategies of empowerment, her turn to photography, for all its remarkable contradictions, valorizes autobiography as a means of strengthening agency, an agency that she hopes to pass on to the 11% of women suffering from breast cancer: "Ecrire sur [mon cancer] participe a ce devoilement" (113). From this perspective, L'Usage de la photo stages the encounters between individual and collective identity, for the text is born not only of an attempt to portray physical sensations of pleasure and pain, but also of a conjoined meditation on the limits of sharing experiences of illness, desire, and mortality. It does so, however, without simplifying the controversies and fragmentations surrounding contemporary autobiography and representations of corporeal sensations.

The University of West Georgia


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I would like to thank the readers at French Forum and Robert Kilpatrick for their valuable contributions to this article.

(1.) Les Armoires vides (1974), Passion simple (1992), "Je ne suis pas sortie de ma nuit" (1997), La Honte (1997), and L'Evenement (2000) underscore physical sensations, be they from her early childhood, adolescence, or adult years, as a way to assemble patterns of meaning in individual as well as social contexts.

(2.) Photographs prompt remembrance, autobiographical reflection, and writing in La Honte, Une Femme, and La Place, but the inclusion of visible images in L'Usage marks a distinct shift in the authors use of photography (Jordan, "Improper Exposure" 125). However, Les Annees (2008) centers on numerous photos without including published images. For more on how Ernaux's writing shares narrative, aesthetic, and methodological threads with photography, see Havelange.

(3.) Une Femme (1988) crafts the portrait of Ernaux's mother through the reversal of gendered spaces such as the kitchen and work place. Journal du dehors (1993) explores gender through everyday scenes at the butcher shop, metro, and supermarkets.

(4.) See Edwards (86), Jordan ("Chronicles of Intimacy" 74; "Improper Exposure 128), Kawakami (452), Delvaux (138) and Dugast-Portes (109). Moreover, Edwards, Jordan, Delvaux, and Cottille-Foley use Roland Barthes to interpret the correlation between photography and death.

(5.) Evelyne Accad's Voyages en cancer (2000) showcases a similar connection between sexual desire and a life-threatening disease.

(6.) For a feminist and existential reading of the absent body in the photos, see Edwards.

(7.) See Edwards (89), Miller ("Memory Stains: Annie Emaux s Shame" 206), and Place-Verghnes (104).

(8.) This follows Paul Eakins introduction to the volume The Ethics of Life Writing (118). These essays examine multiple ethical dimensions of life-writing, such as the tensions between language and recounting life events, the contested role of personal testimonies as prompts for social justice, and the ways in which the telling of an individual life-story creates social bonds yet simultaneously strains communal ties when secrets are disclosed. However, it is beyond the scope of this essay to consider the many intersections of ethics and life-writing.

(9.) Frederic Beigbeder, Regis Jauffret, and Marie Nimier are notable examples.

(10.) Jordan identifies this as a key feature of Ernaux's oeuvre ("Chronicles of Intimacy" 73)

(11.) See Evelyne Ender for more on the benefits of narcissism.

(12.) The role of individualism and collective identity differentiates traditional and feminist studies of autobiography. Lejeune defines this individualism through "l'accent sur sa vie individuelle" (14). Autobiography scholar Georges Gusdorf foregrounds the highly subjective processes of remembrance and writing, yet defines autobiography as an individual pursuit of self-portraiture (35).

(13.) Jordans analysis of the photos is helpful on this point ("Improper Exposure" 126130). For Place-Verghnes, the banal subject of the photographs confers importance to the seemingly unimportant, thereby "allowing multiple meanings to rise to the surface" (104).

(14.) Jordan offers a different interpretation of the footnotes, who understands them as part of an "ethnographic and ethical" strategy that, as it depersonalizes her treatment, strips cancer of any stigma of shame. Like my reading, though, Jordan also sees the footnotes as suggestive of the fractured identity generated by the medical establishment ("Improper Exposure" 136).

(15.) Most notably, La Femme gelee (1981) centers on Ernauxs marriage, ambivalence toward motherhood, and trajectory from adolescent sexual exploration to the gender roles reinforced by married life. Les Armoires vides and later, L'Evenement are grounded in Ernauxs recounting of her abortion.

(16.) Michele Bacholle-Boskovic notes that photography enables Ernaux to "regagnjer] (ou presenter]) un certain controle sur [son] corps" (99). See her chapter "Ce qui a ete" for a comprehensive study of photography in Ernauxs oeuvre.

(17.) The first use of "douleur" appears at the start of the text when Ernaux decides to photograph the pile of clothing she discovers after a night of love-making (12). The second occurs during a trip to Brussels where she reflects on the hotel room and how it encapsulates the ephemeral nature of both time and space (48).
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Author:Connell, Lisa
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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