Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Portelli on the Difference of Oral History

Alessandro Portelli insists that as oral sources, the recorded tape is the actual document (p.33), which can therefore not be destroyed.

The transcription, as a written document the preferred form, is a removed object due to its various forms of interpretation, such as the punctuation which ties to replicate pauses in speech. (p.34)
The tone and volume range and the rhythm of popular speech carry implicit meaning and social connotations which are not reproducible in writing --- unless, and then in inadequate and hardly accessible form, as musical notation. (p.34)
It has no story for some speech properties, such as the velocity of speech, an ambiguous but meaningful property (p.34).
... slowing down may mean greater emphasis as well as greater difficulty, and acceleration may show a wish to glide over certain points, as well as a greater familiarity or ease. (p.34)
Because these properties are "sites" of important narrative functions, their loss reduces the emotional valence of the narrative. (p.35)
This is even more true when folk informants are involved: they may be poor in vocabulary but are often richer in range of tone, volume and intonation than middle-class speakers who have learned to imitate in speech the monotone of writing. (p.35)
Because oral history produces a narrative, the tools for analysis of narratives are relevant. (p.35) Such formal and stylistic analyses are not optional:
The greater or lesser presence of formalized materials (proverbs, songs, formulas, and stereotypes) may measure the degree in which a collective viewpoint exists within an individual's narrative. (p.35)
This equally applies to standardized language and dialect and their uses (p.35).

Oral history is concerned with meaning more than with facts (p.36); thus the factually `false` may still be psychologically `true` (p.37). Thus, in terms of the Russian formalists, it contributes less to the fabula than to the plot [we would say emplotment now, RCK] (p.36).
Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did. (p.36)
Portelli stresses that many written sources are fundamentally transcripts of uncontrolled oral sources, which can thereby never be analyzed for bias (p.37).
 ... memory is not a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of meanings. (p.37)
Because of this meaning, there are systematic distortions, which are almost as informative as the facts to be recalled. As standards of acceptability of behavior change, editing and even hiding takes place, which is crucial information (p.38).

The difference between how the subject used to think and how the subject thinks now is a key contribution in understanding the change that has occurred (p.38). Those who cannot separate this shift out use an epic mode of presentation, because they claim a timeless relevance of the past for the present. The ability to escape this timewarp is a key skill the interviewer can contribute.
If the interview is conducted skillfully and its purposes are clear to the narrators, it is not impossible for them to make a distinction between present and past self, and to objectify the past self as other than the present one. In these cases --- Malcolm X is again typical --- irony is the major narrative mode: two different ethical (or political, or religious) and narrative standards interfere and overlap, and their tension shapes the telling of the story. (p.38) [emphasis in original, RCK]
[[RCK: Notice that this is the technical use of irony, not the standard common-sense on.]]

Portelli stresses that oral sources remain artificial, variable and partial. (p,38) This has to do with the fact that the interview situations is engineered; the oral replies given are not repeatable; and the knowledge of the informer can never be exhausted (pp.39-40).

The relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee cannot be overrated, because the interviewer is what makes the potential of an oral source into an actuality and causes "transmission" to take place (p.39). As a consequence, an oral source that is transcribed without the questions of the interviewer eliminates half of the interaction and obfuscates the variability, insinuating that the interviewee would have responded equally every time (p.39).
Researchers often introduce specific distortions: informants tell them what they believe they want to be told and thus reveal who they think the research is. (p.39)
Rigidly over-structuring the interview will only turn the interviewee into an echo of the views of the interviewer, merely confirming the frame of reference of the historian (p.39). Portelli calls that phenomenon "ventriloquizing" (p.40).

Variability needs to be addressed by re-questioning, but the fact that this cannot quiesce produces the partial nature of the oral source (pp.39f).

The oral source is the combined product of the historian and the interviewee, not the unfiltered voice of the silenced masses.
... the control of the historical discourse remains firmly in the hand of the historian. (p.40)
Even accepting that the working class speaks through oral history, it is clear that the class does not speak in the abstract, but speaks to the historian, with the historian and, inasmuch as the material is published, through the historian. (p.40)
[[RCK: To which I would add that the class does not speak either, but members of the class, but the intent is clear of course.]]

Finally, as a literary researcher, Portelli rightfully points out that, other than in the case of other sources, historians are an embedded narrator of the story, in the style of the modern novel, not the 19th century omniscient narrator using the third person voice (p.41). Portelli analogizes the situation to Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, who has to ask other 'informants' in order to complement what he has heard and seen.
In the writing of history, as in literature, the act of focusing on the function of the narrator causes this function to be fragmented. (p.41)
On explicitly entering the story, historians must allow the sources to enter the tale with their autonomous discourse. (p.41)
Oral history has no unified subject; it is told from a multitude of points of view, .... oral history can never be told without taking sides, since the 'sides' exist inside the telling. And ... historians and 'sources' are hardly ever on the same 'side'. (p.41)  

Bibliographic Record

Alessandro Portelli, What Makes Oral History Different, in: Robert Perks, Alistair Thomson (ed), The Oral History Reader, 2nd Edition, London (Routledge) 2006, pp.32-41.

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