Making Historical Truth: Material Engagements with the Past and the Politics of Responsibility after Mass Violence

Over the past four decades, history, memory, and trauma have become privileged idioms through which political battles of all sorts are carried out (Comaroff and Comaroff 2012). From post-conflict human rights to artistic productions, and from textbooks to debates over reparations, politics increasingly revolves around felicitous performances of the past in the public sphere.

This ongoing “memory boom” has inspired varying reactions from anthropologists (Winter 2001). For some, the demands of subaltern groups for political communities to recognize and respond to colonial and racialized state violence offers a potential corrective to long-denied truths (Sanford 2003). For others, the rise of identity-based-memory practices threatens to disrupt the critical, disciplined work of professional historians to discern past truths (Berliner 2005). Still others question the possibility of any historicist commitment to the truth (Palmié 2013). Yet even as this debate over the epistemological status of memory rages on, the object of analysis remains largely the same as it was at the dawn of memory studies: for the vast majority of anthropologists and policy makers alike, memory is a narrative that groups tell themselves in order to define their identity in the present (Halbwachs 1980).

Taking as our point of departure Trouillot’s provocation to look at the “burden of the concrete” (1995, 22), this panel seeks to move beyond abstract debates over the epistemological status of memory and history in order to center the material conditions through which artists, activists, and scholars produce experiences of truth about and responsibility for past violence. In focusing on the materiality of historical experience, we call attention to the relationships of past and present, truth and trust through which the past becomes present in diverse ethnographic settings. This panel asks: How do certain concrete sites of historical production come to matter or be neglected in the process of historical production? How do varied media – be they documents, archives, monuments, bodies, virtual spaces, or artistic productions – not only convey narratives about the past but also shape people’s experience of the past in the present? And how do these material sites become venues for building trust or expressing suspicion about the truth-values of history?

Please submit your abstract to Jonah Rubin at The panel is currently looking for 2-3 presenters and is open to considering a discussant role, as well.