At the end of the two-day Accounts of the Conflict International Conference, held in Belfast on 17-18 November 2014, Sumona Das Gupta offered some closing remarks about the conference themes and how they had been addressed. Her succinct and insightful words are reproduced here to provide an overview of the conference.
It is a great pleasure to be able to speak at the closing session of the international conference on Accounts of the Conflict organized by INCORE. I have been personally associated with INCORE for a number of years now first in my capacity as part of the research steering group of a project that had looked at psychosocial perspectives on peacebuilding and on an ongoing basis as member of the current international advisory group. The reason I mention this is because it has provided me with an opportunity to engage with INCORE’s work both online and otherwise. I never fail to be impressed both by the range of things they do and the depth they bring to their work on peace and conflict. I think the depth of their work was abundantly in evidence over the last two days as we got a sense of this magnificent digital archive and began to comprehend both the magnitude of the work and the creative impulses and complex processes that have gone into its making.
As Brandon Hamber and Gillian Robinson explained yesterday, Accounts of the Conflict builds on the CAIN legacy, which as we were told, is the largest repository of digital information on the Northern Ireland conflict. The Accounts of the Conflict project, consisting of personal accounts of individuals who have been affected by the Northern Ireland conflict in various ways, has clearly involved a monumental effort of first collecting, and then digitally archiving these stories for peacebuilding.
This brings me to the keywords in the title of this conference – storytelling, digital archiving and peacebuilding and to use the digital vocabulary, how do we toggle through this? The term storytelling, as Grainne Kelly explained, is used here interchangeably with other terms that describe this type of work namely oral history, narrative or testimony work. It is essentially used to describe what she called “the process which allows reflection, expression, listening and possible collection of personal, communal and institutional stories related to the conflict in and about Northern Ireland.” The key to linking this storytelling and story listening function to peacebuilding lies in the diversity of experiences of the Northern Ireland conflict that is sought to be captured in this digital archive. To me here lies the crux of the matter. It is only when diverse and sometime conflicting narratives are given due space that there is a gradual realization that one truth does not cancel out another – that one reality does not negate another, that HIS story does not have to overshadow HER story. There is space for both and for multiple narratives and it is only when these stories of conflict sometimes coalesce and sometimes collide that new dialogic spaces emerge and new meanings are co created. Yesterday a lot of the conversations referred to co creation and co ownership of the stories and how empowering that can be. Perhaps we have to allow for the dialectics of competing stories to yield space to a dialogue.
To my mind one of the key strengths of the Accounts of the Conflict project is that it is premised on the idea that through remembering and retelling, different groups can form new bonds and solidarities. Norman Duncan reminded us this morning that there is a counter argument to the one that says that there is no point in rehashing the past – and that is that it is important to acknowledge the past to better manage the present and to enable what he called that transformative reconnection. Or to put it another way (following Damien Gorman who was cited yesterday) some stories are hard to listen to and some hard to tell but it is only when we gather this across the range that we weave a better future story.
And the use of the word “weave” triggers another thought – and I must flag the powerful visuals of the exhibition on the textiles of the conflict. It was truly both a beautiful and sobering experience to look closely at these weaves that tell us of loss and grief, occupation and resistance, hope and despair, victims and survivors. I think it was a great idea to showcase this because it gave added power to the central trope that structure narrative work – the idea that ‘memory utilizing’ stories from the community can indeed provide a space for healing.
The other key term of the conference is of course “digital” and yesterday we heard from Doug Boyd about the challenges of creating what he called a different form of historical record. He also talked about the importance of an oral history metadata synchronizer and the challenge of involving communities for indexing work rather than invest in the time consuming and expensive process of creating transcripts, which are also likely to be flawed.
But the matter does not end with just creating digital archives. There is also the concomitant question of the digital access strategy, which then becomes a larger philosophical question rather just a technical one.
And this takes us right to one of the central themes of the conference – the ethical considerations in collecting stories, in archiving them and finally disseminating them. This is particularly salient when it comes to personal accounts of the conflict in the digital age because we are also documenting real time conflict. The story-tellers are often still alive and living in their communities and how their story will be used can raise some thorny ethical issues. Brandon Hamber pointed to the uniqueness of the conflict context that challenges us to think how we can collect and archive these stories and this context is set by the recent past but also by historical memories in the continuum of time, as Vesna Teršelič also pointed out.
