Confessing Animals: Toward a Longue Durée History of the Oral History Interview

29 Apr 2014

“Confessing Animals”: Toward a Longue Durée History of the Oral History Interview, published by Alexander Freund in the Oral History Review is now available as a full article on the Oral History Review’s website. You can also find it as a PDF download on the OHR. The full article is available to read for free for a limited time, an abstract of the article is available below.

Oral historians have long focused on the interview as a central research method and claimed antecedents stretching back to antiquity, but they have not studied the longue durée history of the interview. This article is a preliminary exploration of how oral historians might begin to write a history of the interview that emphasizes structural similarities among such diverse practices as religious and legal confessions, medical anamneses and psychoanalysis, the Inquisition and police interrogations, journalistic interviewing and oral history. It surveys the history of church confession, the spread of psychoanalysis in the nineteenth century, the emergence of an “interview society” after World War II, and the late twentieth-century phenomenon of a mass culture of confession.

Following Michel Foucault, this article argues that one-on-one interviews that ask about people’s lives are a technology of the self that constitute the “modern subject.” Personal interviews, rather than finding out about a “true” inner self or authentic experience, teach both interviewers and interviewees the “right” way to be. This interpretation of the interview calls into question the assumption that the oral history interview is a neutral research tool that can be employed for finding out about the past, empowering people, and sharing authority.

Oral History Review Editorial Board Member Erin Jessee spoke with Alexander Freund over his novel approach to the oral history interview. ‘Storytelling’ in oral history: an exchange is a small excerpt from their conversation, with more to come soon.