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In the Age of Testimony:

The Stolen Generations Narrative,


Distance, and Public History
Bain Attwood

In the last few decades the nature of history making, especially that regarding the contemporary era, has been transformed, changing not
only the pasts that are being related but the way in which many people relate to
those pasts. The shift in the nature of historical knowledge and historical sensibility owes much to both popular and academic forms of history; indeed, it is
largely the outcome of a convergence of the interests and approaches of elite history and culture with those of popular history and culture. Generally speaking,
history making has been democratized, but more particularly there has been an
unprecedented rise in the significance attributed to experience and thus to testimony. People who have experienced an event and bear witness to it have come
to be regarded as the most authentic bearers of truth about the past, indeed as
the embodiment of history, and their accounts are increasingly received by many
as a substitute for the history of the professional historian who seeks to record
and explain a past event. This phenomenon owes much to the fact that we live
in a global world in which an ideal of human rights has triumphed, a politics of
recognition calling for acknowledgment of the collective experience and identity
of minority groups has flourished, new institutions and technologies providing a
sense of immediacy have expanded, and a culture of intimacy has become dominant in public institutions, not least in the media. Together, these changes have
placed the personal at the center of public culture and put emotion on display; the
I am indebted to Dipesh Chakrabarty, Miranda Johnson, and Mark Salber Phillips for their comments on a draft of this article.
Public Culture 20:1

doi

10.1215/08992363-2007-017

Copyright 2008 by Duke University Press

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individual and affect wield more power in representing the past than the intellectual and analysis.1
The age of testimony reflects major changes in the discipline of history itself
but also presents a fundamental challenge to its authority and to the creation of
historical knowledge in the sense that Dipesh Chakrabarty discusses here. In
large part this is because of the way it renders the temporal relationships at play
in historical representation. As Michel de Certeau once stated, Historiography
[in modernity] . . . is based on a clean break between the past and the present. . . .
Historiography conceives the relation [between past and present] as one of succession (one after the other), correlation (greater or less proximities), cause and
effect (one follows the other), and disjunction (either one or the other, but not both
at the same time).2 Gabrielle Spiegel has described this as the disciplines founding gesture: to keep the past in the past, to draw the line, as it were, that is constitutive of the modern enterprise of historiography.3 This clean break between past
and present has been fundamental to the way historians have done their work and
to the truth claims we have made for the historical knowledge we produce.
However, it might be more useful to express the temporal relationship at the
heart of modern historiography in another way. It can be argued that distantiationthe process of putting the past at a distance from the presenthas been
the hallmark of historical work in modernity and so is central to what has been
called historicism. Temporal distance is, of course, inevitable in historical work,
since we relate the past after the event, yet it is also a construction on the part of
both the producer and consumer of history. (This has several dimensions, such as
the formal, the affective, the ideological, and the cognitive.) Consequently, there
are, in Mark Salber Phillipss words, a series of distances (or even distanceeffects) that modify and reconstruct the temporality of historical accounts, thereby
shaping every part of our engagement with the past.4 Phillips has argued that
schools of historical work have long been marked by particular forms of engagement with the past and that these can be understood in terms of their various
1. Jay Winter, The Memory Boom in Contemporary Historical Studies, Raritan 21 (2001): 56,
66; Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, trans. Jared Stark (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University
Press, 2006), xiii, xv, 93, 97, 116, 119, 130, 142; Annette Wieviorka, The Witness in History, trans.
Jared Stark, Poetics Today 27 (2006): 392.
2. Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Brian Massumi (Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1986), 4.
3. Gabrielle M. Spiegel, Memory and History: Liturgical Time and Historical Time, History
and Theory 41 (2002): 149.
4. Mark Salber Phillips, Distance and Historical Representation, History Workshop Journal
57 (2004): 124, 126, 127.
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commitments to particular stances in relation to distance (by which he means


