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Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials

Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials

by Greg Dickinson (Editor)

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Though we live in a time when memory seems to be losing its hold on communities, memory remains central to personal, communal, and national identities. And although popular and public discourses from speeches to films invite a shared sense of the past, official sites of memory such as memorials, museums, and battlefields embody unique rhetorical


Though we live in a time when memory seems to be losing its hold on communities, memory remains central to personal, communal, and national identities. And although popular and public discourses from speeches to films invite a shared sense of the past, official sites of memory such as memorials, museums, and battlefields embody unique rhetorical principles.

Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials is a sustained and rigorous consideration of the intersections of memory, place, and rhetoric. From the mnemonic systems inscribed upon ancient architecture to the roadside accident memorials that line America’s highways, memory and place have always been deeply interconnected. This book investigates the intersections of memory and place through nine original essays written by leading memory studies scholars from the fields of rhetoric, media studies, organizational communication, history, performance studies, and English. The essays address, among other subjects, the rhetorical strategies of those vying for competing visions of a 9/11 memorial at New York City’s Ground Zero; rhetorics of resistance embedded in the plans for an expansion of the National Civil Rights Museum; representations of nuclear energy—both as power source and weapon—in Cold War and post–Cold War museums; and tours and tourism as acts of performance.

By focusing on “official” places of memory, the collection causes readers to reflect on how nations and local communities remember history and on how some voices and views are legitimated and others are minimized or erased.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is a very interesting and diverse set of essays in the field of public history, which focuses our attention on fascinating case studies that have not been widely examined before. That alone makes this collection of interest to a broad readership.” —Journal of American History

“A timely and welcome addition to the literature on memory studies, Places of Public Memory seeks to marry memory studies with the methodology of the rhetorician. This exceptional book should be widely read by cultural historians, rhetoricians, students of public memory, designers of museums and public displays.”—Journal of Popular Culture

“Places of Public Memory, makes a compelling argument that rhetorical scholarship on public memory has yet to attend sufficiently to memory's material manifestations and the ways in which they shape affective experience. . . . Dickinson, Blair, and Ott offer an exhaustive literature review-useful to anyone interested in the study of public memory-to show that attention to the materiality of remembrance and the ways such materiality structures affective experience will significantly expand our current understanding of the rhetoric of public memory. . . . The eight essays comprising this volume constitute a real contribution to the study of rhetoric and public memory.”—Rhetoric & Public Affairs

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Albma Rhetoric Cult & Soc Crit Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Places of Public Memory

The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials


Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5613-2

Chapter One

Radioactive History Rhetoric, Memory, and Place in the Post-Cold War Nuclear Museum Bryan C. Taylor

This chapter is concerned with nuclear museums as a rhetorical site of public memory in post-Cold War American culture. Its argument is developed across three sections. I will begin by discussing the unique relationships that exist between nuclear weapons, space, and rhetoric. Next, I will consider museums as reflexive spaces for the "entangled" discourses of nuclear history, memory, and heritage. I then conceptualize and critique the relationship between nuclear museum rhetoric and the evolving context of post-Cold War U.S. culture.

To preview my argument, this relationship may be characterized as follows: In American nuclear museums, currently, we find an ongoing contest between the proponents and opponents of continued nuclear weapons development by the United States and by other nations. That contest is conducted through rhetoric that interprets and evaluates the legacies of Cold War-era nuclear weapons production, and that circulates among audiences girding for the unfolding "Long War" between Western liberal democracies and radical Islamic jihadists. In this process, nuclear museums in the United States continue to serve as sites of struggle for the control of rhetoric that mediates public understanding of nuclear weapons development. At these sites, visitors encounter a throbbing history marked by paradox and risk. These phenomena threaten to breach the narrative "containment" typically sought by nuclear museum officials and their patrons. In this process, the places of nuclear rhetoric and of its apparent referents converge.

How this containment and convergence will evolve is a question that this chapter can raise but not resolve. That resolution requires the development of new nuclear places-of new rhetorical contexts that facilitate the ideal of genuine nuclear-democratic deliberation. To that end, I conclude this chapter with a surrealistic fragment that suggests how museums and rhetorical criticism can facilitate this development.

Nuclear Weapons, Rhetoric, and Place

As a historical and cultural phenomenon, nuclear weapons have created unique and highly charged relationships between space and rhetoric. To unpack this claim, we must consider some of the conditions created by their development.

Most obvious is the threat that nuclear weapons pose to the integrity of space as a potential place of human safety. The principal military innovation created by nuclear weapons arises from their efficiency: a single nuclear weapon instantly yields a scale of destruction that previously required the use of many conventional weapons over time. As a result, the space of a successful nuclear detonation is one of total, mercilessly enunciated force. That force speaks in three hellish registers: heat (producing both immediate incineration and raging firestorms), blast pressure, and ionizing radiation that is pathogenic, invisible, and persistent. The potency of this force was vividly demonstrated in the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which quickly signaled to U.S. military officials that nuclear weapons phenomena could not be easily contained. Once they were coupled with international delivery systems capable of evading detection and defense (officials reluctantly conceded that "the bomber will always get through"), nuclear weapons created a novel existential condition. Under this condition, the human inhabitation of all space became precarious and fatalistic, shadowed by fleeting images of devouring flashes and billowing clouds.

