Is the audio recorder a guerrilla war cultural weapon?

This week’s reading deals with [the word community] in terms of shared authority, oral history work, and working directly in a place with a community of memory.

For starters, the introduction from Michael Frisch’s A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History does not seem to be written in 1990.  As he writes on page xix about public history and oral history gaining steam due to “a decline of patriotism and an epidemic of cultural illiteracy to a toxic moral relativism supposedly contaminating education and political discourse alike,” it sounds like he is speaking to 2013 issues.

Also of interest is his discussion on page xxi of “new forms of public history [waging] a kind of guerrilla war against the notion of professional scholarly work,” where he posits that this guerrilla warfare actually is not best practice.  Rather, he argues for shared authority as the best approach to oral and public history.  (It is hard not to think of the Philadelphia Public History Truck while reading this intro– a reminder that I so hope the understanding of fellow historians (public or not) is not that the truck is a “guerrilla war tactic”–as funny as it is to think about this roaming truck like a guerrilla fighter in a metaphorical culture war– but a hope to be collaborative between scholarly approaches and community work)

Sommer and Quinlan’s Oral History Manual is a guide with elaborate instructions on managing and performing oral history interviews.  There is a lot of fruit here, but the guidelines for dealing with an interview participant with traumatic memories is critical beyond the sense the manual offers.  While the book focuses on mass tragedy on page 63, the discussion is also relevant to interviews in which informants might describe experience with fire evacuation, severe local violence, police brutality, death, or domestic abuse.  It’s not too far off to wonder how a public historian should react when a member of a community of memory describes trauma, perhaps something as graphic as being stabbed waiting for the train.

What became an immediate interest while reading Fink’s article was his discrepancy between history and heritage as well as the “siren song of community*,” (137).  Fink illuminates on page 125 that heritage has to do with nostalgia and memories of place rather than history, which can deal with often harder facts regarding racism or alcoholism.  This understanding of heritage v. nostalgia is informative.  This is especially so in dealing with communities of memory and conducting place-based oral histories while trying to avoid nostalgia’s ability to, as Fink describes on page 136, “soft pedal past divisions” that are critical to historical interpretation.  As seen in the case of the Rumleys, it is not so easy to pull nostalgia and history apart in community history work.


Sommer, Barbara W. and Mary Kay Quinlan, The Oral History Manual, 2nd Ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2009)
Leon Fink, “When Community Comes Home to Roost: The Southern Milltown as Lost Cause,” The Journal of Social History 40 (Fall 2006): 119-145.
Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays in the Craft of Oral and Public History, “Introduction.”

*I hear a lot of ideas about t[the word community] possibly too often.  i.e. “Are you talking about [the word community], Capital C or lowercase c?” or “It’s sort of ironic to use ‘community’ as an all-encompassing term because it’s just the people who show up.”

I know language is critical and important to how we write about history and the work of history, but these conversations sometimes seem to derail more immediate conversations about content and approach to process.  To what betterment are we chatting about the word community?  Is it making public history better to talk about [the word community]?  I do not know exactly my thoughts on this entirely, but I am thinking about this a lot.

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