the entire continuum from proximity to detachment) and that in the history of
historiography significant change has been associated with reconfigurations of
distance. He suggests that the cognitive might be the most significant dimension of the various dimensions of distance and that the reworking of this realm
can be expected to have larger, more disruptive consequences than shifts in the
others.5
Since the rise of history as a scientific discipline in the nineteenth century, its
work has owed much to an attempt to convey a sense that what happened in the
past was particular (or peculiar) to its time and was the result of circumstances
other than those of today. A sense of difference between past and present has been
a consequence, too, of historys conception of human time as linear (rather than,
say, cyclical), and its understanding of history as a story of progress through time
in which the present breaks continuously with the past. The focus on the origins
of historical events, on causes and effects, has similarly increased the sense of distance been a past and a present. Most important, perhaps, any sense of proximity
between present and past has been diminished by the disciplines founding ideal
of objectivity, with its assumptions that there was a sharp separation between
knower (the historian) and known (the past), that historical facts existed before
and apart from historical interpretation, and that truth was unitary rather than a
matter of perspective.6
Several reasons can be adduced for the rise of historical distantiation, but probably none played a more vital role than writing or, rather, the ideological claims
that historians came to make about the nature of writing: that the written word
made the past available as an object; that the written word helped create a palpable sense of the past; that the written word revealed historians knowledge of
the past to be true, and that the written word was the best means of conveying that
knowledge. (In this process, any relationship that written modes of communication might have had to oral ones has tended to be erased, as Miranda Johnson
discusses in her article in this issue.) More generally, the historians authority and
power rested on the triumph of literacy in the institutions that dominated public
life in the West in the nineteenth century and through much of the twentieth.
However, during the last fifty or more years, this authority has declined in public
culture as the oral and the visual have acquired a new or, more strictly speak5. Phillips, Distance and Historical Representation, 127.
6. See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
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ing, renewed influence, such that historical knowledge and historical sensibility increasingly bear some resemblance to those of premodern times.7 The rise
and reconfiguration of these old ways of remembering has been facilitated by
changes in many realms, not least the technological, which has seen the spread
of new forms of recording and transmitting the spoken and the pictorial and new
institutions such as television. This has had a profound impact on distance in
historical work.
The ways in which the production and consumption of history have changed
in recent decades are exemplified by the particular example of history making I
shall consider here: the stolen generations narrative. This claimed that an enormously high percentage of Aboriginal children, perhaps as many as one in three,
had been separated from their families during the twentieth century; that separations had been forced; and that the principal purpose of the policy of removal
was to prevent the reproduction of Aboriginal people, so it amounted to a form
of genocide. This account, I argue, was less the outcome of the work of professional history, though it did play a role, and more the result of various forms of
historical work we can call public history. For the most part, the stolen generations narrative arose as a consequence of being presented in, or projected onto,
a range of institutions that were not historiographical in nature but memorial,
literary, filmic, therapeutic, and quasilegal and that recognized and authorized
the narrative according to criteria that departed from those customarily used in
professional history. This occurred because these institutions constituted narrative contexts with stances that emphasized historical proximity rather than historical distance; and this was primarily so because of the dominant role assigned
to testimony, not only formally, ideologically, and affectively, but also, and most
important, cognitively.8 This article seeks to demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of this way of relating the past and relating to the past, then argues for
the need for an approach that seeks to integrate the stances of historical proximity
and historical distance.
The emergence of the stolen generations narrative can be attributed in large
part to the democratization of history. This was initially the product of radical
political movements in the 1960s and 1970s concerned with matters of class, race,
gender, and sexuality. In what came to be called history from below, professional
7. Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 78.
8. Testimony has many forms, of course. The one I am discussing here is that of oral history and
its variants, such as autobiography, rather than that of the courtroom. Moreover, the influence of any
testimony depends enormously on the context in which it is performed.
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historians sought to recover the pasts of peoples hidden from history, such as
the poor, migrants, slaves and indigenous peoples, gay men, and lesbian women.
In doing so, they developed a strong interest in experience, and in pursuing
experience they placed increased emphasis on investigating feeling or emotion.
This served to expand historys horizons: historians shifted their focus from what
had been regarded as the traditional historical task of providing a record of the
events of the past and an explanation of these events to describing what it felt like
to be there. In the work of many historians, there was a desire to reach beyond the
task of narrating and analyzing the past to one of more or less resurrecting it. The
shift from things that happened to things experienced focused attention on
the subjective states of mind and heart, and it encouraged, indeed required, a new
or, rather, renewed role for empathy or compassion in historical research. Taking
feelings seriouslyothers as well as ones ownmeant that affect became one
of the grounds for an interest in history. Paying attention to emotions in history
involved rejecting the objectifying effects of the positivist or empiricist methods
of the social sciences and turning to a hermeneutic approach in which the role of
both historians and historical subjects as interpreters became crucial.9
More particularly, the basis for the stolen generations narrative was developed
in the context of what came to be called oral history. The perspectives of those
hidden from history, professional historians claimed, had seldom been recorded
in written sources, so it was necessary to interview these people in order to reconstruct the past properly. At the same time, in keeping with the democratizing
impulse of history from below, oral historians actually incited the work of
memory by encouraging peoples hidden from history to remember their pasts
by participating in their recording projects. The practice of oral history contributed to the shift in the emphasis of professional history from anonymous structures to personal agency and from the national and the general to the local and
the particular, but most important, it promised a shift in the location of historical
power and authority from the professional historian, the elite, and the oppressors
to the oral interviewee or witness, the common people and the oppressed, who
were called the voice of the past (rather than the voice of history); in other
words, it had the potential to provide multiple perspectives of the past and was
thereby part of a struggle to make the world more democratic and multicultural.
In the beginning, though, the potential of oral historys democratizing impulse to
constitute a radical challenge to the discipline of history or to historical knowl9. Mark Salber Phillips, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of Sentimental History for Life,
History Workshop Journal (forthcoming): 2, 10, 11, 12.
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edge was barely apparent, in large part because the champions of oral history
were most intent on asserting that it could provide a truer account of the past (by
supplementing and correcting the written record).10 This was the historiographical context for the emergence of the stolen generations narrative. Two graduate
students, Peter Read and Heather Goodall, researching the history of Aboriginal
communities in one Australian state (New South Wales) in the twentieth century,
undertook considerable archival research, but it was oral history or at least the
conjunction of their work with both written and oral sources that drew their attention to the separation of Aboriginal children from their kin.11 (Oral history work
such as theirs resembled the fieldwork conducted by anthropologists, and this
reflected the increasingly interdisciplinary approach adopted by historians.)
In time it became apparent that oral history had the potential to change the
nature of historical practice and hence the nature of historical knowledge. As
Dipesh Chakrabarty has observed, oral history proved to be the Trojan horse
through which the soldiers of Memoryland marched into historiography. With
the focus on what has been called memory, it became evident that oral history on the one hand and history (or historicism) on the other are not simply
complementary to one another but actually have very different relationships to the
past.12 Oral history challenged historical distantiation in several respects. If history or historicism demanded a disconnecting of present and past, oral history has
demanded a connecting of past and present; then and now become entangled
with one another. The conjoining of past and present has led, more often than
not, to a greater emphasis on continuities and similarities across time rather than
discontinuities and difference, and more focus has been directed toward the aftermath of a historical occurrence rather than its cause. Most important, oral history has challenged historys relationship to distance, because its very practice
brings the historian into closer proximity with the past.13 This has made it much
harder for the professional historian to maintain the detachment the discipline has

10. Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1978), 66.
11. See Bain Attwood, Learning About the Truth: The Stolen Generations Narrative, in Telling Stories: Indigenous History and Memory in Australia and New Zealand, ed. Bain Attwood and
Fiona Magowan (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2001), 244, 245n23.
12. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Reconciliation and Its Historiography: Some Preliminary Thoughts,
UTS Review 7 (2001): 10.
13. Paula Hamilton, Sale of the Century? Memory and Historical Consciousness in Australia,
in Contested Pasts: The Politics of Memory, ed. Katharine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone (London: Routledge, 2003), 145.
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regarded as necessary for critical historical practice, and it has placed considerable pressure on historical objectivity, not only as a goal historians have tried to
attain, but also as an ideal to which they have sought to aspire. This has been
especially evident where professional historians have sought to play a practical
role in reference to their living historical subjects. This was the case with the
stolen generations narrative: Read, the historian primarily responsible for producing it, was disinclined to separate his role as a professional historian from the
roles he assumed as social worker, psychological counselor, and political advocate. The different temporal stances of oral history and history (or historicism)
became most pronounced, however, when it was realized that oral history was
peculiarly well suited to exploring the subjective realm, and professional historians increasingly paid more attention to historical experience rather than historical
events.
The changes that followed the shift in the means of historical production or/
and consumption from the written to the oral have been particularly obvious
where the subject matter of the past has been deemed to be traumatic. Trauma, it
has been argued, resists historicisms organization of time into a chronologically
linear schema of before-and-after or of the past and later the present, because
it intrudes into the present and does so repeatedly and repetitively. Dominick
LaCapra has argued: The event in historical trauma is punctual and datable. It
is situated in the past. The experience [however] is not punctual and . . . relates to
a past that has not passed away. . . . In traumatic memory the past is not simply
history as over and done with. It lives on experientially and haunts and possesses
the self or the community (in the case of shared traumatic events).14 The rise
of traumatic history, it has been suggested, has had another consequence for
historicism. The very nature of trauma means that such an event or experience
cannot be registered properly at the time it occurs but only later, often much later;
thus, retrospective rather than contemporary sources are often the truest archive
of the past.
The emphasis on oppression and suffering associated with the emergence of
history from below in general, and with traumatic history in particular, has confounded historicisms temporal stances in other respects, of course. First, recalling
the destruction wrought by racism, colonization, slavery, patriarchy, war, and the
like has led to a loss of faith in modernitys story of progress. Second, representing such pasts has brought into question historicisms emphasis on change, since
14. Dominick LaCapra, History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 2004), 5556.
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the point of a good deal of this historical work has been to assert the continuity
of subaltern groups (we have survived or we have always been here). Third,
remembering such pasts in a mode we might call memorial history, especially
where it occurs in commemorative contexts in which mourning takes place, challenges historical distantiation by seeking to re-member or revivify the past and
to fuse the people of the past and the people of the present into a single collective
body.15
If the foundations of the stolen generations narrative lay in the contexts I have
been describing, its actual creation took place in still other institutional locations.
It was produced initially by Link-Up, an agency founded in the early 1980s by
Peter Read and Coral Edwards (who had been separated from her kin as a child)
in order to reunite the members of Aboriginal families who had been separated by
the practice of child removal (though its focus was mostly on the children rather
than their parents). Its work was inevitably historical in nature but, rather than
accept historicisms clean break or rupture between present and past, Link-Up
sought to reconnect a past to the present or the present to a past in order to help
the people who sought its assistance. Yet its historical work was ahistoricist in a
more thoroughgoing way than this: by focusing on the traumatic and the therapeutic, it figured time as cyclical rather than lineal, thus presenting the prospect
of a return of the past and the redemption of that past. The narrative it constructed
was, of course, a form of identity or identification history: it sought to provide an
account of the past as the basis for an Aboriginal identity for those who had been
separated from their Aboriginal kin, and it called for recognition of this identity.
In constructing a sense of self informed more by the present than by any past, it
resembled other forms of identity history (such as national history), but it was
unusual (though not exceptional) in the sense that the roots of the identity that
were proclaimed lay, paradoxically, in the very past these people had arguably
lost.16
As a recognizing authority, Link-Up both called for and called up a particular
kind of narratorthe children who had been removedand a particular kind
of narrativeoral history or testimony. At the same time, Link-Up influenced
15. Spiegel, Memory and History, 152.
16. This is an example of what LaCapra has called a founding trauma (History in Transit, 57).
This is probably the reason the stolen generations narrative became central to the historical consciousness of so many Aboriginal people. This in turn made it analogous to the victim narrative of
white national history, which provoked an angry attack on it by vulnerable white Australians (see
Ann Curthoys, Whose Home? Expulsion, Exodus and Exile in White Australian Historical Mythology, Journal of Australian Studies 61 [1999]: 118).
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those who told their stories, especially those who had the opportunity to tell
them in settler Australian domains. As narrators tell their stories to an institution, the form and content of their accounts tend to be shaped by their knowledge
of what their audience expects to hear, but this is especially so in a narrative
context such as this. As one historian has observed, A gradual negotiation and
shaping of themes takes place as narratives succeed and influence one another.
As these themes emerge and repeat themselves, in part through the recognition
effect [i.e., what happens when a listener recognizes his or her experience in the
story of another narrator], the narratives become mutually validating and selfconfirming.17
The making of the stolen generations narrative was furthered by Reads work
in the context of applied history, an institution in which a professional historian
seeks to meet a brief provided by a public agency primarily concerned with matters of contemporary rather than historical interest. In 1980 or 1981 Read was
commissioned by a government body (the New South Wales Family and Childrens Service Agency) to prepare a report providing historical background to
the contemporary phenomenon of child separation, and this was later published
as a pamphlet by a government department (the New South Wales Ministry of
Aboriginal Affairs). This proved to be the crucible for the stolen generations.
Reads report was originally titled The Lost Generations, but his partner, Jay
Arthur, a lexicographer, rejected this as euphemistic and instead suggested The
Stolen Generations, a phrase that, importantly, is more metaphorical than referential in nature and prompts an empathetic or emotional response.18 It is apparent
that the nature of the recognizing authority hereapplied rather than academic
historywas responsible for this crucial act of naming and hence for the creation of the stolen generations. This is so because in this institutional context
the temporal fulcrum always at work in history is tipped more toward the present
and future than toward the past, and a premium is set upon historical judgment
rather than historical understanding. The term stolen generations soon took hold
as Reads eponymously titled pamphlet was widely circulated, and its influence

