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Reviewed by:
  • Memory Studies
  • Kimberly A. Redding
“Challenging Dominant Discourses of the Past: 1968 and the Value of Oral History.” Memory StudiesVol. 6, No. 1(January 2013). London: Sage Publications.

Since its inception in 2008, the British journal Memory Studieshas offered an intentionally interdisciplinary forum for wide-ranging discussions of how “social, [End Page 384]cultural, cognitive, political and technological shifts” shape individual and collective memory (Editors, Memory Studies, online at, accessed on June 20, 2014). The January 2013 issue (Vol. 6, No. 1) does this through a collection of papers presented in 2011 at a one-day conference at the University of Warwick; the conference and this issue of Memory Studiesshare the same title: “Challenging Dominant Discourses of the Past: 1968 and the Value of Oral History.” An editorial introduction and a summative review of the conference bookend six scholarly papers on memories of 1960s protest movements in Italy, France, Britain, and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Taken as a whole, the essays demonstrate how various theoretical approaches can spark nuanced reinterpretations of individual and collective narratives. At the same time, however, these theories also heighten sensitivity to the many factors—social, cultural, and psychological—that make oral history at once fascinating and problematic.

Topical diversity is one strength of the volume. Although each article could stand alone—or within a more general national paradigm—together they demonstrate the overlapping nature of particular geocultural contexts and historiographies. For example, Bruno Bonomo’s article summarizes broad historiographical trends in work on the 1968 phenomenon in Italy, rightly rooted in the internationally known work of Luisa Passerini and Alessandro Portelli. Joseph Maslen’s piece deepens this analysis, describing how these trends integrate postmodern notions of selfhood, subjectivity, and psychoanalysis. Subsequent articles provide particular examples of how close readings of oral history interviews can challenge reductionist interpretations, engage evolving self-perceptions, and identify apparent contradictions within and between narratives.

A second strength of this collection is the consistency with which the scholars provide both historical and historiographical context. While assuming that the reader has a fundamental understanding of 1968 as an international cultural phenomenon, each author also clearly explains the particular social and political contexts that shape his or her topics. This allows readers to see the ways in which local, regional, and national initiatives become— or become perceived as—an international movement. Anna Von der Glotz does this particularly well in her study of East German activists. Using six oral history interviews, she demonstrates that political repression could both push some activists towards radicalism and lure others into closer cooperation with the state. Since 1989, she suggests, activists’ memories of these divergent experiences have found common ground in subsequent assertions linking 1960s-era protests with the peaceful revolutions of 1989. Robert Gildea also highlights how activists contextualize their own memories of the 1968 era within a longer timeframe and a dominant cultural framework that simultaneously embraces countercultural ideals (freedom, individualism) and rejects countercultural behaviors. [End Page 385]

Sofia Serenelli’s integration of multiple contexts and contradictory motives is particularly thought-provoking. Her study of a small countercultural community in central Italy moves smoothly among multiple threads of analysis, juxtaposing experiences of the group’s core and “marginal” members with its overall position on the rural margins of what is generally considered an urban movement. Similarly, she uses interviewees’ silences to engage questions about collective values within a subculture that sees itself as challenging collective norms.

Overall, and perhaps because they were written for a working conference, the essays suggest more questions than they answer. Celia Hughes, for example, speculates at length about how her own psychological state informs her research, pondering, for example, the extent to which interviewees mirror back her own reactions—whether conscious or subconscious—to physical space, gender, and an unsettled past. These are certainly compelling issues to anyone trying to make sense of another’s past, but it is unclear how Hughes’s awareness of them informs, or might inform, scholarly interpretation of the oral history interviews she facilitated. If, as Hughes implies, historians can never effectively corral their own psychological subjectivities, might the newer field of memory studies...