Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


The Spectacle of History: Speech, Text and Memory at the Iran-Contra Hearings

Michael Lynch and David Bogen
Duke University Press: Durham, NC
ISBN 0 8223 1738 9 (pb); 0 8223 1729 X (hb)
£17.95(pb); £47.50 (hb)
xi + 350 pp.

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Lynch and Bogen's The Spectacle of History is possibly the only ethnomethodological study to have received complements on its readability in a Guardian newspaper book review. Avoiding the esoteric prose normally associated with ethnomethodology, Lynch and Bogen have produced a readable and innovative study of the Iran-Contra hearings.

In 1987 the investigation into what became known as the 'Iran Contra Affair' became something of a televisial event, focused around the testimony given by Lt. Col. Oliver North. Lynch and Bogen do not set out to review the events of Iran Contra, or even, like good truth producing sociologists, decide who was right or wrong. Instead they take 'post-modern knowledge and ... give it an ethnomethodological spin', something which breathes life into the sometimes obscure world of post modern theory. By close analysis of the extensively televised proceedings, the production and deconstruction of history is shown as a lived production - something actually done by individuals. Lt. Col. North is presented as an 'applied-deconstructivst', in that he - and his co-workers in the National Security Council - actively attempted to produce false histories so as to facilitate denials and to produce alternative rationales for activities which later came under hostile scrutiny.

While the transcripts in the book take some of Jefferson's conversation analytic notation, the focus is not on the mechanics of language or interaction. Instead, the authors' concern is with showing some of the practices by which conceptions of the trial, and the historical events under investigation, were produced and maintained. By staying close to their materials, they manage to pull this off without appearing to either labour or gloss the material. As an example, in the chapter 'The Truth-Finding Engine', the cross-examination format of the hearings is discussed. The hearings took on some of the format of a court room examination, with sequential turns of questions and answers. Whether this was the format that was actually maintained was a topic of some controversy, since at times Oliver North and his cohorts managed to subvert the question and answer format to the point of producing lectures, demonstrances, and even political speeches. By showing how the envelope of what can reasonably be heard of as 'a question' or 'an answer' was nudged open by both Oliver North and his interviewers, what might be thought of as a interaction with a fixed structure is shown to have been a skilful accomplishment by those taking part.

While most conversation analytic studies might stop at this (admittedly interesting) point, Lynch and Bogen go on to consider the rational conception of the court room cross-examination as a 'truth finding engine'. This rests on the assumption that if in cross examination we contradict ourselves, we are exposed as guilty liars rather than clumsy interviewees. North, by the artful use of failing to recall, challenges to the implications of questions, and qualified answers, managed to maximize his admission but avoided charges of evasion. By answering questions with speeches, questioning what had been asked - deconstructing the very situation - the truth finding engine was set to idling. Analysis like this does not merely sloganize North as an 'applied deconstructivist', but actually shows the devices and ways that he managed to deconstruct the hearings to his own advantage.

This book should not just be of interest to students of Iran Contra. The dialogue Lynch and Bogen start between modern social theory and ethnomethodology demonstrates the sympathy between these ideas. Garfinkel's insistence to study actual examples of everyday action takes the (perhaps more fashionable) ideas of Foucault, Derrida into new, and productive territory. Thirty years after the publication of Garfinkel's 'Studies in Ethnomethodology', Lynch and Bogen's book is a timely reminder of the continued relevance of that work.

Barry Brown
University of Surrey

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997