17. Patrick Hagopian, Oral Narratives: Secondary Revision and the Memory of the Vietnam
War, History Workshop Journal 32 (1991): 145.
18. Peter Read, A Rape of the Soul So Profound: The Return of the Stolen Generations (Sydney:
Allen and Unwin, 1999), 49, 219n1. Reads treatment of the separation of children in this report
differed from his academic work in several respects, not least of which was the manner in which he
framed the subject matter: the phrase stolen generations does not appear in his PhD dissertation,
submitted in 1983. For a discussion of this, see Attwood, Learning about the Truth, 247n31.
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expanded when Read and Edwards told the story of the separation of children to
a conference of a federal government body (the National Aboriginal Consultative
Council) in order to gain funding for Link-Ups work.19
At the same time that Read formulated the stolen generations, the story of the
separation of Aboriginal children was told in yet another narrative context, that
of three documentary films (Its a Long Road Back, 1981; Lousy Little Sixpence,
1983; and Link-Up Diary, 1985) and a television docudrama miniseries (Women
of the Sun, 1982) featuring the subject, in which Aboriginal people were the principals as they performed the roles of director, writer, narrator, character, actor,
and historical informant. These were made in the wake of the unprecedented success of two landmark television miniseries, Roots (1977) and Holocaust (1978),
which commanded enormous audiences in the United States and consequently
created a considerable demand for personal stories among filmmakers and filmwatchers worldwide.20
Film had a profound impact on the production and consumption of the stolen
generations narrative in other ways. The medium of film is, of course, primarily
visual and aural in nature, rather than literary, and in historical films spectacle and
metaphor are more important than factual data and logical argument. This serves
to create what Robert Rosenstone has called a different kind of work about the
past, history as symbol rather than as reality.21 Most filmic history, moreover,
tends to render the past proximate rather than distant as it seeks to make history
vivid and to make the viewer experience the past. Rosenstone points out:
Using image, music and sound effect along with the spoken (and the
shouted, whispered, hummed and cooed) word, the dramatic film aims
directly at emotions. It does not simply provide an image of the past, it
wants you to feel strongly about that imagespecifically, about the
characters involved in the historical situations that it depicts. Portraying
the world in the present tense, the dramatic feature plunges you into the
midst of history, attempting to destroy the distance between you and
the past and to obliterate . . . your ability to think about what you are
seeing.22

19. Read, Rape of the Soul, 7172.


20. Roots, Museum of Broadcast Communications, www.museum.tv/archives/etv/R/htmlR/
roots/roots.htm (accessed March 15, 2007); Wieviorka, Era of the Witness, 87, 98, 102.
21. Robert A. Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History (Harlow, England: Pearson Longman, 2006), 163, 166.
22. Rosenstone, History on Film, 16, 39, 74, 87, 118, 153, 159.

