For several decades now the role of public memory in shaping the present has occupied the attention of scholars across the humanities. From Holocaust studies to architecture, literature and visual culture, colonialism, and queer theory, students of the subject are seeking to explain how and to what ends we avail ourselves of the past. Among the most recent and instructive contributions to this enterprise are those issuing from the study of rhetoric, which attends in particular to the discursive and strategic dimensions of public memory.
Historians of the art will note that the relationship between rhetoric and memory is scarcely novel; indeed, it may be traced to antiquity, when early theorists counted memory as one of the five canons of rhetoric (the others being invention, arrangement, style, and delivery). It may be seen as closely related to Aristotle’s system of topical recall, for example, and Cicero held it to be crucial in the education of the orator. Significant modifications of this relationship in the present age, however, warrant a new set of considerations. The following offers a brief definition of the subject and three suggestions for framing it as a rhetorical phenomenon.
Public memory may be defined as a cultural process in which a shared sense of the past is created from the symbolic resources of human community. This understanding is provisional and shaped by the vested interests and aspirations of its members. From a rhetorical perspective, such a view presupposes that public memory is never neutral, natural, or without consequence. It is rather constructed, both a process and product of human ambition. Because we can only know the past as it is symbolically mediated, any given representation of it must be partial; and because memory is the form of knowledge through which we access the past, it too is necessarily selective and purposive. Public memory, therefore, may be taken as intrinsically rhetorical.
As a symbolic construction, public memory embeds itself in culturally available forms of mediation, or texts. These texts may range from monuments to orations, rituals of remembrance, photographs, quilts, tattoos, music, and so on. But whatever the various modes of expression through which memory speaks itself, they collectively serve to align the present to the past and the past to the present. And because public memory is created through such symbolic resources, any given message it is designed to communicate remains open to interpretation, debate, and revision, evidence for which may be found in the interminable contests over Holocaust revisionism, history textbooks, and public monuments.
As situated in contexts of power and politics, public memory raises serious questions as to its authority, ownership, and influence. Who or what is invested with the power to determine a given version of the past? To what political ends does a particular memorial practice operate? What are the differences between official and vernacular forms of public memory? Such questions lead invariably to contests over sanctioned memorial practices and those that seek to challenge them. Any comprehensive understanding of public memory thus requires a principle of counter-memory, or those practices that aim to disrupt or extend in ways unintended by the powerful. Examples of such counter-memorial practices include African-American “5th of July” celebrations, Gay Pride parades, and European counter-monument movements.
As a form of production, public memory entails a key paradox. Stated axiomatically, this paradox holds that every act of remembering is also an act of forgetting. That is to say, the construction of one memory may well displace, elide, or otherwise erase a competing sense of the past. Here indeed is the political rationale for much memory work: to install and sanction a version of history thought to be advantageous to a given interest. The emergence of the “lost cause” tradition in the post-bellum south, for example, is thought by many historians to have obfuscated the legacy of slavery and the ends for which the Civil War was undertaken.
For the ancients, memory was taken to be a technology of recollection (Yates 1999). That function still exists, of course, but the terms in which we now understand memory have expanded greatly. To understand public memory from a rhetorical perspective in our time is to grasp it as symbolically constructed, as situated within contexts of power and politics, and as inherently related to the process of forgetting.
- Browne, S. H. (1999). Remembering Crispus Attucks: Race, rhetoric, and the politics of commemoration. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 89, 169 –187.
- Hasian, M. A. (2006). Rhetorical vectors of memory in national and international Holocaust trials. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
- Phillips, K. R. (ed.) (2004). Framing public memory. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
- Yates, F. A. (1999). The art of memory. London: Routledge.