The development of nuclear weapons thus destroyed and reconfigured traditional boundaries that had organized the cultural experience of political, military, and social spaces. These boundaries included those between enemy, ally, and Self; between battlefield and home front; and-more abstractly-between the military, industrial, and civilian spheres of society. One example of this process involves the residents of postwar American communities surrounding military bases and defense plants. Reluctantly, those residents realized that proximity ensured that their fates were inextricably tied to the targeting of those facilities by enemy nuclear forces. Another example involves a lesson of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis: As that conflict escalated, the U.S. Strategic Air Command deemed it necessary to deploy its nuclear-capable aircraft at domestic civilian airports. As a result, this crisis undermined the viability of "counterforce" strategy as a tentative agreement between the superpowers that encouraged them to regulate nuclear conflicts by spatially discriminating between "military" and "civilian" targets. In the cultural history of nuclear weapons, then, American citizens have been required to assimilate the consequences of the military colonization of space for their own mortality.

So far, this account has emphasized a particular scene: a nuclear blast that signals the onset of enemy attack and-perhaps-apocalyptic conflict. While this scene is understandably fetishized, its prominence in the American cultural imaginary is also misleading. There are other modes of nuclear space, and they are-for various reasons-less amenable to representation. These spaces include the domestic and international sites associated with the development, testing, manufacture, and deployment of nuclear weapons. Collectively, these sites constitute a global network of factories, laboratories, waste-storage facilities, military bases, and their surrounding communities. As scenes of industrial, scientific, and military operations, these spaces are alternately valorized, normalized, and obscured in cultural rhetoric. Although their activities occasionally satisfy the requirements of dramatic narrative, these spaces are intensively bureaucratic and mundane. They are characterized by complex and rational articulations of instrumental phenomena such as institutions, technologies, occupations and professions, regulations, policies and procedures, infrastructure, budgets, and oversight.

To understand the rhetorical nature of these spaces, we must remember that nuclear weapons are capable of producing "effects" whether or not they are actually used as military weapons. That is, they are technological artifacts whose production requires the reconfiguration of space to serve military, scientific, and industrial goals. This process involves highly consequential-and often irreversible-material practices, including the appropriation, condemnation, and clearing of land; the exposure, displacement, and relocation of indigenous populations; the contamination and devastation of existing ecosystems; and the construction of facilities requiring significant reallocation of water and energy resources. The massive artificiality of this process is neatly captured by environmental historian Hal Rothman in his image of the wartime Los Alamos Laboratory as "cantilevered" and "grafted" onto the existing culture and environment of northern new Mexico.

Mounting-and highly controversial-evidence has established that the nuclear industrialization of these spaces has created destructive and extremely long- lasting consequences for public health, worker safety, and the environment (for example, stemming from the release of radioactive materials into groundwater). This evidence confirms the impossibility of "containing" the effects of nuclear weapons events. Instead, those effects evade control and circulate unpredictably within and across local communities, regions, and nations. The environmentalist colloquialism "Everything is connected" concisely expresses the sad wisdom arising from this ontological rupture. It suggests how nuclear spaces can be charged with both the ominous aura of illness, war, and death, and also with the material traces of production operations. While both sets of phenomena may create a sense of dread for inhabitants and visitors, the latter also creates unpredictable risk for their bodies.

So far, this account has not said much about rhetoric. Now that we have discussed different types of nuclear spaces, however, we can consider their articulation with discursive systems and practices. Here, two themes are prominent: (1) the role of Cold War rhetoric in containing the imagination and inhabitation of nuclear space, and (2) the dialectic of humane place and instrumental space that animates nuclear rhetoric.

In developing this first theme, we may begin with the work of Paul n. Edwards, whose history of computer technology characterizes Cold War containment as both foreign policy rhetoric and spatial phenomenon. Here, in assessing the United States' nuclear-strategic infrastructure, Edwards argues that "the Cold War can best be understood in terms of discourses that connect technology, strategy, and culture." That conflict, he argues, "was quite literally fought inside a quintessentially semiotic space, existing in models, language, iconography, and metaphor, embodied in technologies that lent to these semiotic dimensions their heavy inertial mass. In turn, this technological embodiment allowed closed-world discourse to ramify, proliferate, and entwine new strands, in [a] self-elaborating process."

