Keynote Speaker: Sean Field

Keynote Speech: Dissonant voices: Producing sites of memory and silence after violence

Keynote lectures should stimulate robust discussion. With this in mind, this lecture involves the provocative reflections of an activist scholar, with Irish ancestry, from South Africa. In the aftermath of mass violence, nation-states usually aim to construct memorials that will reduce the risk of violence through re-imagining a new nation. This strategy has tended to represent points of commonality to promote national unity and exemplary cases of victimhood. But defining who are the victims, perpetrators and the nation has usually ignited “memory wars” over commemorative practices across the globe.

This lecture describes examples of sites of memory after mass violence, and argues that oral historians have a key role to play in forging dialogues through forms of difference and to represent “dissonant voices”. I critique the redemptive search for closure and reconciliation after violence, and question curatorial strategies based on idealistic promises of full disclosure and giving voice to the voiceless. I rather argue that oral historians and curators together can create curatorial strategies that ethically engage with how audiences are living with the irreconcilable legacies of violence. As time passes, these audiences are dominated by second and third generations who face and/or avoid the responsibility to remember the memories of others who directly experienced past violence. “Dissonant voices”, as an argument, does not offer didactic solutions but is a conceptual attempt to frame the contests, the inherent silences and incompleteness of curating commemorations in ways that will enable diverse audiences to regenerate their own solutions to troubling legacies.

Short Biography:

I am currently an associate-professor in the Historical Studies Department at the University of Cape Town and was director of the Centre for Popular Memory from 2001 to 2012. I also served as the Vice-President of the International Oral History Association from 2008 to 2010.

My publications include a monograph: Oral History, Community and Displacement: Imagining Memories in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and selected recent articles: “Disappointed Remains: Trauma, Testimony and Reconciliation in Post-Apartheid South Africa”, in Donald Ritchie (ed.) the Oxford Handbook of Oral History (Oxford University Press, 2011); “Windermere People: Sensing Past Places through Images and Words”, in Darren Newbury (ed.) People Apart: 1950s Cape Town Revisited (Black Dog Publishers, 2013); and “Loose Bits of Shrapnel: War Stories, Photographs and the peculiarities of Post-memory”, The Oral History Review (2014), Volume 41. No 1.