Zombie Culture and the American Presidency

After receiving valuable feedback regarding my case study on the Mount Rushmore float, one of my former peers brought to my attention the fact that there are many other ways that Mount Rushmore circulates and is re-purposed in American culture. In his response, he directed my attention to two images/objects that I honestly had not seen. To provide context, here is the comment/question that was posed:

“Do you plan to also consider other ways that the memories are repurposed, other than in service to a capitalist, consumer culture?

For example, the images below ARE for a product that is for sale, but I think the repurposing of Mt. Rushmore in this case is different:”

The objects in question are displayed below:

Courtesy of nerdtasticdesigns.com

Courtesy of nerdtasticdesigns.com

Courtesy of neatoshop.com

Courtesy of neatoshop.com

I found these images, along with my colleague’s comment, to be intriguing. I knew that he had a point – that the repurposing of Mount Rushmore in this way serves a rhetorical function other than just simply using the Presidency (and Zombie Culture for that matter) as a way to promote consumerism – but I was having trouble figuring out what other rhetorical work was being done by these images.

Then the light bulb came on. Well, at least I think it did.

First, it is important to note that objects can have multiple rhetorical functions and people can have many different valid interpretations of the meanings of those objects. In this case, I believe that the objects under discussion confirm my thesis that memories, particularly of presidents, do indeed serve the interests of consumer culture. After all, the objects are indeed for sale, and it is the blending of zombie culture with Mount Rushmore that enables the consumption of the presidency to reach a culture that otherwise would not be inclined to purchase presidential souvenirs.

While the pairing of zombie culture with the presidency may seem odd at first, there is at least one important character trait that they both share: they each have a ubiquitous presence in pop culture. With regard to the presidency, Diane Rubenstein makes this case by detailing the myriad ways that presidents are represented in pop culture in the introduction to This is Not a President. Similarly, Stephen Marche makes a similar claim regarding zombies. You can read the entire article here, but for my purposes, it is sufficient to simply note that he makes a compelling case for his over-arching thesis that “zombies are everywhere.” If we are to accept the claim made by Horkheimer and Adorno that culture is an “industry” with inherently capitalist underpinnings, then the fact that both zombies and presidents share a strong presence in American culture seems to suggest that the memories evoked by not just the Rushmore Float, but by all representations of Mt. Rushmore, ultimately serve capitalist interests. Combining zombie culture with the presidency increases consumption of presidential memories by appealing to a fast-growing zombie culture that has already generated a high amount of revenue as Marche explains in his article.

Yet, there is still other rhetorical work being done by the “zombification” of Mt. Rushmore. While I am sure there are multiple other readings of these objects I argue that of primary importance to my project is the way that these objects function to justify the study of the commemoration and memories of American Presidents by exposing the way that memories of past presidents continue to circulate and wield political influence in the present. This argument – that referencing the past is done for the purposes of present – is a widely supported theory by nearly every scholar of public memory. By placing Mt. Rushmore within the context of zombie culture, it more specifically exposes the fact that dead presidents are never really dead.

To say that a dead president is not dead may seem counterintuitive or just downright contradictory, so let me explain. There is a second similarity between zombies and presidents that becomes much clearer when these two ubiquitous presences in popular culture collide. Since zombies are familiarly known as “the living dead,” then it seems interesting that the presidents are, in this case, turned into zombies, and therefore turned in to the living dead. This clearly points to the influence that presidents can have in society years and even centuries after their death. It is important to note, though, that these objects are not the only context in which presidents should be understood as zombies. Whether they appear in zombie form or not, the perpetuation of the memories of presidents makes them zombies because they continue to exist even after they cease to physically live. Therefore, just like zombies, presidents are, and always have been, a form of the “living dead.” These objects simply make that observation apparent.

Dissertation Week: Part 1

If the title isn’t already clear enough, this week’s blog posts will be dedicated to updating my readers on the progress of my dissertation. I am doing this for two reasons. The first reason is self-serving – I need to maintain a consistent flow of blog posts as much as I need to maintain a consistent amount of progress as it pertains to writing my dissertation and finally attaining that all too elusive Ph.D. Secondly, I believe that the topics discussed in my dissertation are of import to a wider audience than is usually reached in a dissertation. Therefore, by using this blog as an outlet, I can progress academically while at the same time attempting to bridge the gap between academia and the rest of the public.

