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.




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.