Here, Edwards echoes Jacques Derrida's argument that, because of their apocalyptic potential for materiality, nuclear weapons exist mostly in and through rhetoric (for example, of military war games). As a partly imaginary space, the Cold War shaped, and was shaped by, the rhetoric and technology of nuclear defense. The interaction between these material and symbolic phenomena was shaped by the development of digital computing, whose rigorous, instrumental logics of calculation complemented the official U.S. vision of containment. In that vision, containment involved a dialectic of protection and curtailment practiced by the U.S. government on its Communist enemies, on its allies, on its domestic citizenry, and ultimately on the utopian global system fantasized as the outcome of U.S. victory. Achieving this victory, however, required the development of new means of integrating human and machine powers to defend national space against nuclear attack.

In this way, Edwards's history echoes an argument made by the cultural critic Paul Virilio: that, by creating a devastating threat that could be reliably delivered against all defenses, the development of nuclear weapons traumatically compressed the phenomena of space and time for U.S. national-security institutions. Those institutions responded by constructing a massive apparatus of global surveillance and response. That apparatus would defend the nation by producing continuous imagery that facilitated the remote and timely sensing, targeting, and destruction of enemy forces. In the postwar era, the militaristic imperatives of monitoring space, issuing commands, and controlling threats subsequently fused as a context for nuclear rhetoric.

William J. Kinsella has traced the legacy of the containment trope for the relationship between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and its stakeholder audiences such as corporate contractors, government regulators, and citizens living downwind and downstream from nuclear weapons operations. Specifically, Kinsella traces a history of "discursive containment," in which the possibilities for citizen participation in the DOE's nuclear policy making have been constrained by the rhetorical boundary work of its officials. Those officials have invoked, for example, the warrant of secrecy to restrict the circulation of nuclear information within a narrow, authorized audience, and have controlled the meaning of that information by asserting preferred frames of technical expertise. Discursive containment thus frames public participation as a potential hazard to official interests that should be minimized and controlled. The range and quality of rhetorical voice in the metaphorical space of nuclear deliberation are, as a result, significantly attenuated.

This first theme establishes space as an object of material and rhetorical practices organized under a specific metaphor. Our second theme, however, depicts space more generally as both the context and effect of rhetorical practices that embody the tension between official and popular interests. Here, we may begin with philosopher Michael Perlman's argument that nuclear officials and citizens have constructed the spaces of nuclear weapons development as-alternately-"places" and "sites." Perlman's use of these terms encourages us to appreciate the rhetorically constructed relationships between nuclear subjects and their locales. For Perlman, "place" describes the historical, aesthetic, and spiritual integrity of nuclear locations as objects of cultural memory (and thus also of rhetoric). Many nuclear spaces are profoundly poignant and volatile places of memory. The premier example is Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. Another example that is domestic-and thus less openly acknowledged-involves the 1950s-era backyards of southern Utah "downwinders." Here, Mormon children played in the radioactive fallout from aboveground explosions of nuclear weapons at the nearby Nevada Test Site. Representations of these places, Perlman argues, are not easily controlled or consumed. "Site," alternately, designates the technocratic organization of space for the purposes of nuclear rationality. Here, the spiritual and historical dimensions of nuclear places are rhetorically evacuated by officials in order to secure them as objects for the exercise of power. The depiction of Russian cities in U.S. nuclear targeting plans as overlying, concentric circles, measuring population fatality rates from ground zero outward, forms one example. Drawing on this work, I have argued elsewhere that the spaces of nuclear "home" and "field" are alternately linked and opposed in cultural rhetoric that represents the consequences of nuclear professionalism for cherished domestic and communal spheres.

Other scholars have similarly focused on conflicts between indigenous cultures and ecosystems, and postwar national security imperatives that animate nuclear spaces. Art historian Peter Hales, for example, has critiqued the rhetoric of space associated with the Manhattan Project's three principal operations in new Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington. At each of these locations, Hales argues, government officials distinctively conflated the discourses of militarism, bureaucracy, utopia, science, and industrial engineering. This conflation facilitated their use of rhetorical strategies such as condemnation (the evacuation of value to legitimate the seizure of property), compartmentalization (the containment of nuclear knowledge to preserve official secrets), and encryption (the neutralization of problematic nuclear meaning through the use of arcane codes and jargon). These strategies redefined communal spaces for the purposes of an emerging, authoritarian nuclear regime. Once restructured, those spaces mandated obligatory performances from their inhabitants of (self-) surveillance, security, loyalty, conformity, patriotism, and productivity. Hales's study thus establishes the role of rhetoric in conceptualizing space for nuclear-instrumental purposes. Once it is so conceptualized, space can be configured and administered as a technology to control the nuclear experiences and activities of its inhabitants.


Excerpted from Places of Public Memory Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Greg Dickinson is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Colorado State University.

Carole Blair is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina.

Brian L. Ott is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Colorado Denver and author of The Small Screen: How Television Equips Us to Live in the Information Age.

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