Part 2: Understanding Public Memory within the Context of Circulation

Following up on Monday’s post, today I want to discuss how Public Memory may be understood differently when placed within the concept of circulation. First, however, I must issue a disclaimer: this post is decidedly more theoretical than the one on Monday, and for non-rhetoricians, I apologize in advance if the jargon detracts from what I am about to say. However, I will attempt to clarify what I mean when such esoteric terms do arise.

Theories of circulation and public memory have received considerable attention from scholars across the discipline in recent years. Public memory, a source of interest amongst rhetorical scholars since the late 1980s, currently possesses enough interest among rhetorical scholars that it is often understood as a sub-discipline of the field. In recent years, as is evidenced by numerous articles including an edited volume by Carole Blair, Greg Dickinson, and Brian Ott, the study of public memory has taken a decidedly material turn. In fact, Blair, in an earlier essay, uses U.S. memorial sites to demonstrate the rhetoricity (persuasive power) of material objects. While this line of study has expanded both the definition of rhetoric and explained the way that material objects are rhetorical in ways different from that of traditional oratory often associated with the study of public address, the authors that study material forms of public memory tend to limit their studies to static places such as monuments, museums, and other “immutable” places which function to evoke public memory. Edward Casey, for examples, goes so far as to say that “Public memory is not a nebulous pursuit that can occur anywhere; it always occurs in some particular place.” It is here that Casey would most likely understand circulating memories, even in material form, as a type of collective memory, which he argues is distinct from public memory. In the context of circulation, however, this distinction lacks much analytical purchase. As Lester C. Olsen explains, “circulation” enables “a composition to address an audience of strangers who, by devoting attention to it, become its public.” Therefore, as long as a composition evokes memories and constitutes a public, then it seems as if Casey’s distinction over-limits what can be considered “public.” Instead, circulation can constitute a form of public memory that moves through space rather than being confined to place.

Similarly, the scholarly discussions regarding circulation have also complicated matters for scholars of public address. Derived largely from Michael Calvin McGee’s fragmentation thesis, texts which were once analyzed as “whole” are now in need of rethinking since, as Stephen Heidt and Megan Foley observe, speeches are often fragmented. It is these fragments, not the speech as a whole, that circulates and resonates through society. According to Stephen Heidt, it is the circulation of these textual “shards” that engage in a constitutive process, explained by Maurice Charland as the way that a text interpolates “audiences into a narrative that constituted their identities and didactically animated their political activity.” Texts that evoke public memory, I argue, also function in this way. This claim is similar to that made by Kurt Ritter’s who identifies memory-making, or commemoration, as an epideictic process which “builds communal identity and values.”

Commemoration, in contrast with history, is concerned less with accuracy about what “really” happened and more with how the “emotional resonance and the utility of a narrative” structures or constitutes society. What remains largely unexplored, however, is the relationship between material forms of commemoration and circulation. Of course, there are a couple of exceptions worth noting. First, Nathan Atkinson makes in-roads into this connection by talking about the way that film circulates in a way that creates an interesting connection between the past and the present which he refers to as “dual temporality,” or the phenomenon in which film presents the past in the present (more explanation/better understanding of argument probably needed here). Atkinson’s work also applies the properties of circulation to visual texts, as does the work of Keith Erickson, who specifically engages in presidential photo-opportunities as rhetorical fragments to argue that the presidency has taken a “visual turn.” While these works are limited to film and photography, and focus more on the visual component of the text rather than the embodied or material/tactile characteristics of visual-material rhetorics, nonetheless provides an opportunity to more fully explore, explain, and understand the relationship between circulation and material rhetorics which function to evoke public memory. This project takes up such an opportunity by more fully realizing how circulation enables the formation of public memory. Because scholarship regarding circulation rarely intersects with studies of public memory, little is known about the relationship between these two literature bases. In what follows, I offer an explanation of this relationship which reinforces the importance of attending to matters of circulation within the specific context of how memories of presidents are produced.

A proper understanding of the forms of material/visual public memory and/or commemoration requires an understanding of place and space as they are currently understood within the scholarly community of rhetorical critics. Currently, place plays a far more important role than space in public memory scholarship. Admittedly, the distinction between space and place is a slippery one. In fact, pioneering scholars on space such as Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre often use space and place interchangeably, as if they are synonyms. Nevertheless, treating these terms as different concepts is crucial to identifying gaps in public memory scholarship that this project seeks to fill.

While less explicit than the literature on public memory, theories of circulation also imply a relationship to the concepts of place and space. In the most basic terms, I contend that circulation be understood in as the process by which texts move through space and places. Rather than focus on circulation in the context of fragmentation, I turn attention to circulation as a mechanism by which material/visual texts gain mobility and expand their rhetorical force throughout American culture. In a recent issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication dedicated to the spatial turn in the field of communication, the relationship between space and circulation becomes clear. Donovan Connelly, for example, states that before the digital era, the term “communications” referred to the “mediators of bodies and goods.” In other words, he continues, communication became possible through “the technologies of transportation – the roads, canals, turnpikes, bridges, and railways – that came to manifest the physical fact of the united states.” I believe that even in the 21st century, these modes of transportation and the movement of bodies and objects is still an important mechanism by which material forms of memory move through space, or are circulated in a way that constitutes a public through the evocation of these memories across space and through place. Under this framework, it becomes clear that space is at least as important if not more so as place in the formation of public memory. This claim, however, is not reflected in current public memory scholarship. Scholars of public memory, especially in visual and material forms, tend to focus on place as a locus for the harboring of memories, effectively relegating the concept of space as the raw material out of which places of public memory are constructed.

This is a rather rough sketch of the theoretical framework of my project, and I welcome only the harshest of criticism in moving forward.

P.S. – At the end of Dissertation Week, I will provide a complete bibliography of the sources I use and cite, although I have already attributed the quotes I use to their respective authors. I am waiting until the end to do this because I want to make sure I am clear in my own argument without getting bogged down in what everyone else has argued. Nonetheless, I will post full citations for those who want to refer to the literature in which I engage.





One thought on “Part 2: Understanding Public Memory within the Context of Circulation

  1. Very interesting!
    Ever since my first read of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities,” which I read at the same time as Dana Heller’s edited volume “Selling 9/11,” I have thought there was an important and understudied link between the rhetoricity of materials as they move, especially, as in the case of Heller’s book, materials that commemorate and are meant to be taken home – a signifier and reminder of a place or space that in itself serves as a fragment and shapes memory. Do you think that intentionality plays a meaningful theoretical role in your approach? On the one hand, a 9/11 WTC figurine was crafted specifically to evoke certain kinds of memories, but on the other hand, individuals cobble meaning from fragments (McGee et al). Is a designer persuading us, are we persuading ourselves, and does it matter?


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