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Remote grandmothering, cell phones and inter-generational dis/connections

feminist media studiesFeminist media studies has been concerned with the intimate link between gender, technology, and the voice and with the ways that the telephone plays a particular role in creating affective connections (Michele Martin 1991; Lana F. Rakow & Vija Navarro 1993; Avital Ronell 1989). While twenty years ago the options for communicating with friends and family at a distance were limited to the use of the landline telephone, for many Canadian seniors living in the contemporary mediascape, the landline phone is but one “channel” for maintaining intimacy at a distance and for engaging in practices of “remote grandparenting.”

In this paper, we explore how a diverse group of grandparents, mostly grandmothers, use the cell phone to interact with their grandchildren. Drawn from group discussions and informal observations, we focus on two simultaneous processes: the establishment of intimacy and inter-generational dis/connection. How is mediated intimacy expressed in affective terms? Our understanding of the term intimacy draws from the reflection of feminist scholars, such as Lauren Berlant (2000), who writes: To intimate is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures, and at its root intimacy has the quality of eloquence and brevity. But intimacy also involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way. Usually, this story is set within zones of familiarity and comfort: friendship, the couple, and the family form, animated by expressive and emancipating kinds of love. (Berlant 2000, p. 1)

Two points, relative to the use of digital media and communication via the cell phone, are significant: Berlant’s emphasis on the subtlety and brevity of communicational cues in a consideration of intimacy; and her use of the term “zones of familiarity and comfort” going beyond definitions of the nuclear family and including “friendships” and other “family forms.” In our research a consideration of the intergenerational aspects of communication patterns is critical. What are the tangled tensions and animated intersections between ageing, new media technologies, expressions of intimacy, and the activities of inter-generational family life? If, as Imogen Tyler (2008) suggests, “Affect is channeled within and across media with political consequences and we need to theorize these affects as not only unpredictable (which it can be) but also as strategic and performed” (Tyler 2008, p. 89), then is intimacy expressed and practiced across generations, in the family context through mediated practices?  (Read more)