Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero
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Duke University Press Books
Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero

Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero

by Marita Sturken


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822341031
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/01/2007
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Marita Sturken is a professor of culture and communication at New York University. She is the author of Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering and a coauthor of Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture.

Read an Excerpt


Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4103-1

Chapter One


In the first few months of 2002, the shoe and clothing designer Kenneth Cole ran an advertising campaign with the theme "Today Is Not a Dress Rehearsal." Cole is known for his quirky and often politically inflected advertising campaigns. He stands out among advertisers who deploy social awareness themes in their advertising campaigns both because he publicly contributes to charities, including many AIDS support groups, and because he writes the ad campaigns himself. The "Today Is Not a Dress Rehearsal" campaign featured a series of ads in which male and female models dressed in Kenneth Cole clothes and accessories were posed in domestic settings amid traditional furnishings: a rustic wooden table, a worn leather couch, and so on. Each image, with its soft hues of beige and brown, was accompanied by a different tagline: "On September 12, People Who Don't Speak to Their Parents Forgot Why"; "On September 12, Fewer Men Spent the Night on the Couch"; "On September 12, We Used Protection in the Bedroom, not the Mailroom." One ad, which features a man's hand touching a woman's hair, with wedding ring and Kenneth Cole watch noticeably displayed ("Men's Croco Leather Strap Watch W/Multi Function Dial $150"), reads "On September 12, 14,000 People Still Contracted HIV."

Kenneth Cole's "Today Is Not a Dress Rehearsal" campaign was one of the most sophisticated produced in the first months after 9/11. It spoke to the sense of crisis in the moment, and the sense of a necessary rearranging of priorities after the shock of the events of 9/11, a moment when family disputes seemed petty and worth forgetting; it also made reference to the many ongoing world crises that should not be overshadowed by 9/11, such as the AIDS epidemic. In these ways, the campaign resisted much of the exceptionalist rhetoric that defined post-9/11 discourse. Yet the ultimate intent of the Cole campaign was not simply to jolt potential consumers into putting 9/11 in perspective: it was to provide a sense of comfort in the face of fear and loss. The soft colors, muted tones, and scenes of domestic calm are selling warmth and reassurance. At the time, Cole's marketing director stated, "The world was not ready to see another typical fashion ad. Kenneth was very specific about wanting to show a relationship, warmth, humanness-moments most people would actually relate to." By marketing domestic contentment, these ads are selling the reassurance that one can be socially aware and safe.

The social message of the ads is at times offset by the occasionally jarring elements within them. In one ad, for instance, a young woman lounges on her back on a worn wooden table, eating strawberries from a bowl while a dog eats from a bowl beneath the table. A wallet with dollar bills peeking out at the edges lies next to her on the table and a Kenneth Cole leather bag is slung casually across the chair. In this context, the tagline "Today Is Not a Dress Rehearsal" reads ironically, if not comically: the image conveys not simply comfort but a sense of careless privilege. Writes Richard Stamelman, "We must recognize, as Kenneth Cole has instructed us to do, that fashion is no longer the rehearsal it once was but reality itself. Fashion now articulates, reiterates, and coincides with the reality effect put in force by September 11 itself."

The selling of comfort is a primary aspect of the affirmation of innocence in American culture. While the Cole campaign represents a relatively nuanced manifestation of comfort consumerism, it can be seen in the context of the long history of the marketing of domestic comfort as a means of reassuring the national public of the cohesion of the nation. In the post-9/11 context the selling of national comfort takes on certain implications; in particular, it is a means of erasing subsequent U.S. aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq (the role of those who need comfort erases the role of the aggressors). As a country that has defined itself consistently in relation to an external danger, a country defined by fear (founded and unfounded), the United States has been shaped in many ways by discourses of security, defense, and comfort. One of the primary expressions of this national discourse has been consumerism and the marketing of products to defend the home and to provide domestic simplicity in a world of chaos and threat.

