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excerpts from Paula Hamilton’s discussion of oral history’s role in interpreting and recording the past

Hamilton, Paula ‘The Knife Edge: debates about memory and history’, Memory and History in 20th Century Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994

excerpt one

For historians, despite the long-standing existence of oral testimonies within traditional written records, the emergence of ‘oral history’ as a new methodology since the 1960s is central to understanding the emergence of social memory as a topic of study. Not that we can equate the process of remembering simply with oral testimony. It is rather that the practice of oral history changed the relationship between past and present in historical research. Oral histories did not ‘fix’ the past in the way many sources venerated at the time did. For the first time, historians assisted in creating the sources in the present and so became aware of the ‘retrospective and fluid’ character of memory. For many years too, oral history claimed to be inherently radical–recovering the voice of those previously ‘hidden from history’. Passerinni calls this naive claim ‘almost derisory’ in the light of recent events in Europe which highlight the greater political significance of ‘distorted’ memories. And so popular memory itself was assumed to be equally oppositional, keeping alive pasts that history obliterated.’

In recent years, the frequently voiced concerns about ‘inaccuracy’ of memory have given way to a more sophisticated understanding that what gets remembered and how is of critical importance in the process of remembering. Now oral historians are coming to understand that the collaborative act of interviewing can often be the point of intersection between memory and history, a contested terrain, frequently the knife edge of tension between the two. In some cases, the interviewer has in mind her knowledge of the seemingly accurate history (to be checked against the written documents) and asks questions that will shape the knowledge being produced, which conflicts with the unreliable and often less coherent memory of the interviewee’s experiences. The interview can become a site of struggle or negotiation between the story the interviewer wants to hear, and that which the participant wants to tell. That tension also brings into question the contemporary privileging of the ‘eyewitness’ to events of the past. On the one hand, the positivist framework of traditional western history and law insists on the corroborative testimony of at least two witnesses (or other written evidence); on the other, there is the problem of giving an ‘eyewitness’ sole interpretive authority. In some cases, such as the Jewish Holocaust of the Second World War or Soviet labour camps, where there has been deliberate attempts by governments to obliterate written evidence, there is a great fear that there will be no one left to ‘bear witness’ to the past, to remember it for later generations.

In relation to groups, memories are claimed as individual but the greatest conflicts occur when people insist that others should remember as they do. Reunions and anniversaries are often the forums for bitter debate between participants about the memory of an event, even when they were all witnesses to it. They argue over what happened and what interpretation to place or the experience, which is usually negotiated through the collective process of remembering. David Thelen reminds us that ‘since people’s memories provide security, authority, legitimacy and finally identity in the present’, it is no wonder that ‘struggles over the possession and interpretation of memories are deep, frequent and bitter’. This is an observation particularly evident in the course of oral history interviewing when historians, like myself, are often confronted with stories of personal pasts that are ways of making sense of contemporary dislocation and loss in the lives of old people.

As well as the oral mode of storytelling, the return of the active subject as a central theme in history writing in recent years has meant a renewed interest in forms of personal memory-writing such as autobiographies, reminiscences, diaries, and life histories. This diversity underlines differences in generic conventions between the various means of self-representation. As Stephen Owen has said, in an autobiography you are not reading memory but its transformation through writing; just as in the oral performance, you listen to the act of recollection as a spoken narrative. The life history is a significant genre, for example, Aboriginal writing such as Sally Morgan’s bestselling My Place and Ruby Langford’s Don’t Take Your Love to Town, which concentrate on telling a largely white readership how it was – and is – to be black. But there is always a moment of tension: each one writes as an individual at the moment of their story, yet each is also writing or speaking as part of the collective indigenous peoples, a social, political position understood to be shared. From the oral history work too, group biographies began to emerge and this has combined with questions also being asked about the nature of remembering as a collective or social phenomenon, each form investigating the relationship of the individual to the social. As Simone Signoret said in her autobiography, every time a story is told you usurp someone else’s memory.

