47.0 Document of a Tragedy:
The Jonestown Tapes and the Problems of Documentation
Submission to DOCAM 2009
Department of Writing Studies
University of Minnesota Duluth
Duluth, MN 55812
Word Count: 900 Words plus Appendix
Keywords: Jonestown, testimony, audio-recording, interpretation of documents; theory of documents
Delivery: Oral presentation with PowerPoint, video clip, and audio
Equipment: standard LCD projector with audio
This paper participates in three interlocking bodies of literature:
• the philosophical and institutional study of documents (from Briet to Buckland),
• the subset of trauma studies that examines evidentiary documents,
• and rhetorical studies of testimony.
These three bodies of literature offer theoretical tools for the analysis of documents surrounding the last days of Jonestown. The questions are:
● What do the audio-recordings of discussions on the last night at Jonestown document?
• How can these documents be used?
● And what are the limitations inherent in these documents?
Because this conference is neither about Jonestown nor about cults, of course, the most important question must be: Can the uses and limitations of these specific documents be generalized to the use of historical documents? The Jonestown documents help us demonstrate and elaborate on Day’s claim (at the 2003 DOCAM) that “documents help prove facts, sometimes they are representative of facts, other times they themselves constitute facts by the very fact that they are read or used, and other times they are creative of facts within the context of their being read or used.”
About the Documents
The People's Church audio-recorded a number of their sermons, deliberations and prayerful discussions, so in a certain way, it is not unusual that their last discussion of their revolutionary suicide was also recorded. But, taken on its own, we should be surprised that Jones allowed this last discussion to be recorded. It is possible that Jones imagined that he was documenting an act of revolution, but in fact the arguments constitute a debate about the value of suicide and of possible acts of murder.
The recordings have been transcribed by multiple agencies (academic and law enforcement) available on multiple websites. Unsurprisingly, the documents of the last hours of Jonestown are complex and open to diverging interpretations.
The Problems for Discussion
The Jonestown recordings pose several questions useful for contemporary studies of the document.
• The recording is motivated. Jones is clearly not recording this discussion for his later reference. Before we can assess this document, we must assess the reasons that it exists and whether those reasons inflect it. Specifically, we must be able to assess whether the audio-recording is a speech act to a future listening audience – Jones’ attempt to speak beyond the grave. Here, analogy to Holocaust documents (typically written with a double-voicedness to address history) is instructive and will be outlined.
• The recording is of a conversation –a free-for-all as Jones poses the question about the community’s next act. It is difficult to ascertain what speech acts are responses to which other speech acts – who is talking to whom. The move from a document of a conversation to an attempt to reconstruct the arguments and positions of the individual speakers is always complicated and even more complicated in the case of this document. Here, analysis using work by van Eemeren and Grootendorst on the problems of reconstructing arguments from natural language will be outlined.
• The recording is on an outmoded technology stored in a jungle forty years ago. Audio clarity is limited and this has caused transcription problems. This includes complexities of determining what is said and determining who said it. Single inaudible words can completely reverse the expected meaning of a speaker’s speech act. Disagreements over whether a single woman uttered both of two speech acts can completely reverse our understanding of the woman’s expected position. Improvements in playback may or may not be able to correct some of these problems, but as we get closer to those technological improvements, we also move closer to the days that the survivors will all be dead – and this recorded testimony will rise in importance. Here, reference to contemporary theories of voice and technology (Zizek, Ronell and others) can be instructive, especially those scholars who have analyzed recordings of 9/11 victims [e.g. Joshua Gunn] from this perspective.)
• Finally, the significance of this document shifts with the contexts in which it is interpreted. It is a forensic document, allowing law enforcement to trace responsibility for possible murders in Jonestown (because not all drank the Flavor-Aid willingly). It is a scholarly document, allowing scholars in religious studies to tease out an American model of cult thinking. It is even a sociological document, as the People’s Temple has a place in the history of race relations in the United States. And finally, it has been an ur-text for fictionalizing films about Jonestown, serving as reference for dialogue. Scholars of rhetoric have carefully worked through the use of testimony in different epistemic fields, and those insights will explain the varying uses of this recorded testimony in different disciplinary and professional communities.
The paper concludes by speaking directly to the dialogue between Briet and Day, across the decades at the Document Academy: Briet, in What is Documentation, states that “A document is a proof in support of a fact.” But “sometimes documents help prove facts, sometimes they are representative of facts, other times they themselves constitute facts by the very fact that they are read or used, and other times they are creative of facts within the context of their being read or used” (Day, DOCAM 03). The Jonestown documents may have been Jones’s attempt to “create facts” about his revolutionary end. In fact they are (in their recording, transcription and interpretation) a much more unstable document, manifesting Day’s claims and even more of the theoretical complexity of document studies.
Jonestown was the camp in Guyana where cult figure Jim Jones relocated with members of his People's Temple in the 1970s. The parish was born of a revolutionary social and economic program -- embracing both socialist principles and racial equality. But the People's Temple faced legal challenges in the United States and so relocated to Guyana. Their legal problems followed them, especially as residents on fixed incomes saw those incomes diverted directly to Guyana to support the compound. As a result, a Congressman and several "concerned family members" visited the People's Temple in Guyana.
A member of the Congressman's entourage was passed a note indicating that some residents were being held against their will. The Congressman himself was attacked at knifepoint by a radical member of the Temple. As a result, the Congressman offered free and safe travel back to the United States the next morning under the protection of the U.S. Government. Another radical member of the Temple pretended to seek safe travel, then opened fire when the group arrived at the airstrip, killing the Congressman and some of the others.
Back at the compound, Jones called a meeting, drawing the members together to discuss their end. They had rehearsed the "revolutionary suicide" by drinking poisoned Flavor-Aid before, so the procedure was known to the members. Now, Jones called the members together to discuss whether, in fact, this last step should be taken. [Historically, we know that they did take the Flavor-Aid, but for purposes of this paper, I'd like to build some tension, some apprehension, about what happens next.]