In this chapter, I examine the relationship of consumerism to comfort, innocence, and security as it has manifested in American culture during the 1990s and in the post-9/11 era. How is it that the fear of an enemy and an abstract sense of danger have shaped national identity and notions of citizenship? How have consumer practices helped to enable this discourse of security, defense, and paranoia? It is my aim to make connections between the post-cold war trends of the 1990s (in which the "search" for an enemy to define our national identity took the form of increasingly mainstream paranoid cultures and the rise of a prison state and right-wing militias) and the post-9/11 culture, defined by threat and security concerns. In both these contexts, national identity is constructed through practices of consumerism. This consumerism infuses lifestyles of comfort and security with national meaning and speaks to individual consumers (consumers seeking comfort and reassurance as much as pleasure) as part of the nation.


The United States has consistently defined itself in relation to a sense of external threat and as a state that is continuously endangered. David Campbell writes that the "boundaries of a state's identity are secured by the representation of danger integral to foreign policy." He notes that U.S. foreign policy justified the invasion of Iraq in 1990 by articulating Iraq's invasion of Kuwait as a threat to the United States. Thus are imperialist policies expressed through and justified by concepts of security. William Appleman Williams writes that the definition of security in American history has often been synonymous with world control. He notes that Jefferson's doctrine "that the only way to avoid trouble with neighbors is to acquire or dominate them" is "a conception of security that has little to do with strategy and much to do with paranoid acquisitiveness."

Security as acquisition has also been closely allied with the image of the United States as virtuous and pristine in relation to other nations. Campbell states, "The ability to represent things as alien, subversive, dirty, or sick has been pivotal to the articulation of danger in the American experience." Often this has been expressed as a form of paranoia: a powerful nation-state feeling continually under threat (disavowing its own power), seeing danger everywhere. This sense of danger was powerfully manifested during the cold war, when the Soviet Union was a compelling enemy against which fervent forms of patriotism were created. Yet the cold war was not exceptional; that guiding sense of danger, which preceded and has outlasted it, simply crystallized during that time.

This defining sense of danger is inseparable in the United States from a culture of consumerism. Pervading all aspects of public and civic life, consumerism was solidified in the postwar era, helping to establish what Lizabeth Cohen has called the "consumers' republic." Whereas community cohesion and action were social ideals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cohen argues that in the consumers' republic the highest values are equated with the promises of mass consumption, both in terms of material life and in relation to freedom, democracy, and equality; in other words, consumption is the route to social ideals. Cohen states that the consumers' republic was a comforting vision which "promised the socially progressive end of economic equality without requiring the politically progressive means of redistributing wealth." The underlying message of the consumer republic is that citizens need not sacrifice as individuals in order to benefit from these social ideals. Individual consumerism, rather than social policy, was offered in the 1950s as the promise of social change and prosperity. During World War II citizens were told by the government that sacrifice (on the home front, through rationing and working for the war effort, and on the battle front) was the primary means to participate in the nation; during the postwar era, the goal was a life without sacrifice. Along with this shift, as Cohen notes, came more social inequality along racial lines, a decrease in voter participation, and increased social and political segmentation.

This belief in consumption as the avenue to social change and the deep interrelationship of consumerism and citizenship has only grown more powerful since the postwar era. The news media consider measures of consumer confidence to be key indicators of the national mood, and, as I will discuss further, national crises such as 9/11 are often seen as crises of consumerism as much as crises of national strength. One could also argue that increasingly since the postwar era, marketers and advertisers, more than the government itself, speak to Americans as citizens. Indeed, government agencies and officials now deploy the style of marketers and the language of consumerism to address citizens. There is a deep alliance between the practices of consumerism and the practices of patriotism.

The home plays a very particular role in the ways that these two features of American identity-its dependence on external threat and danger and its dependence on consumerism-are realized together. Throughout U.S. history, and particularly from the postwar era onward, the home has been defined as a primary territory of defense and the nation has been articulated as individual citizens defending their privacy and their personal domain against outside enemies and government overreach. The home has also been shaped by particular practices of consumerism. As many scholars have noted, the modern home is defined by the consumption of furnishings, appliances, communications technologies, and leisure items. These consumer goods were testimony to the affluent lifestyle of the emergent middle class and symbols of American technological superiority during the cold war; more recently, they have epitomized the increased integration of work and domestic space in postindustrial economies. Thus, the postwar kitchen was seen as both testimony to the affluent lifestyle of the emergent middle class in the consumers' republic and as a symbol of U.S. technological (and, by extension, military) superiority in the cold war. Today, the integration into domestic life of communication technologies such as the Internet and cell phones has made the home a high-tech extension of work life, dissolving the boundaries between them.

