Performing our pasts: representing history, representing self
Anthropological research is based on oral testimony, but using it as research data in history remains contentious, because, apart from problems of memory, it is assumed that self-interest colors accuracy. Yet some anthropologists and historians emphasize the importance of the presuppositions and motives that underly the personal description of events.This dissertation searches for the sources of distortion and validity in personal history by analysing the tapes and transcripts of interviews with senior professors in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, that were recorded on video, for a documentary on the history of the department. Historical narrative has been shown to be the rewriting of the past in terms of the values of the present. When the narrative is to be created out of the self-presentation of participants, it imposes on them a sense of writing a final document, not only on the department, but on their place in it.The content of the interviews includes descriptions of the establishment of the canon in the department, the power of the chair to influence personnel, and narratives about past faculty. Visual and audio analysis of the tapes shows evidence of the constraints on conversation inherent in the production process. Analysis of the transcripts shows constraints on topics inherent in the power dynamic of the interview situation, and the awareness of the performance aspects of the project. The material indicates the process by which narrative can be affected, not only by memory and personal interest of the tellers, but also by the demands of performance, and by the framing of the ethnographer/historian who is responsible for shaping the interviews into a history. It also suggests that eccentricity may pave the way to immortality.
- Anthropology