Yesterday’s parallel discussion saw us look at some of the inclusions and exclusions from official histories and national archives, and our discussions centred around the gendered silences and often the absence or near absence of women’s voices in accounts of the conflicts not just in Northern Ireland, but in other conflict theatres across the world such as Palestine and Kashmir. If women’s stories find a space they are often not scripted by her but told through patriarchal constructs – in other words we may hear ABOUT her but often not FROM her. Peter Heathwood shared his personal story, speaking for those injured in the Troubles and in that context he talked about the importance of educating the future generations on the impact of violence on families and communities so that it does not happen again. We also discussed how political leaders, community members and family can control the narrative and that can also result in certain forms of exclusion be it of working classes or women. This is part of the challenges of making films on the conflict though I have to say the films we saw yesterday negotiated this terrain very skillfully.
There has been some disquiet in some quarters about whether the story-tellers are telling the truth. Vesna Teršelič reminded us that narrative truth is different from forensic truth and what is important that stories should be available and the people must sift through this and make sense of it. ‘Trust people’ was Catriona Crowe’s message this afternoon. There are furious debates going on about the biases about interviewers as well but less attention is paid on the biases of historians who write official histories. At the end of the day all history writing is a political act, and as Adrian Grant indicated this afternoon, the political climate and social context determine what people say, how archiving is done and what he called the appetite for public release at a particular point in time.
As Terry Cook, the Canadian archivist notes, archivists decide what is to be visible, who is to be visible, what is to be remembered and who has a voice. Archivists were traditionally supposed to be in the preservation business not the memory business- they are supposed to act as a bridge between the creators and users of records – they are supposed to be handmaidens of history. No longer so. They are now seen as active agents in creating social memory.
It required the wisdom from South Africa and the depth of its post apartheid reflexivity to articulate in no uncertain terms the idea that the notion of archival ethics cannot be divorced from justice. It was the Johannesburg Colloquium of 2005 that put forth the notion that we have to go beyond looking at archives through the normative assumptions circumscribed by power and status quo and I understand this was also discussed at one of the parallel sessions yesterday. This was a radical articulation. Verne Harris is with us and he has in his writings pointed out if archivists construct codes of conduct that define their core principles as a defence against the dynamics of power and authority they become useless. Instead Harris suggests that they should detail praxis and directly ask: what should our politics be? As someone coming from South Asia where I am forced to think about structural conflict and a peacetime war, I think this articulation has a very powerful resonance for me.
At the parallel session on navigating the legal and ethical parameters of the archiving Michelle Maloney had pointed to the relationship between power and ethics and suggested that levels of empowerment are opened up if interviewees are included as it creates a sense of co ownership. There was much discussion on the Boston College case and the question was raised as to whether institutions can be trusted to protect “deposits” and whether institutions have the power to refuse to release data. It was suggested that a co ownership of data is essential.
There was much more but I think I will stop my reflections on the proceedings here. Before I wind up may I take the opportunity to once again thank Brandon, Gillian, Grainne and the whole team at INCORE for organizing two days of electrifying discussions and say a special thank you for inviting me to be a part of it. I am a social scientist by training and not an archivist or an oral historian or a psychologist so this has been a tremendous learning event for me personally.
Since my primary research has been on Jammu and Kashmir I would like to end with my one of my favorite poets who was born in Delhi, grew up in Kashmir and passed on in the United States. I refer to Aga Shahid Ali and I am going to end with some excerpts from his ‘Farewell’ because it captures so much of what we have discussed over these two days on narratives, trauma, memory, and what conflict can do to relations between communities. The poem is set in Kashmir but the issues it raises also transcends its specific geopolitical location…
“At a certain point I lost track of you,
They make a desolation and call it peace,
When you left even the stones were buried,
The defenceless would have no weapons.
My memory is again in the way of your history,
Army convoys like desert caravans,
In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved all…
Winter its crushed fennel
We cannot ask them are you done with the world?
In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other’s reflections,
Have you soaked saffron to pour on them when they are found like this centuries later in this country ,I have stitched to your shadow?
At a certain point I lost track of you,
You needed me , you needed to perfect me.
In your absence you polished me into the enemy,
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost, your perfect enemy,
Your memory gets in the way of my memory
I am everything you lost, you can’t forgive me,
My memory keeps getting, in the way of your history
There is nothing to forgive, you can’t forgive me, I hid my pain even from myself, I revealed my pain only to myself,
There is everything to forgive, you can’t forgive me.”