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Understated Legacies: Uses of Oral History and Tibetan Studies

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This paper aims to stimulate discussion about the complexity of oral history as a practice by recalling its origins and early associations, such as criminal confessions, war-reporting, the novel, exotic art and other early forms of first-person narratives, and by tracing some of their recurrent echoes in contemporary work. It looks at some of the uses to which oral history or related practices have been put in the field of Tibetan studies, ranging from rigorously academic studies through nostalgic political testimonies to wholly invented pseudo-histories. It discusses the importance of silent oral histories, the ones that cannot be recorded, as well as of failed ones, which are recorded but rejected by certain types of researchers because they do not meet their desires for a certain kind of narrative. Commoditisation of the archive is described, not just in the obvious cases where large amounts of money are exchanged, but also an instance in Tibetan studies in which an important archive was stolen, apparently just for the prestige of secretly possessing it. These forms of prototypical oral history and its near relatives still hover on the sidelines of the practice, despite the efforts of scholars to insulate academic practice from them. The widespread circulation of fabricated narratives produced within the contemporary Tibetan exile economy to gain access to western countries underlines the pervasive and under-acknowledged role of the state throughout all these practices, banning, allowing, celebrating, regulating and exploiting all forms of oral history.


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