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This is also true, of course, for documentary film.23 In this case, Lousy Little
Sixpence had considerable impact as it was screened in cinemas and shown on
television.24
From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, what has been called ego history
played a major role in defining what constituted historical knowledge about the
separation of Aboriginal children from their kin. Much of the stolen generations
narrative was presented in the form of Aboriginal autobiographies, life stories,
autobiographical novels, and autobiographical songs.25 (This was encouraged by
the same democratizing impulse that informed the emergence of oral history.) In
large part these autobiographical narratives were verified and validated by print
media culture, a culture that comprised publishers, literary critics, and journalists and used criteria that laid more emphasis on the narratives rhetorical qualities than its referential ones.26 It was the formers articulation of emotion and
its appeal to a sense of compassion and moral judgment that made the narrative
a persuasive one among its readers, who were primarily settler Australians (by
whom I mean all non-Aboriginal Australians).
The growing production of the stolen generations narrative in autobiographi23. The argument made here in regard to film can also be made in regard to museum displays,
living history museums, and heritage sites.
24. See the film kit prepared by Ronin Films, Australian Film Institute Library, Melbourne. Both
Women of the Sun and Lousy Little Sixpence foregrounded in one way or another the testimony of
Margaret Tucker, an Aboriginal woman who had been separated from her family as a child in 1917,
and led to the reissuing of her autobiography, If Everyone Cared, which subsequently became one of
the best-known stolen generations stories.
25. See, for example, Sally Morgan, My Place (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987);
Glenys Ward, Wandering Girl (Broome: Magabala Books, 1987); Coral Edwards and Peter Read, The
Lost Children (Sydney: Doubleday, 1989); Archie Roach, Took the Children Away, Charcoal Lane
(1990); Barbara Cummings, Take This Child . . . From Kahlin Compound to the Retta Dixon Childrens
Home (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1990); Alice Nannup, When the Pelican Laughed (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1992); Stuart Rintoul, comp., The Wailing: A National Black Oral
History (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1993); Tiddas, Brown Skin Baby (song written by Bob Randall),
Sing about Life (1993); Rowena MacDonald, Between Two Worlds: The Commonwealth Government
and the Removal of Aboriginal Children of Part Descent in the Northern Territory (Alice Springs:
IAD Press, 1995).
26. At this time academic historians produced work describing government policies and practices
whereby children were removed from their families (Peter Read, A Hundred Years War: The Wiradjuri
People and the State [Sydney: Pergamon, 1988]; Anna Haebich, For Their Own Good: Aborigines and
Government in the Southwest of Western Australia, 19001940 [Fremantle: University of Western
Australia Press, 1988]; Andrew Markus, Governing Savages [Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1990]; Tony
Austin, I Can See the Old Home So Clearly: The Commonwealth and Half-Caste Youth in the Northern Territory, 19111939 [Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993]), but their studies had much less
impact publicly.
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cal forms took place as testimony moved to the forefront of contemporary popular culture, especially when it was associated with trauma. In effect, as Dipesh
Chakrabarty has pointed out, experience has become a form of commodity that
is marketed as a capitalist good.27 Most important, perhaps, as witnessing has
become the dominant mode for relating the past in the public realm, its role has
undergone a major change. Its putative function is no longer simply the acquisition of historical knowledge about pasts poorly known, which was one of the
original purposes of oral history; instead it has become much more that of the
transmission of pasts to future generations in a way that creates a sense of a
strong transgenerational link between the faces and voices of witnesses and those
who listen to them. In effect, the former become memorials of a past, and the latter (will) come to remember for them. This is especially so when testimony entails
the reenacting or even reliving of a past by the witnesses such that listeners effectively become secondary witnesses.28 In this shift in the purpose of testimony, the
traditional historical task of explaining a past event recedes considerably and is
often deemed irrelevant.
Testimonys authority lies, of course, in its promise of historical proximity,
indeed in the impression or the illusion it creates of being the past or at least
closer to the past than the accounts of professional history. It is especially powerful when it comes in the form of the oral, and even more so when it is visual as
well: I was there, and now and I am speaking of it to you and you can hear (and
see) me speaking. As Spiegel has noted, with testimony there is the promise of
a certain emotional and gestural vividnessa vividness strongly reinforced by
the customarily oral form of its deliverythat operates to transform [it] into a
virtually transparent form of transmission, thereby implying that no act of representation is involved.29
Between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s another institutional location emerged
for the telling of the stolen generations narrative: legal and quasi-legal inquiries
in the form of a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in prisons (198891),
several court cases brought by or on behalf of Aboriginal people seeking reparation for the suffering they experienced as a consequence of being removed from
27. Dipesh Chakrabarty, History and the Politics of Recognition, in Manifestos for Historians, ed.
Keith Jenkins, Alan Munslow, and Susan Gordon (London: Routledge, forthcoming).
28. Annette Wieviorka, On Testimony, in Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory,
ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994), 24; Dominick LaCapra, History and
Memory after Auschwitz (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998), 102; Aleida Assmann, History,
Memory, and the Genre of Testimony, Poetics Today 27 (2006): 261, 267, 26971.
29. Spiegel, Memory and History, 157.
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their kin (Williams v. NSW, 199499; Kruger v. the Commonwealth, 199597;


and Cubillo and Gunner v. the Commonwealth, 19962000), and an inquiry into
the separation of children by a federal government agency, the Human Rights and
Equal Opportunity Commission (199597). Much of the history presented in this
context took the form of juridical history (which has been defined as a way of
representing the past so as to make it available to legal and quasi-legal judgments
in the present).30 Arguably, its primary interest, unlike that of academic history,
is to pass judgment on the past rather than to understand it. Moreover, its approach
to the past tends to be presentist rather than historicist, if only because its principal
tasks are oriented to the present and future more than the past; and it tends to wear
away the complexities and ambiguities of the past. In due course, the outcome of
the court cases served to challenge the stolen generations narrative as they sought
to prove what had created the wrong of removal, but prior to this the Human
Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry made the stolen generations
narrative a widely known public history in Australia. Significantly, it did not commission any historical research but relied largely upon oral testimony by Aboriginal people and submissions by Aboriginal organizations (such as Link-Up).31
In particular, it encouraged those who had been removed to testify to their suffering. Here, as elsewhere, testimony was assigned a special function: it was a way
of obtaining knowledge about the past, but in addition, and most of all, it was a
means of transmitting the past in such as way as to enable those who bore its burdens to be both heard and healed.32 This meant the inquirys proceedings resembled not only those of a court but also those of the couch and the confessional.33
In turn, the inquiry verified and validated the accounts it received according to
whether or not trauma was evident in a narrators testimony and whether each
testimony corroborated the others that were presented.
The inquirys report had an enormous impact largely because of its affective
presentation: it was titled Bringing Them Home; it included numerous extracts
from stolen childrens testimonies; and it insisted that settler Australians listen to