excerpt two

Private memory becomes collective by making it public. Official histories refer to authorised accounts — authorised by governments, institutions, companies etc. A difficulty operates here when some critics assume that all history writing constitutes a form of authorised or sanctioned account, since it is based within the institutional discourse of historians. And, more importantly, the collective memory on which historians principally draw for source material is archival – that is, gathered by state institutions such as libraries, archives, and museums. Some historians’ analyses, such as that by John Murphy about the Australian Bicentennial Authority’s representation of the Australian past during 1988, serve to remind us of the way official storytellers do try to avoid and suppress ‘non-consensual pasts’. But the fact of a critique by a historian begs the question of institutional location. The corollary here is of course that memory drawn from oral history accounts has a more independent status. This may be the case, as we have seen, but since all memory is subject to structures of power in any society, we need a great deal more investigation into the processes by which some memories become erased, some emerge in the public arena, and some remain relatively privatised.

One instance where these issues converge is the memories of the Australian prisoners of war in Asian camps during the Second World War. This is another case where only certain limited written records exist and there is very little public access to the experience if participants or witnesses remain silent. For many years the majority were unable to speak or write about it, but since the 1980s there has been an explosion of stories in the public domain. More Australian lives were lost in the prisoner of war (POW) camps of the Pacific than any other arena of the war, but it remains the most tragic, least heroic experience, and the most difficult to negotiate. Over 22 000 Australians became prisoners of the Japanese, and they were held in camps at Timor, Ambon, New Britain, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Singapore and Malaya, later shifting further north. One in three of the prisoners died, and as one historian notes, ‘That is, nearly half of the deaths suffered by Australians in the war in the Pacific were among men and women who had surrendered’. POW status robbed men in particular of the chance to be real ‘soldiers’, to distinguish themselves in battle. Remembering it with balance and compassion became even more difficult because of the power of Japanese economic influence in Australia from the 1960s. Humphrey McQueen points out that Australian interactions with Asia are shaped by memories of the Asia-Pacific war. The nature of the prisoner of war experience and the contact with the Japanese soldiers this entailed left much residual anger, racism, hostility and confusion in the minds of the survivors. These feelings have resonances in other generations: half-heard family stories, rumour, unexplained neuroticisms, still leave many who are now adults uneasy about their father’s or uncle’s memories.

The historian Hank Nelson says the few initial autobiographical accounts, such as Russell Braddon’s The Naked Island published in 1951, concentrated on Singapore and the Burma-Thailand railway where the particular authors were based, and it is these that captured the public imagination. The numbers of men at these centres justified the historical focus in numerical terms, but the more horrific camps at Borneo and Ambon remained largely undocumented. This was at least partly because, Nelson says, few survived to tell their tale. Yet the huge sales of Braddon’s book, surpassing one million in 1977, suggests that many people wanted to make sense of the POW experience. More importantly, says Nelson, ‘the stories of these lives shaped Australian history towards Changi and the railway and away from the most horrific and complex of the POW camps’. Here again memory is ‘nourishing’ and shaping history, and this process was strengthened when in the 1980s Hank Nelson and the journalist Tim Bowden made a series of radio programmes which brought oral histories of POWs to a wide public audience for the first time. Part of Nelson’s task was to recover their experience for the historical record:

By any quantitative measure the imprisonment of so many Australians is a major event in Australian history. For many soldiers it was living– and dying–in captivity that made World War II different from that of World War I. But the prisoners have received no permanent place in Australian history. Their story is not immediately recalled on celebratory occasions.... Where the horror, stoicism and gallantry of Gallipoli has become part of a common tradition shared by all Australians, the ex-prisoners are granted just the horror. All ex-prisoners are aware of the gap between their own memories and popular knowledge.

The interviewing process revealed enormous trauma – most of the interviewees had not spoken about their experiences for many years, if ever. They had previously been unable to speak to even close relations who had not shared the experience. Bowden says that there was, as a result, a strong confessional element in the telling of their stories. Many constantly repeated that, ‘I’ve never told anyone all this before’. Response to the series surprised both Bowden and Nelson, who became aware that they had tapped a huge reservoir from the enormous number of people who contacted them, often to thank them for ‘telling their story’, so there was a strong sense of collective identification with the experience represented on radio; or from people who had ‘not previously understood’ the nature of the POW experience.

