Loyalty and Competing Narratives in Oral History

AHA Session 112
Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Edward Brudney, Indiana University

Session Abstract

Since the 1970s, the disconnects between memory and history have become a critical site for the construction, negotiation, and contestation of meaning in the humanities, frequently transcending geographic, chronological, and disciplinary boundaries. Methodological innovations have been a prime driver of this new focus, as the incorporation of history has become both increasingly common and increasingly dexterous. Yet, as scholars have frequently noted, the use of these approaches and source materials raises doubts ranging from the reliability of testimony to how to navigate the interviewer-interviewee dynamic. Interpreting first-person accounts of lived experience and productively integrating them into larger projects of meaning-making remains a central, and multifaceted, preoccupation for all scholars working with oral histories.

The interview as interaction demands both critical self-reflection and careful attention to its multiple levels: as a conversation between two people; as a performance featuring a speaker and a listener; as an exercise in unequal power relations, with the interviewer often presumed to sit in judgment of the interviewee; and increasingly as an experience mediated by technological forms (video and audio recordings, in particular), that risk creating distance between the participants. Cognizant of these various factors, this panel explores one of the thorniest and most entrenched challenges of oral history practice: to situate ourselves vis-à-vis our informants regarding the question of interpretation. If both sides seek to manipulate the interview and invest it with meaning, to tease out its implications, and to situate it within a broader narrative arc, whether as part of an individual’s life story or as part of a larger history, how can we balance these competing interpretations? This struggle for control turns on two notions of loyalty: the loyalty that a scholar feels towards her interlocutor versus the loyalty that she has towards her own analysis. The inevitable disjunctions that emerge as part of any testimony bring this concern to the fore, yet scholars are far from united as to whether these inconsistencies help or hinder our analysis. Does (or should) the loyalty or conflicted loyalties feel for their subjects differ from the fidelity/skepticism with which historians of all stripes should consider their sources?

Recognizing and confronting the tensions between these two loyalties is more than a simple theoretical exercise: it can profoundly shape the finished product and has considerable ramifications for the morality of historical practice when that practice includes living subjects. Featuring papers that examine state violence in Argentina, queer domestic politics in 1980s Boston, veterans’ testimonies from post-9/11 conflicts, perceptions of climate change in the southeastern United States, and the legacies of Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War, this panel is an opportunity to wrestle with precisely the issues of positionality and competing loyalties in oral history practice. While these studies are contextually situated, they each make critical contributions to the broader intellectual challenges related to how to use testimony responsibly, productively, and consciously. This panel explores these questions while offering new theoretical and methodological insight into the evolving field of oral history.

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