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!





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.