In this post, OHMA student Tomoko Kubota (2017) explores how we can make meaning of oral history in an era of Post-Truth. This article is the first in a three-part series exploring Dr. Luisa Passerini’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “Interviewing Artists: Intersubjectivity and Visuality.”
Luisa Passerini, who is an intellectual leader of oral history in Italy, has provided the field of oral history with new approaches based on the recognition of the subjectivity and intersubjectivity of memory. As a new student of oral history, I am still studying and seeking to better understand her profound work. Yet, I can confidently say now that her recent work, Bodies Across Borders in Europe and Beyond (BABE) which was the main theme of this workshop, now available to watch, gave me new perspectives on oral history and its applications.
I have to confess that I found it rather puzzling at first to connect oral history with the BABE project, in which we see many forms of art that seemingly have not so much to do with oral history, until I encountered one map in particular. Dr. Passerini introduced a map drawn by a young migrant from Mali, in which he wrote about various places he went until he migrated to Italy. It illuminates how he moved and mobilized; therefore, this map is his version of borders, one that is entirely different from the established ones we commonly recognize. He insists that, even though he is in the area of what is known as “Italy” now, he has not arrived at Italy yet because he still cannot read and write in Italian. This was an eye-opener to me. I have always thought that borders are definite, therefore very objective, especially coming from Japan, where the borders are fixed geopolitically by oceans. However, this map reminded me that borders are not just objective constructs, but are laden with subjective views of the world. This critical approach towards established borders resonates very much with why we value oral history in the first place, which is based on honoring the narrator’s subjectivity as opposed to valuing only written documents, which are imagined as unchangeable and authoritative, and therefore objective.
There are two main things I learned from the workshop: the importance of recognition of the subjectivity of existing definitions and the acknowledgment that we are each a part of that process of definition. First, it is crucial to recognize that many universally accepted frameworks could be the result of manipulations or oversimplifications that veil the complexity of reality and experience. Take the word “oral historian,” for instance—we might call ourselves oral historians, as we think it is the simplest framework to convey what we do. But what exactly does it mean to be an oral historian? “Oral history could mean many things,” said Dr. Passerini; she was reluctant to be only categorized as an oral historian. By careful observation of what we do, and how differently we each approach the practice of oral history, we realize the word “oral historian” alone cannot adequately define what we do. Secondly, it is important to note that Dr. Passerini is not denying the established definitions for our trade, but instead calling attention to its transdisciplinary approach: “Being a historian, [one needs to] accepts certain rules of history. Then [a historian] borrows from anthropology, from visual studies, from sociology, from psychoanalysis, concepts, methods, ideas, and so on.” It is with this recognition and acknowledgment of social expectations that we, as oral historians, can go beyond the accepted definitions of historical work to engage with the contradicting multi-vocal experiences of individuals.
As I wrote this article, suddenly the face of one man emerged in my mind, and I thought about a problematic issue emerging over the last few years: the rise of a post-truth world. We are now living in an era of post-truth: people cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion they desire; “objective facts” and expertise are less influential in shaping public opinion than personal belief, and people are increasingly embracing stories about themselves and their countries that are simple and not multi-vocal or intersubjective. How can we, as oral historians, provide counter-narratives where there are no shared agreements? How can we illustrate the complexity of our society when people intentionally chose to believe simple, glorious narratives?
“I became very pessimistic in the last years,” Dr. Passerini said regarding the issues she confronted in Europe. “The question is what we can do. I don’t have the answer. There are many forms of activities. You do your own work in your area. If it is necessary for some point, you do something else.” We have to keep doing what we can in our area as oral historians, but remain open to new forms and definitions for our work, and how it can find new ways to explore intersubjectivity. At least I now recognize that oral history can mean many things, and I want to know more about the fundamental roles of an oral historian, which I am now carrying out and am ready to go beyond.
Tomoko Kubota comes to OHMA with a BA in Foreign Studies from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Japan. She worked as a TV reporter at TBS, Tokyo Broadcasting Systems. Tomoko joined OHMA with an interest in exploring oral history on War memories in Japan and how one could preserve and transmit them to future generations.