30. Andrew Sharp, History and Sovereignty: A Case of Juridical History in New Zealand/
Aotearoa, in Cultural Politics and the University in Aotearoa/New Zealand, ed. Michael Peters (Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 1997), 160.
31. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), Bringing Them Home: Report of
the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their
Families (Sydney: Commonwealth of Australia, 1997), 66770.
32. Wieviorka, Era of the Witness, 1089.
33. See Attwood, Learning about the Truth, 203.
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and learn from the stories told.34 The release of the report prompted Aboriginal
people to produce more testimony, literary works, and documentary films35 but
also triggered a reaction among settler Australians, who adopted narrative devices
informed by what can be called the politics of sentimental feeling.36 First, many
sought to redeem the nation by means of a mass apology delivered through
a national Sorry Day and Sorry Books (and thereby earned themselves the
name of the sorry people);37 second, leading public intellectuals claimed an
authoritative role for themselves as moral arbiters of this past by fashioning an
authorial presence in such a way as to connect their own private histories of suffering to this public history of loss.38 Arguably, both these responses amounted to
another form of testimony or witnessing. It undoubtedly contributed to the phenomenon Elizabeth Povinelli has called an experience of intimacyintimate
holding, intimate understanding, intimate knowledge.39
In the aftermath of Bringing Them Home the stolen generations narrative
became central to Australian historical consciousness as it assumed the form of a
myth. Indeed, at this time, the stolen generations became the symbol of the history
of relations between Aboriginal and settler peoples in Australia. Arguably, myth is
another form of historical narrative that is governed by the concerns of the present.
At any rate, it does not try to deepen historical understanding in the sense of grasping the ways in which times past might have differed from times present; instead,
it subordinates historical specificity by seeking out transhistorical meanings for
human events and human experiences.40 The slippage between the historical and

34. See Haydie Gooder and Jane Jacobs, On the Border of the Unsayable: The Apology in Postcolonising Australia, Interventions 2 (2000): 238.
35. See The Stolen Children: Their Stories, ed. Carmel Bird (Sydney: Random House, 1998); the
exhibition The Stolen Generations, Western Australian Museum; the documentary films Stolen Generations and Cry from the Heart; and the plays Stolen and Box the Pony.
36. See Lauren Berlant, The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy and Politics, in Cultural Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Law, ed. Thomas R. Kearns and Austin Sarat (Ann Arbor: University
of Michigan Press, 1997), 4984; Elizabeth A. Povinelli, The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous
Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002),
155, 16063.
37. See Gooder and Jacobs, Border of the Unsayable, 23943.
38. See David Carter, Introduction: Intellectuals and Their Publics, and The Conscience
Industry: The Rise and Rise of the Public Intellectual, in The Ideas Market: An Alternative Take on
Australias Intellectual Life, ed. David Carter (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004), 1, 3,
15, 2223, 3435; and Gillian Whitlock, Becoming Migloo, in Carter, Ideas Market, 23658.
39. Povinelli, Cunning of Recognition, 183.
40. Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1997), 213.
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transhistorical can prove especially compelling in the case of traumatic history,41


and this proved to be the case with the stolen generations narrative.
By the mid-1990s the stolen generations narrative had slipped whatever historical moorings professional history might once have provided it. It was, as I
have argued, primarily the product of narrative contexts in which testimony predominated, and the narrative had been verified and validated by authorities that
recognized it according to criteria shaped by a very different temporal orientation
than that of historicism.
The advantages that have accompanied the production of history in which historicism has had little if any role to play are now taken for granted: the significance of perspective has been recognized, the past of those hidden from history
has been recovered, the humanity of many has been restored, the identities of
minority peoples have been recognized, the inner or subjective aspects of the
human past have been recuperated, and some historical losses have been repaired.
These democratic outcomes are to be welcomed, of course. Yet it should be evident that there are some disadvantages to the decline of historicism and that these
could be said to be antagonistic to the functioning of democracy and to democratic change.
The privileging of testimony has blurred the relationship between the personal
and the collective and between the particular and the general. Autobiography or
testimony cannot and should not be regarded as the same as history, yet in many
instances it has been charged with the role of not only transmitting the experience
of the past but also documenting and explaining the events of that pasta task
it can seldom be expected to perform and in fact often does not even try to do.
As a consequence of the stolen generations narrative being formulated largely in
narrative contexts that were not historiographical or historicist in nature, it was
extraordinarily vulnerable.42 When it finally encountered scrutiny, in the form of
positivist history and the law, much of its account of the past was discredited and
its influence diminished.43
41. LaCapra, History in Transit, 118, 3031.
42. See Attwood, Learning the Truth, 20810. The matter of timing was crucial here. Once a
historical event has been established as true by professional history or by common historical knowledge,
the inaccuracy of testimony becomes less important, but in the case of the stolen generations the first
comprehensive scholarly treatment of the subject did not appear until a few years after the narrative
was challenged. See Anna Haebich, Broken Circles: Fragmenting Indigenous Families, 18002000
(Perth: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000).
43. The most severe historical and legal challenge to the stolen generations narrative was mounted
by people who have been described as denialist. See Robert Manne, In Denial: The Stolen Generations
and the Right (Melbourne: Schwartz Publishing, 2000).
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Many of the disadvantages springing from the predominance of testimony are


