Beyond Testimony and Trauma: Oral History in the Aftermath of Mass Violence

Oral History in the Aftermath of Mass Violence
March 22-25, 2012, Montréal, Québec, Canada

“We have a good deal to learn – as much about ourselves as about survivors – by reflecting on the different ways survivors’ accounts have been gathered, utilized, and interpreted." Henry Greenspan, On Listening to Holocaust Survivors (2nd Edition), ix.

It is sometimes said that we live in an “age of testimony”. Eyewitness accounts from survivors of war, genocide and other human rights violations fill our airwaves and our bookshelves. Moving passages from survivors’ regularly punctuate the public reports of social justice organizations. Large testimony projects have recorded tens of thousands of individuals. Thousands more have told their horrific stories to truth and reconciliation commissions and courtrooms around the world.

Survivor testimony has developed a conventional form and rhetoric.For the most part, survivors of mass violence are understood as either eyewitnesses to history or as people traumatized by it. Testimony and trauma are thus firmly embedded in legal and medical discourses. Survivor testimony has become familiar; indeed, ubiquitous

There is a political logic in interviewing large numbers of survivors. Past and present injustice demands recognition and demonstration of its scope. But who is listening to the hundreds of thousands of hours of testimony being recorded? Do large testimony projects inadvertently diminish the long-term impact of the violence as it ripples through the lives of individuals, families and communities? Survivors become “survivors” only after the violence. What consequent directions do their lives take? When and how are their memories retold? How ought we to understand the complexity of survivors’ work as educators and activists? How should we understand those who refuse to speak, to witness, or to testify? How might life stories be ethically used in human rights advocacy and in the classroom?

The “Beyond Testimony and Trauma” conference invites participants to reflect on the many ways that oral historians, artists, new media practitioners, educators, and survivors themselves engage with these life stories. It also seeks to explore collaborative projects in which survivors become partners and not simply historical sources or objects of study. What are the rightful claims of a more holistic and/or collaborative approach to survivors’ retelling? What are the political and ethical implications of different ways of engaging survivors’ accounts?

The conference is organized by Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (, the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies ( ) and the Montreal Life Stories Project (, a 7-year community-university research alliance that has explored the life of Montrealers displaced by war, genocide and other human rights violations. This international conference is timed to coincide with a month long series of public screenings, performances, workshops and round-tables that represent the culmination of our project. Each evening of the conference will see a major speaker or oral history performance that will be open to the general public. We hope that you will consider joining us in Montreal this coming March.

Deadline for Proposals (paper, performance, installation, round-table, etc): October 15. Submit your one page proposal and curriculum vitae to Professor Steven High at

See here for program details.

See here for information on participants.

See here for all practical information on conference.