For tonight’s post, I simply want to offer a brief explanation of the project, the sources of inspiration for the project, and a preview of what to expect in following posts.

The Presence of the Presidency in Everyday Life

If I had to describe my project in one sentence, it would go a little something like this: My dissertation investigates the ways that memories of former U.S. presidents appear before their audience(s) in the course of everyday life. Much has been written about public memory and the presidency; but what makes my project different are the ways in which memories are proliferated. In a majority of the pre-existing literature of public memory, scholars focus on those memories which are evoked by permanent statues, museums, or other fixtures that occupy a particular place. With places of public memory, the audience most likely chooses to travel to these historic landmarks, and therefore willingly exposes themselves to the memories or narratives being evoked by such structures. A good example of this is Mount Rushmore: located in the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota, visitors do not just happen upon this architectural feat: they deliberately travel there to lay their eyes upon the mountainous carving. Although I cannot say this with certainty, I would be willing to put money on the fact that the vast majority of the 2 million annual visitors to Mount Rushmore make that trip deliberately.

While studies of permanent places of public memory have certainly yielded valuable contributions to the field of rhetoric and memory studies, my project shifts focuses to investigate the concept “circulating memorials,” or to put it more simply, to analyze those material objects which evoke memory by moving through space rather than occupying a place. I believe that these types of memory function differently since they appear before an audience that does not necessarily voluntarily submit themselves to the exposure of these memories. Put another way, these memories occur in the context of everyday life. To explain better what I mean, I now turn to a brief explanation of how Mount Rushmore is able to present itself in a way much different than its original status as a permanent, immutable structure.

Circulating Mount Rushmore: The Case of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Photograph courtesy of www.keloland.com

Photograph courtesy of http://www.keloland.com

 

Since 2010, the South Dakota department of tourism has sponsored a float to be included in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, making it the first and only State to be represented in the parade.  The float has reappeared each year since. As I watched the 2013 parade, I experienced the float for the first time (albeit mediated through television). I was not in a particularly analytical mood at the time, and was watching the parade for the purpose of entertainment more than anything else. However, when the South Dakota float appeared with a replica of Mount Rushmore as its centerpiece, I couldn’t help but find its presence odd, especially given that the rest of the floats and balloons represented either big business or pop culture icons such as Snoopy and Santa Claus. In turning a critical eye to this rhetorical phenomenon, I realized that understanding the rhetorical work done by the float is fraught with implications regarding public memory and the myriad forms in which it is evoked. In arriving at this conclusion, I re-read the float in two ways. First, I read the float in the context of participating in a parade that promotes commercialism and even functions to kick off the Christmas shopping season. Secondly, I read the performance through a theoretical framework informed by the literature concerning theories of circulation and public memory. In weaving these two readings together, I found that the rhetoricity of the Mount Rushmore float is symptomatic of the larger context of the ways memories of presidents are evoked and consumed in contemporary American culture. It also serves as the overarching argument of this dissertation – that circulation enhances the rhetorical force and accessibility of memories since it brings the memory to its audience in contrast to places of public memory which require a concerted effort on the part of the audience to expose themselves to the memories evoked at a particular location. Secondarily, I argue that as an extension of the discussion of the politics of memory, this dissertation narrows its scope to focus on the economics of memories, particularly those of presidents, and how circulation makes these memories susceptible to being repurposed in a way that manipulates the ethos associated with certain presidents to reinforce a capitalist, consumer culture.  This rhetorical maneuver effectively conflates patriotism with consumerism and continues to do so as circulation enables the repetition of an audience’s exposure to these memories.

In making this argument, I supplement the case of the Rushmore float with an analysis of American currency (the penny in particular) as well as presidential holidays. Together, these analyses reveal the economics of memory and how these cases are exemplars of the ways in which the commemoration of presidents circulates through culture as a part of everyday life, thus transforming these revered political figures into objects of consumption. Before turning to a synopsis of these case studies, however, I first situate my project within the existing literature concerning circulation (which necessarily involves an understanding of place and space) and public memory. Second, I offer a justification for focusing specifically on public memory of presidents in favor of any other public figures. Finally, I offer an explanation of the case studies and tentative conclusions/implications of this study.

For tomorrow’s post, I will follow up by explaining what I allude to in the above paragraph. Any feedback, especially harsh criticism, is always welcome. Thanks for reading!