The Oral Historian as Hermes: Olympian Objectivity, the Mortal Interviewee, and the Underworld of Subjectivity

Friday, January 4, 2019: 2:50 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Andrew Hammond, University of Warwick
This paper posits the oral historian as a Hermes type figure trying to navigate between the three worlds of: Olympian objectivity, the earth-bound and contextualized interviewee, and what we may call the underworld of their own subjectivity. Indeed, alongside the competing narratives one may find among one’s interviewees, the oral historian also has to balance the narrative of scholarly objectivity – that ‘That Noble Dream’ of the discipline in the words of Peter Novick – with that ever present background narrative that is our own subjectivity. To which narrative should one be loyal? Should one be privileged? How might the competition or tension between them best be resolved? These questions invoke important epistemological, methodological, moral and ethical concerns for the oral historian. To concretize the conundrum, this paper draws on oral history interviews conducted with veterans of the post-9/11 wars by the author. These were conducted while an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum/New York University for a project entitled – “Why We Serve”: An Oral History of 9/11 and the War on Terror. Lest the notion of Hermes as ‘the trickster’ be the one that is associated with oral historians, it is best to lay out intellectual justifications for their role and to argue for a notion of Hermes as a ‘skilled navigator of these boundaries’.
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