a consequence of the influence of a more general phenomenon, namely memory.
As several critics have remarked, memory has threatened to remake historical
discourse as its proponents have pitted it against history. The rise of memory,
Kerwin Lee Klein has suggested, is a function of its promise to re-enchant our
relation to the world and pour presence back into the past. Its appeal, he argues,
rests on its association with key words that connote immediacy, community,
affect, experience, spirituality, identity, and authenticity. In the schema of its proponents, History is modernism, the state, science, imperialism, andocentrism, a
tool of oppression; memory is postmodernism, the symbolically excluded, the
body, a healing device and a tool for redemption.44 Many of the criticisms of
this kind might be regarded as hyperbolic, but several cannot be ignored. For
example, memory has been increasingly used to refer to the collective and to
what are deemed to be a series of practices (such as commemorations), institutions
(such as archives, libraries, and museums), and artifacts (such as monuments and
memorials) allied to it, and thus has come to bear names such as social memory,
collective memory, and public memory, even though groups, practices, institutions, and artifacts, unlike individuals, do not actually remember; 45 more to
the point, an intrinsic dimension of memory has been occluded. In most cases
it, like history, comes in the form of narrative. This means that memory, no less
than history but probably more so, is heavily influenced by discourses that are
not contemporary to the past being remembered. In short, much of it is no more
first-order than history is. By obscuring the mediating role played by narrative
and discourse in memorial forms of history such as testimony, too much has been
made of the pasts presence in these forms and thus of their claims to provide
historical knowledge.
Moreover, in seeking to bring the past close, testimony, like memory,
threatens to dissipate what is probably the most valuable characteristic of historicism, namely its determination to uncover the pasts specificity, which is to say
its difference from the present. In other words, historicism, by seeking to put the
past at a distance, has a greater capacity than memory to provide other ways
of seeing the world. The sense of the past as a foreign country is the reason that
so many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, seeking to change the
world, have made a historical (if not a historicist) turn in recent times.
44. Kerwin Lee Klein, On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse, Representations 69
(2000): 12830, 135, 13738, 14445.
45. Klein, Emergence of Memory, 13031, 135.
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The most significant problem associated with the increasing dominance of


testimony in the public sphere lies, however, in the way its expression of emotion and an audiences subsequent identification with the past endanger historical
knowledge by threatening to overwhelm the articulation of thought and analysis.
The solutions to this problem are by no means clear. In part, this is because some
commentators assume that the phenomenon is both new and a creation of popular
culture. Although there has undoubtedly been an enormous expansion in the institutions and technologies that promise a sense of immediacy to popular audiences,
it is worth noting, as Mark Salber Phillips has done, that this kind of engagement
with the past has a longer history, dating back, for example, to the invention of
the panorama in the late eighteenth century.46 It should also be acknowledged, as
remarked earlier, that the growing significance of emotion and empathy has not
only typified popular history but has come to be regarded as an important focus
of academic history. This means that professional historians might be able to
play a greater role in addressing the disadvantages of testimony than many have
assumed.
One approach might simply involve professional historians insisting on the
need to undertake the conventional empirical work of historical research in order
to provide sound accounts of what happened in the past (history as event),47 so
that memory or testimony is not required to conduct this work and so its role can
be more properly reserved to that of providing accounts of the impact of what
happened on participants and bystanders (history as experience). This historical
division of labor was used to good effect in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as Deborah Posel suggests in her article here. Another
approach consists of the testing of memory or testimony in institutions such as
the courts, where it can be subjected to rigorous scrutiny in order to verify its
account of historical events. A further approach comprises interpretive work that
can reveal the ways in which a historical narrative in the form of memory or
myth might be false in factual terms but true in other ways, such as the metaphorical or symbolic. (There are many examples of work done in this spirit.) 48
46. Phillips, Advantage and Disadvantage, 1314.
47. The denial of the Holocaust has been countered in this way, as evidenced by the approach
adopted by Penguin Books in the David Irving/Deborah Lipstadt libel case and by the United States
Holocaust Museum for its permanent exhibition. In the former, academic research and argument, not
testimony, was presented in court; in the latter, testimony has a limited role in presenting the story of
the Nazi genocide.
48. See Stefan Maechler, The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth, trans. John E.
Woods (New York: Random House, 2001).
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More recently, another approach has been suggested that consists of tracing the
series of relationships between participants in historical events, those involved
in representing events, and the people who consume the accounts subsequently
produced, in order to grasp how the stories we receive about the past are shaped
by this process. The advantage of this approach, it is claimed, lies in the recognition it will bring that the stories and images we receive about the past are shaped
by the ideas and interests of the people who communicate them, by the nature of
the media through which they are communicated, and by our own position in the
present.49 Yet none of these approaches necessarily address either the problem
of how professional historians can better perform the analytical task of history
when they work in relation to highly charged testimony or the question of how
to check its influence in public domains, such as those of popular culture, which
tend to be unsympathetic to conventional presentations of the scholarly work of
professional historians.
In order to tackle the first task, it is helpful to take note of one of the insights of
psychoanalysis concerning the nature of relationships that usually shape historical
work. All professional historians, it can be argued, have a transferential relationship to the pasts that become their objects of study; in other words, we have an
emotional or empathic connection to something or other in the pasts we consider,
so we tend to be implicated in some way or other in our treatment of them. Transference will be especially intense with any past that is alive with emotion, and all
the more so where that past is the subject of contemporary debate. As we have
noted, the stance the professional historian has commonly adopted has been akin
to that of the putative innocent bystander or onlooker, which is to say that it was
actually a technique for performing the work of historical distantiation. This, of
course, will not answer to the demands made of historical work now. As Dominick LaCapra has suggested, what is required is an approach that integrates knowledge and affect. This, he argues, will meet the need for both accurate reconstruction of the past and working through the burden of that past.50 (LaCapra has been
specifically concerned with the special case of traumatic pasts, but his approach
can be applied more generally to the matter of historical distance.)
In order to acquire a stance of both proximity and distance and to be both
compassionate and critical, LaCapra has recommended an approach whereby professional historians begin their work by accepting their empathic or empathetic
49. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us: Media, Memory and History (London: Verso, 2005),
especially 2728, 23738.
50. LaCapra, History in Transit, 15, 103, 105, 140, 234.
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response to the subject(s) of their work with whom they are most compelled to
empathize, whether that subject is, for the sake of argument, a perpetrator, a collaborator, a bystander, a victim, or a resister. Indeed, he has insisted on what he
calls empathic unsettlement on the grounds that this provides the historian with
an experiential basis for working through the past. Yet LaCapra insists that the
historian must seek to counter the transference in order to realize the differences
between their position and that of the subject(s) with whom they have empathized.
To do this, he urges historians to try to empathize with the other subjects of the
past in order to grasp the ways in which they will probably have a relationship
with them too. By doing this, LaCapra suggests, the professional historian can
attain a more complex subject position than historians often acquire in their relationship to the pasts presence, and this can provide for what he calls objectivity
(though not in any transcendent, third-person sense).51
At the center of the work done by the professional historians who formulated
the stolen generations narrative as well as the public intellectuals who helped to
transmit it were the victims of separation or, to be more precise, a particular victim, the children, though resisters also figured. The historians allowed the process
of empathic unsettlement to occur in respect of these subjects, and they sought
to relate, and to relate to, their plight and/or struggle. In this, they were very successful, but their work by and large stopped there. There was little if any attempt
to perform the task of countertransference. As a result, these historians and public
intellectuals did not merely empathize with the Aboriginal victim and the settler resister but actively identified themselves with these figures to a degree that
they seemed to fuse and confuse themselves with these figures. Moreover, there
was no substantial attempt to relate to the perpetrators, the collaborators, and the
bystanders, let alone to relate in a way that allowed for much if any empathy with
them. As a result of their identification with the position of the victim and the
resister, they treated those other subjects, especially the perpetrator, with enormous antipathy, accusing them of the heinous crime of genocide.
As a consequence of this way of telling the story of the separation of Aboriginal
children, many settler Australians were compelled to identify themselves with the
Aboriginal victims of separation and to spurn any association with their forebears
or predecessors as the perpetrators, collaborators, or bystanders. This reaction was especially marked among the so-called sorry people. This diminished
the prospect of settler Australians working through this past, and all the more
51. LaCapra, History and Memory, 4042, 206; LaCapra, Trauma, Absence, Loss, Critical
Inquiry 25 (1999): 72223; LaCapra, History in Transit, 192, 234.
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so as they lacked historical knowledge as to why their forebears or predecessors