Beginning in the postwar era, military research and development was reconfigured for technologies for the home. World War II military technology spawned domestic products such as the aerosol spray can, which appeared in the 1950s idealized home in such products as spray paint, hairspray, and insecticide, and the television set, which epitomized the postwar suburban home. In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, this technological transfer has manifested most obviously in the proliferation of a consumer market for oversized vehicles, such as Hummers, that are the progeny of military transport vehicles. There is a long history of seeing this military-domestic intersection as plucky American know-how retooling military strategy for home practices. This interrelationship of military and domestic technologies helps to create a sense of fluidity between the realms of the domestic and the military in U.S. culture. Crucially, this translates into a pervasive ease with the notion of the home as a key site of national security.

In the post-9/11 era, this relationship of military security and home security has deepened dramatically. Harkening back to the 1950s' bomb shelters and civil defense, the current culture of security has taken on a new level of meaning in the context of a declared "war on terror." The home finds its counterpart in the post-9/11 context of "the homeland," with the prevailing notion that both are sites under siege. In the face of increased global insecurity and fear of terrorism, home security and homeland security have also produced an aesthetic of security that operates at many levels in American culture. David Morley has argued that the "articulation of the domestic household into the 'symbolic family' of the nation ... can best be understood by focusing on the role of media and communication technologies." One could argue that the articulation of the domestic home into the homeland of the nation is enabled in the context of post-9/11 fears by the practices of a consumerism of security. The militarization of the home is thus not only a means through which public fear of terrorism is mediated but is also a process through which the domestic household is articulated into the policies of the U.S. government. Defending the home and the desire to feel "at home" are key elements in the imperial policies of the U.S. government after 9/11. Underlying both are notions of innocence and comfort: the home that must be defended from external threat is articulated as a site of innocence, and the desire to feel at home in the United States and in the world is enabled by the idea of comfort. These form parallels with the consumerism of patriotism and kitsch in that there is comfort, if not pleasure, in the feeling of belonging that patriotism brings.

Consumerism and paranoia are both responses to disempowerment and practices enabled by notions of innocence. They underlie the act of buying a Hummer in order to feel safe in one's neighborhood while one's country is at war across the globe for, among other things, an economy dependent on the overconsumption of oil. Commodity fetishism, which endows commodities with meanings that are disconnected from their production and economic effects, enables the purchase of a Hummer to be seen as a solitary act of home defense and comfort, rather than as a politically inflected consumer decision that impacts foreign policy and the environment. The effect is circular: the fetishizing of the Hummer as a vehicle that provides individual comfort and safety helps to create the insecure environment that produces the desire to purchase the Hummer to begin with.

These aspects of consumerism and fear have reached new heights in the post-9/11 era. Yet, as I have attempted to make clear, these tendencies extend back to the postwar era and before. There are important connections as well between the fear generated in the post-9/11 era and the rise of paranoia in the relatively less threatened 1990s. Before turning to the issues raised by 9/11 consumerism, I would like to examine two elements of the culture of paranoia and fear that defined the United States in the 1990s: the right-wing militia groups that fueled the context in which the Oklahoma City bombing took place and the postindustrial shift toward a prison industry nation. These form the foundation of many of the practices that emerged in the post-9/11 context. The practices of paranoia and consumerism promote the idea that the American citizen exists in a state of innocence. They allow for U.S. national identity to be seen simultaneously as strong and naïve.


Excerpted from TOURISTS of HISTORY by MARITA STURKEN Copyright © 2007 by Duke University 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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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. Consuming Fear and Selling Comfort 35

2. Citizens and Survivors: Cultural Memory and Oklahoma City 93

3. The Spectacle of Death and the Spectacle of Grief: The Execution of Timothy McVeigh 139

4. Tourism and “Sacred Ground”: The Space of Ground Zero 165

5. Architectures of Grief and the Aesthetics of Absence 219

Conclusion 287

Notes 295

Bibliography 319

Index 333

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