Readings in oral history, October 2014 (part 3)

Freund, A. (2014). “Confessing animals”: toward a longue durée history of the oral history interview, Oral History Review, 41(1), 1-26.

This paper by Freund presents some initial research exploring the link between the oral history interview and the development of a culture of confession in the late twentieth century.

The origins of confessional culture are traced to the medieval practice of confession and the inquisition, a trajectory that is traced through heavy reliance on Foucault’s treatise on confessional practice in The History of Sexuality. The focus of Foucault’s work, in relation to confession, was psychoanalysis, Freund extends this to the development of the oral history interview and suggests that this means that there is a link that ties the modern oral history interview to torture. This is identified as the dark side of the field. To my mind this link is tenuously demonstrated, and in a manner that is overly reliant on Foucault. Nevertheless, some of the points Freund raises, particularly when moving away from Foucault, are worth exploring further.

For example, there is a discussion of the idea of oral history as a vehicle for the democratisation of history; providing a voice for the voiceless. The flip side of this is an increase in information about normal life, an increase in surveillance. Freund also discusses the oral history interview as a way in which the interviewee constructs a version of the self and asserts that the role of the interviewer in this has a dark potential (since the oral history interview is a dual construction, and interplay between interviewee and interviewer). Because of this, the interviewer needs to examine his or her role, and potential for power and dominance, when it comes to the construction of the self of the interviewee. On the other hand, I suspect that  the construction of the self is a constant process of build, knock down and rebuild as we assess our own position in relation to other individuals and to society in general: to do so in relation to an oral history interviewer is simply another way, somewhat more formal than normal interactions, in which the self is formed.