had sought to separate Aboriginal children from their kin. A historical approach
combining proximity and distance would have made clear that Aboriginal children were not separated by governments pursuing a policy of genocide, which
was something the sorry people were readily able to consign to a distant racist
past, but were separated instead by governments pursuing a policy of assimilation premised on the assumption that this was for the good of Aboriginal people,
an assumption that is still prevalent in much of settler Australian culture today.
Grasping this historical continuity and grappling with what amounted to an intimately close relationship with the approach of their allegedly do-gooding forebears or predecessors would have been more unsettling than the sorry peoples
distancing of their putatively genocidal ancestors. These settler Australians might
have realized that the past was in the present not only in the form of Aboriginal
people affected by being separated from their kin but also in the form of a white
mentalit we can call assimilationist. Understanding this could have provided a
means of working through this past in the present, since it would have pinpointed
the very ideas and attitudes that have contributed and continue to contribute to
the destruction of Aboriginal communities and the diminution of Aboriginality
by the settler society.
In order to check the undue influence of testimony in public contexts that are
often unsympathetic to the presentation of professional history, historians could
also make some changes in the forms in which they transmit their work. A small
number of professional historians have been able to participate in the making
of popular forms of history relying on oral and visual history, such as historical
films and museum exhibitions, but most will probably have to rely on writing to
convey their knowledge. Here historians might become storytellers by adopting
some of the techniques of the autobiographer, using a personal voice and situating
themselves thoroughly in the history they relate (though this will be problematic unless they practice both transference and countertransference). Recently,
an Australian historian, Alan Atkinson, has pointed to the success of a handful
of professional historians in reaching large audiences when they have not only
adopted this approach but also practiced a form of rhetoric he calls vernacular
history, which he describes as storytelling that draws on literate and oral patterns
of thought so that it amounts to a mixture of writing and speech and that has the
power to merge temporarily the speaker/writer and the listener/reader.52 These,
52. Alan Atkinson, The Commonwealth of Speech: An Argument about Australias Past, Present
and Future (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2004), chap. 2.
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quite evidently, are forms of history in which the position of the professional
historian in relationship to the past comes to have some similarity with that of
the witness, just as they are forms of history in which the way the professional
historians relates the past converges with the way the testimony of a witness does
this work. It can be a means of obtaining the advantages that spring from a sense
of the pasts proximity without courting the disadvantages that arise from a loss
of distance between the present and the past.

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