Tuesday’s Tangent: Humanity’s Real Sixth Sense

I had fully intended to dedicate this week to blogging about the politics of sports – and I still fully intend on keeping good on that promise. But I recently ran across an old post that I wrote for a blog for which I never followed through. As a trudge along in my dissertation writing, I wanted to share just a glimpse of my academic interests, and this post does just that. I will return tomorrow to my regularly-scheduled programming, but for now, here is a post that may shed some light on the way I approach both academia and the rest of the world around me.

Since grade school science classes, we’ve been taught that we have five biological senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. M. Night Shyamalan added the ability to see and speak to the dead as humanity’s “Sixth Sense” in the critically-acclaimed film by the same name. But even as I consider myself open-minded and spiritual, my suspension of disbelief swiftly disappears within minutes of watching that film. My apologies to any mediums that may be following me on here.

I do, however, believe that humans have a sixth sense. And that sense can quite easily be explained as the human capability to remember. The role that memory plays in society in undeniable, and several scholars and other inquisitive minds have written much on this subject. If this were an academic paper, this is the part where I would start name dropping the famous theorists of collective and public memory while working myself to a specific argument that I will contribute to an academic journal. I would be lucky if more than 40 or 50 people ever read that article.

But my purpose here is much different. I’ve already made my argument – that memory is a human’s sixth sense – and that argument is far too broad for any academic journal, although I do not abandon the academic tradition altogether, as it is the foundation upon which I have learned to contemplate memories – my own personal childhood memories, memories of running track and field in high school, memories of making out with girls in the backs of cars at debate camp and so on and so on. Then there are political memories – remembering sitting in Ms. Winn’s fifth-grade classroom watching the live verdict be delivered in the Orenthal James (“OJ”) Simpson murder trial, or sitting in my junior-year U.S. history class preparing for an upcoming exam when the teacher (who’s name escapes me, ironically enough), got a call and was told to turn the television on. The timing couldn’t have been better (or worse, given how traumatizing the events were to the nation), as the television screen came on within seconds of the second plane crashing into the towers. While it is impossible to know all my fellow citizens and anyone who shares those memories with me – the fact that most people my age remember 9/11 and the O.J. Simpson trial creates what can be referred to and public or collective memories. While we may remember these events differently, it is the circulation of these events through the advent of the 24-hour news networks, the internet, and social media that consume private memories of these events in order to fashion “a” singular memory for the nation to remember, to forget, or to take remembering one step further by engaging in a ritual mode of memorializing or commemorating people, places, and events that shape public memory and therefore gives society a sense of its self. In later entries, I will explain how a memory-based society functions at even higher levels to facilitate if not constitute national identity.

Memory has been an important aspect as human communication dating as far back to Aristotle and the Greek tradition of rhetoric. Now, don’t freak out – rhetoric isn’t as esoteric of a concept as most think. But there is an important distinction here that must be made. In contemporary media culture, rhetoric often carriers a negative connotation. Newspapers refer to politician’s “mere rhetoric,” and next to lawyers, politicians are often thought of as the nation’s second-biggest liars. Rhetoric is flowery language used to disguise the lack of content with a politicians speech. Rhetoric is to be distrusted. It is separate from action, and until the rhetoric of a public figure aligns with that persons actions. Hence the trite American colloquialism, “Actions Speak Louder Than Words.”

But as a student of rhetoric, I much object here. It’s not that I don’t think actions speak louder than words – but rather I believe that the speaking and writing of words is an action in and of itself. I borrow this concept from Kenneth Burke, who argues that language can be understood as symbolic action. Simply put, words do things. They are not material objects to be held or built, but words do a lot. They cheer someone up who’s having a bad day, they can be used to hurt someone’s feelings, they are often used to change one’s mind about a litany of topics. But a lot of times the actions induced by language go unnoticed, or the action performed is not understood as an effect of the language used to induce said action. The persuasive function of language, then, facilitates actions. I believe in this theory so steadfastly that I will advance two arguments that apply both to public memory specifically and rhetoric generally. First, I argue that rhetoric has effects, but they are often not immediately noticeable, making it easy for critics of rhetoric as a discipline to ridicule us for failing to demonstrate empirical proof that x speech caused y effect. I stand in stark opposition to this criticism, and I hope that the ruminations in this post will aid in debunking this criticism.

My second argument is a first step toward answering the criticism of rhetoric described above, and it uses a specific instance of rhetoric – MLK Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” – to demonstrate that rhetoric exists and is used for something beyond itself. It seeks to remedy problems and create change in the real world. (Some rhetoric, of course, can cause problems and create unwanted change). So, my argument is simply this – that if MLK had never delivered that speech – if that occasion for civil rights activists to gather upon the national mall make themselves politically present in the center of a government which for years treated blacks as inferior to whites – then I contend that the material conditions for minorities, and particular African Americans, would be far worse than they are today. I do not deny that racism still exists, both socially and structurally/institutionally, but MLK’s speech did something about the problem. Maybe not right away, but it is my position that MLK’s speech and the many remembrances of the speech and of him as a civil rights leader have created better, but admittedly far from perfect, material conditions for minorities and have spurred legislation that works toward the ideal of equality. His speech was so impactful, in fact, that they etched part of his speech into the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – a memorial that for decades had emphasized Lincoln’s accomplishment as the president that ended the civil war and preserved the Union, with little if any acknowledgment of any role he played in facilitating the abolition of slavery through his famous Emancipation Proclamation. While those memories of Lincoln remained dormant, MLK Jr.’s choice to speak at that location was a distinctly rhetorical feature as he was able to create an identification between him and one of the nation’s most heroic presidents and thus reinvigorating memories of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.” Without this rhetorical act, I argue, we very well may still be staring down Jim Crow’s oppressive throat.

These arguments have also demonstrated a lot about the way that memory in contemporary society is much different that the memory understood as the fifth canon of rhetoric. In this tradition, memory was a device used by the rhetor to remember his speech. He would often create visual cues to aid in his memory and then translate them into oral discourse. In today’s era, however, memory is evoked, produced, maintained, contested, and modified, all through the work of rhetoric.

This is just an introduction into the topic of memory. Sometimes I’ll discuss memory through personal experience, or through interviewing the experiences of others. Sometimes, through film or television, people are invited to remember things that they did not even experience. The point is simply to take memory more seriously, to be more observant of memory’s appearance and presence, not to mention its disappearance and absence. Taking better account of the ubiquity of memory as is circulates through space and occupies place, as well as the ways in which human bodies encounters different types of memories, I believe will produce a more contemplative and self-reflexive society – a society in which ethical choices become more clear in a world in which our moral compass has been spinning out of control.