Recalling the unspeakable: interviewers facing silence 
Elisabeth Anstett (CNRS)
Stranmillis Conference Hall
Start time:
16 April, 2010 at 14:30 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

When dealing with mass violence, ethnographers need to hold simultaneously the witness's difficulty to speak, and various prolific academic discourses. Between over-interpretation and end of speech, what value or meaning do anthropologists then confer to silence?

Long Abstract

Silence has always represented a breaking point in interview, revealing its limits or its end. Still, anthropological works carried out on contemporary mass violence - such as wars, genocides, massacres, concentration camps-, have to deal with various forms of "spoken" and "unspoken" silences: hesitations, metaphors, lapsus linguae, pauses, disruptions or tears. These silences offer to the anthropologist a unique access to an intimate understanding and knowledge of violence, the one of victims, bystanders or perpetrators.

Simultaneously, interviewer bear in mind another kind of knowledge on mass violence, the scholar one, produced through an abundant academic discourse by historians, lawyers or psychiatrists for example.

Together, silences of the interviewee, questions of the anthropologists (even if untold) and academic discourses form a kind of heuristic 'dynamic trio' trapped between the risk of not telling (stay silent), and the one of telling too much (over interpret).

Aiming to explore practical, methodological and theoretical uses of silence in anthropology of mass violence, this panel intends to show potentialities and dynamics of works carried out through interview on violent fields.

Accepted papers:


Marie Avellino (University of Malta)

Paper short abstract:

Interviewing war veterans on holiday is rewarding as many feel proud to talk about their war time experiences, some just gloss over the event and refuse to talk about it. One strategy has been to ask the informants to write about it.

Paper long abstract:

Interviewing war veterans who had served in Malta during the war and which now return as tourists, can evoke memories, which for some are impossible to speak about. Informants can become violent or turn to tears when they visit nostalgic sites. They actively choose to visit these places, which could be interpreted as wanting to achieve closure. In some cases the researcher has resolved this by asking informants to write down their memories of the past as well as their feelings about the present. Some refuse to do so, whilst in a few cases it is the partner or friend who contributes the data.

How is the researcher going to act in such circumstances and what value do these silences or outbursts contribute to the research?


Sandra Fahy (EHESS)

Paper long abstract:

This paper considers not only what is unspeakable at the time of interview, but also what was unspeakable at the time of the event. Mass violence censors, obfuscates and makes ambiguous while simultaneously destroying lives. Thus several levels of silencing occur on a national, collective and individual level long before the stage where the interviewer faces the silence of the survivor. The silence of the survivor can tell us a great deal about those former stages of silencing, and thus individuate the mass violence itself. By using testimonies collected from survivors of the North Korean 1990s famine, this paper discusses degrees of silencing in situ, the role of the interviewer and her techniques, as well as existing scholarship on mass violence in socialist states. The paper argues that the speech patterns of survivors, their varied silences, provide a picture of the socio-political frameworks which sustained and perpetuated the violence of the state.


Elisabeth Anstett (CNRS)

Paper short abstract:

In this paper I will focus on the denial procedures occurring in Gulag's prisoners and Gulags neighbor’s testimonies. I will argue that these various forms of denial are not a dead end, but on the opposite side an heuristic starting point. Denial procedures oblige us to examine the way language might (technically as well as semantically)have been shaped by ideology.

Paper long abstract:

In order to question the legacy of mass violence in Post-soviet Russia, I have chosen to pay a specific attention to Gulag's memory. My research is therefore based on interviews of both former prisoners and neighbors of the Vologolag (a network of concentration camps dedicated to the building of dams on the Volga River, in activity from 1936 to 1957).

These interviews show that the recall of Gulag's collective experiment deals not only with the trauma raised by material and psychological conditions in which imprisonment and forced labor were experienced or witnessed, but also with a long time and large scale use of secrecy in soviet and post-soviet time. Social and political uses of secrecy has indeed produced a strong culture of denial, revealing that collective memory of the soviet period is still build up through silence, oblivion or guilt.

In this paper I will focus more specifically on the denial procedures occurring in prisoners and neighbor's testimonies. I will argue that these various forms of denial (silences, disruptions or bypasses) are not a dead end for interviewew, but on the opposite side an heuristic starting point. Recognizing denial as an object in itself, indeed allows us to impulse the dialectic of knowledge through examination of cultural, political and ideological uses of language, uunderline once-again the heuristic value of the tool-interview.