Alina Bothe, PhD, the 2015-2016 USC Shoah Foundation Teaching Fellow, gave a public lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research focusing on the way users experience and relate to the testimonies in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive.
Alina Bothe’s PhD thesis examines the digital turn in Shoah history, and she described the Visual History Archive as the “paradigmatic archive” for exploring and analyzing the digital turn in Shoah history and Shoah studies. She maintained that digitization has changed Shoah history and historiography on three levels:
- Research: It is possible to search the VHA for topics that are unsearchable in other archives. This is because of the segmenting and innovative indexing made possible by digitization.
- Representation: The digital enables all kinds of historical narration, including online exhibitions, apps, clips created by students in IWitness.
- Perception: Digitization has changed the way that users experience and relate to testimonies.
In his introduction to Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp, historian Christopher Browning writes, “Quite frankly, there were several occasions in which I wanted to reach through the screen and strangle an interviewer who had just shut down a survivor’s seeming digression into a topic of vital interest to me.” Alina Bothe offered this example as a sentiment that is very familiar to researchers who have worked with the VHA and likely many other users of the VHA as well. Feelings of frustration with the interviewer are significant, she explained, because they reveal the intensity of users’ perceptions when watching testimonies.
In another example, she recounted how students from a ninth-grade class in Berlin characterized their experiences watching testimonies. Even though they could not ask the questions themselves, the students reported, they had the feeling the survivor was speaking directly to them and that they were really talking to the person. A real physical meeting or dialogue has not occurred, but something like it has happened. How do we understand what makes up this experience? What accounts for the deep emotional reactions users often experience when watching testimonies? How can we understand the facets of this encounter?
To explore these questions in her talk, Alina Bothe first sought to epistemologically define this space of encounter, the agents within it, and the different logics and layers of space and time that operate in the digital sphere. Following close readings of Homi Bhabha, Hannah Arendt, and Reinhart Koselleck, she offered the “virtual in-between of memory” as a term to represent the sphere where survivors translate experiences that have become memories into language and narration and where users interact with and immerse deeply into testimonies despite the boundaries of time and space.
Alina Bothe described the constellation of agents in this encounter as a shifting triangle. The survivor is talking to the interviewer as well as to the future listener. The interviewer is following a protocol but also standing in for the future listener. In the virtual encounter of watching testimonies, the users feel like they are interacting with the survivors but come up against the chronospatial boundaries that keep them from immersing totally in the encounter between the interviewer and survivor. Alina Bothe expressed that this is why users so often criticize interviewers or even insult them. Viewers project their frustrations about the barriers between themselves and the survivors (and the interviewing encounter) onto the interviewer who they often deem as not behaving appropriately or not asking the right questions at the right time.
Following further exploration of the qualities of the digital sphere, which allows for communication across the borders of time and space with absent survivors, Alina Bothe turned to an analysis of a specific space within the virtual in-between of memory where perceptions of users are revealed: YouTube. For two years between March 2013 and March 2015, she looked at a wide sample of testimonies and comments on the USC Shoah Foundation YouTube channel and videos. In conducting a close analysis of comments on the 10 most-watched testimonies, she identified five categories of user responses that appeared most often in comments:
- Anti-Semitic statements
- Critique about the interview (especially the style of the interviewer)
- Self-revelation about the users
- Discussion of the testimony's content and broader historical context
- Perception of interviewee
Offering illustrations and discussions of each category, Alina Bothe argued that YouTube has become a space where culture, history, and memory are negotiated. Users communicate with each other, with the survivors, and partly with the USC Shoah Foundation over the borders of the time and space.
Anti-Semitic comments, comments related to denial of the Holocaust, or other kinds of hate speech are often met with strong verbal force by respondents who try to counteract the people they characterize as “haters” and “trolls,” but some of these remarks generate debates that go on for months in the comments.
Alina Bothe asserted that for most others, the intimate testimonies of survivors seem to create an environment where users want to interact personally, often leaving very private and revealing comments. Commenters often address survivors directly, addressing them in person and with first names, feeling they know the survivors well enough to reveal personal impressions of the survivor or the testimony or to divulge their own family connections to this history.
The characteristics of the digital – immersion, interactivity, and immediacy – continually shape the space of the virtual in-between of memory.
During a lively Q&A, Alina Bothe expanded on her claim that digitization affects how we see and understand the past. She described more about how testimonies change the retelling of history, and she reflected on the importance of developing a new source critique for digital testimonies. She contended that scholars need to be aware of their own immersion, their own desires for interaction, and be sensitive to how the qualities of the digital sphere affect how they themselves relate to and perceive testimonies.
To view her lecture, click here.
Summary by Martha Stroud