Oral History: Ventriloquism or Privileged Interpretation?

Daniel James, Doña María’s Story: Life History, Memory, and Political Identity, Latin America Otherwise (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

Imagine you have thirty hours of interviews, nine months of work, more than seven decades of oral history from a privileged witness to the rise of Peronism and the Argentine labor movement…and then you start reading postmodern theory (125). Was it all a waste of time, you ask?

This is Daniel James’s dilemma after recording Doña María Roldán’s testimony of her life as a labor activist and union leader in the meatpacking plants of Berisso. Influenced by evolving trends in literary criticism, romance studies, and cultural anthropology of the late 1980s, James uses Doña María’s narrative to explore one of the fundamental debates still facing the human sciences today: are researchers like James “ventriloquists,” merely putting words in the mouths of their subjects, or can the oral-history narratives they produce shed light on the deeper meanings of individual and collective memory (151)? For James, the answer is, yes. His first interpretive essay of Doña María, “Listening in the Cold: The Practice of Oral History in an Argentine Meatpacking Community,” is about this dilemma.

Testimony

 “I felt like a voyeur and found the sensation deeply disturbing. He, of course, noticed my reserve, and the interview wound down” (132). This quotation, by James, highlights two of the issues the author raises in this chapter: the reliability of historical subjects to faithfully narrate events and the role of the observer/researcher in oral history. In this example, James has experienced an “emphatic failure” with a “religiously intense right-wing” Peronist, whom he interviewed in a bitterly cold house while the man’s gloomy wife paced tensely in the background (132). The unnamed man had just exploded, he wanted to know what James thought about Peronism. Tired of being interrogated, perhaps feeling impotent under the historian’s gaze, he attempted to assert his own power by asking for “some form of genuine dialogue” (130). “You just want to get things from me, but you don’t tell me anything about yourself,” he said (130). The interview was a flop.

This “empathetic failure,” alongside what we might call James’s emphatic success with Doña María, prompted the author to question the value of oral history and autobiography as historical genres. Were his informants just feeding him what they thought he wanted to hear? Can we use oral history as a source of “empirical knowledge” (123)? In his exploration of these issues, James looks at the two historical fields as literary genres and concludes that while these types of narrative discourses are in a way performed for their audiences, there is value in understanding what is being said. James seeks to extend Philippe Lejeune’s concept of the referential pact, the commitment on the part of the teller to tell the truth, to the field of oral history. James argues that that even if the referential pact of the narrator in an oral history is broken, there is meaning layered into the multiple truths of sources like Doña María (136). That is what we should look for, not merely a “strict accuracy associated with information” (136).

 “For us [Perón] didn’t die; on the contrary, he’s more alive than ever” (114). In discussing divisions within the Peronist movement, James and Doña Maria get into an animated debate after James suggests that the differences that separated the divergent wings of Peronism were perhaps just “a play on words” (114). In response, Doña María emphatically denies the claim, highlighting the peaceful role that regular workers of the patria peronista played in supporting Peronism as a political ideology versus the violence of the patria socialista wing, before finishing with the apotheosis of Juan Perón cited above.

So much is at play here. The historian’s question has altered the scene. The interviewee is reacting to the observer, interweaving her personal Christian faith with political history. All of this potentially contaminates her narrative. But out of more than six-hundred pages of transcript, James decided to include this excerpt. Why? Perhaps because it is precisely the type of subjective statement that seems bereft of any empirical knowledge. But it is also overflowing with deeper meaning. By understanding Doña María’s memories, her individual view of the history she experienced, James is able to get a “feeling” for the period and help answer a question that, on its surface, seems to be one of semantics (121).

James then turns to an exploration of a photographic documentary, set to a soundtrack and paired with poetry from one of Berisso’s best-known poets, of an abandoned meatpacking plant to flesh out his thoughts on the difference between isolated historical information and the hermeneutics of memory. In what is essentially an oral history within an oral history, James narrates his memory of attending a showing of the documentary, a “requiem for a frigorifico,” as part of his research. The experience “was akin to being present at a funeral wake,” he says (149). Like the nuggets of empirical data that come out of an oral history, the photographs of the abandoned plant are cold when separated from the act of remembering. However, like the images paired with the poetry, Doña María’s spoken testimony is much more than the words she speaks. The documentary as performed in Berisso, rich with multiple memories, truths, and interpretations, is more than just a slideshow. Like the documentary shown in the community, Doña María is also actively remembering with James, shaping her own thoughts while narrating her life for those who will read her history after she is dead. These two testimonies “acquired their power when contextualized within the arena in which they were shown and framed by the narrative that placed them in time and space” (150). The images are not just generic photographs of a shuttered industrial plant. When understood in their specific space and time, what the now-empty plant meant to people who lived and died there, the abandoned factory takes shape again, if only for a moment, and a community wound is dressed and given a chance to heal. For James, this moment not only gives historic insight into what labor meant to these people, it highlights the role of history in collective “re-membering” as opposed to “ordinary recollection” (154).

In conclusion, by acknowledging that the historical “image is bent” and that genres like oral history and autobiography are inherently subjective, James seeks to salvage the field as a legitimate tool of historical analysis. Taking a cue from the “linguistic turn” of postmodern theory to treat oral history as a text to be interpreted and read against the grain, even if it presents problems of empirical accuracy (277). As he says, the “memory recovered in the oral history project is not the invention of the historian” (153). In this sense, James makes his peace with postmodern theory and forges ahead.

N. H. Gill, 2017

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