Yesterday I started a second semester postgraduate Linguistics course called Linguistic approaches to the Study of Narrative. I am going to try to do my final research project for this course on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography, Infidel, or consider the agency present in conversion stories. I haven't linked my interest in religion and academia in a long time, so I'm looking forward to this.

In the meantime I'm sitting here working on my readings for the course. I'm currently reading Portelli, A. 1991. The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History.

I find what Portelli has to say regarding the reliability of oral history particularly interesting when considering that the Old Testament was originally oral history and has simply been transposed into its current textual form. The same can be said for Homer's epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Here are some choice quotes and paragraphs I thought you might all enjoy.

"While the perception of an account as 'true' is relevant as much to legend as to personal experience and historical memory, there are no formal oral genres specifically destined to transmit historical information; historical, poetical, and legendary narratives often become inextricably mixed up... so that personal 'truth' may coincide with share 'imagination.'" (p.49)

"...oral sources, especially from non-hegemonic groups, are a very useful integration of other sources as far as the fabula - the logical, causal sequence of the story - goes; but they become unique and necessary because of their plot - the way in which the story materials are arranged by narrators in order to tell the story. The organization of the narrative reveals a great deal of the speakers' relationships to their history. Subjectivity is as much the business of history as are the more visible 'facts'" (p.50).

"Oral sources are credible but with a different credibility. The importance of oral testimony may lie not in its adherence to fact, but rather in its departure from it, as imagination, symbolism, and desire emerge. Therefore, there are no 'false' oral sources. Once we have checked their factual credibility with all the established criteria of philological criticism and factual verification which are required by all types of sources anyway, the diversity of oral history consists in the fact that 'wrong' statements are still psychologically 'true,' and that this truth may be equally as important as factually reliable accounts" (p.51).

"...memory is not a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of meanings.Thus, the specific utility of oral sources for the historian lies, not so much in their ability to preserve the past, as in the very changes wrought by memory. These changes reveal the narrators' effort to make sense of the past and to give a form to their lives, and set the interview and the narrative in their historical context" (p.52).

"Oral sources are not objective. This of course applies to every source, though the holiness of writing often leads us to forget it. But the inherent non-objectivity of oral sources lies in specific intrinsic characteristics, the more important being that they are artificial, variable, and partial." (p.53).

"Oral testimony, in fact, is never the same twice. This is a characteristic of all oral communication, but is especially true of relatively unstructured forms, such as autobiographical or historical statements given in an interview. Even the same interviewer gets different versions from the same narrator at different times... Historical work using oral sources is unfinished because of the nature of the sources historical work excluding oral sources (where available) is incomplete by definition" (p.55).

Portelli focuses on the need for personal anecdotal evidence in shaping recent history such as in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa shortly after the abolishment of Apartheid, or when considering Land Claims via the legal system where no written proof is available. Although he does not say too much about the long-term reliability of oral history, I think it is safe to say that after several generations orally transmitted information is no longer credible and can no longer be considered a factual recounting of historical events.

Food for thought.

Views: 18

Tags: OldTestament, Oral, OralHistory, Orality, Testimony

Comment by willailla on July 29, 2010 at 11:56pm
Memory plays tricks on us, and we can only remember bits of our lives. The day to day happenings are gone unless one keeps a detailed daily diary. We arrive at the ends of our lives totally unaware of the events that have shaped us.
Comment by Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth on July 30, 2010 at 9:53am
Kelly, thanks for revelaing the nonsense that the Tanakh, the Testament and the Qu'ran are so spurious in their tales! Some people aver that God so inspired the writers ,using true oral history. They cite that some people can recite quite welll. Just more inerrant woo! Erantists,too, have that problem with what parts they accept of those three holy books.
wllallia, certainly.
Comment by Shine on July 30, 2010 at 10:51am
Great points on the unreliability of oral history as a means of accurately recording events. I think it ties in with the subjectivity of eye witness testimony. Both of these issues came to mind last winter when I found myself bored enough to actually watch Lee Strobel's Case for Christ. Two of his primary points for proving the veracity of the New Testament were the supposed superiority of oral history before the rise of popular literacy and the reliability of eye witness testimony.

I find it hard to swallow that the rise of the written record has seriously degraded our memory. By this logic, shouldn't the illiterate members of our society have noticeably superior capacity for accuracy and reliability in their remembrances? I know of no such experiment to test this, but I would be positively shocked to see any noticeable difference in memory between a literate and illiterate individual. Or, at least, I would be shocked to see a difference to the degree that Strobel claims in asserting superior ancient memories as "proof" of New Testament authenticity.
Comment by T A A on October 13, 2010 at 3:18am
Shine, memory is something that requires regular exercise, so to expect a modern written text society to have illitterates with higher memory is simply unreasonable. 'Memory' as was practiced before written text, was a social activity that was exercised, trained, sung, discussed, on a daily basis, it was a way of life. Accurate knowledge and understanding of history did not begin with the written form... just saying.

Good Blog Salsola. :)

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