Nelson and Bowden interviewed in the process by which personal memories become collective ones and have helped to shape the historical record at the same time. In reflecting on the interviews some time later, Nelson notes some interesting differences between the oral and written memories. He found the spoken narratives used more evocative imagery; that the process of interviewing had elicited different content, because the collaborative nature of the interview meant that his and Bowden’s questions tended to focus more on relations between prisoners, rather than the prisoner-guard relationships that were a feature of the autobiographies; that the performance element in oral remembering made for a more intensely emotional experience, and one which ‘revealed more’, partly because the speaking voice is less private than the written. These observations illuminate the different conventions of each form and underline the way form affects the meaning of the recollection.

excerpt three

Popular culture invites identification and the creation of community because this is the central element in its narrative strategies; at the same time, history writing that has traditionally distanced itself through abstraction has now become more related to an audience seeking to identify themselves in the text. Obviously, because of their mass appeal and circulation, popular representations of the past have the potential to shape social memory, provide a mirror for it; or at least provide a way in which people can decide it diverges from their memory of the experience–that they do not relate to the representation and its inclusive aims.

Nancy Wood, in a review of some recent works on memory, has argued that in the post-war world, popular culture, rather than scholarly debate, has become the principal site for the politics of memory. Wood speaks most about the power of film in this regard, particularly in relation to film's mass audience and capacity to influence public contestation of narratives about the past. Oliver Stone's film 'JFK' on the Kennedy assassination is a recent example of film's intervention in public negotiation of memory. Stone argues that he just wanted to 'set up a stall in the marketplace' of competing versions about this event already in existence, and his film certainly intervened in the continuing political struggle over the interpretation of Kennedy's death. There are also a number of studies which support Wood's claim that analyse the impact of film on collective remembering in European countries, particularly France and Germany. However, many historians still view the versions of the past represented in popular culture as inimical to the critical analysis of history and leave the politics of memory to the media analysts such as Gerard Henderson. The ABC dramatic mini-series 'Brides of Christ', set in the 1960s, was the catalyst for many interviews by journalists with nuns to see how their memories of that time compared with the (fictional) representation on screen. There was no consensus and no public debate by historians to give a more informed shape to the collective remembering process.

A teacher recently confided to me with a laconic tone that he always thought the First World War happened in black and white. This seemed an apt description of the end product envisaged by those who fear the colonisation of memory by mass media–that even our memory would take on the conventions of filmic representation of the past. There has been much concern about the penetration of popular culture in the remembering process, so that people come to relate the experiences that they see on television, for example, as their own, replacing what was their eye witness or participant's experience. During the course of my interviews with domestic servants, for instance, they would often describe their lives as being like 'Upstairs, Downstairs', which was a long running British television series about a hierarchy of servants 'below stairs' set in Edwardian London. Hardly the typical Australian experience of domestic service employment in the 1920s and 1930s, but a programme which nonetheless struck a chord with many of these workers seeking to find sources of common experience with what had been for most of them a very isolating one.

There is concern that mass culture impoverishes 'our original memories', so that a more homogenised version stands in. Edgar Reitz, the filmmaker, says, 'the camera transforms everything we film into a thing of the past …the camera is our memory… we reassemble the fragments of memory in new ways'. Along with this is the fear of loss of community and identity, since mass technology changes not only our sense of the temporal but also the spatially specific nature of remembering. The idea that you can 'remember', for instance, the Kennedy assassination means that you remember its representation on television or radio, rather than having direct experience of this event. What Ulric Neisser calls 'flashbulb memories' or repeated images reinforce the impact of the visual representation. Amidst widespread pessimism, Lipsitz argues that while the transcendance of time and space does create 'instability by disconnecting people from past traditions… it also liberates people by making the past less determinate of experiences in the present'. Cultural forms, he says, 'create conditions of possibility' for audiences by informing the present with the past and the future.

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Paula Hamilton.


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