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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Activating Public Memory: Robyn Schroeder's Post

[Panel's overall statement: As a panel, we're interested in the many ways in which history and memory have influenced the construction, dissemination, and reception of racialized national mythologies. In each case, the central question revolves around how national mythologies and narratives at the core of an American collective memory have be activated to challenge, bolster, or erase certain issues concerning race and social justice.]

The time had come, according to Barack Obama in his Inaugural Address, for Americans to “choose [their] better history" (emphasis mine). The line was political memory at its finest, openly marrying selective memory to national destiny, the culminating gesture of a campaign in which exhortations to anticipate, recall, and enact history were de rigueur.

The use of historical memory by Obama’s 2008 political campaign provides a superb case study for an important question in memory studies: how do historians of memory adjudicate distinctions between “chosen”and “imposed” memories? I pick up on a point made by Michael Schudson about the vernacular burden of memory; writing about the ways in which readily available idioms, laws, and political conventions manifested themselves during the Iran-contra affair, Schudson argues, “People did not choose the Watergate frame. It chose them. It imposed itself.”[1]I argue that particular memories—specifically, of race baiting, U.S. political assassinations,and partisan animosities—“imposed themselves” in this way on the otherwise triumphalist, civil religious memories chosen by the Obama campaign. The sense of history which emerged joined anxious nostalgia to confident telos, positing the essential American identity as simultaneously master of destiny and victim of history. That tension in national memory has—at this point almost self-evidently—unsettled a segment of the cultural consciousness.

To wet our appetites for thinking about the historical gestures of Obama and what Barry Schwarz calls the “post-heroic” mode ofmemory, I invite readers of the blog to visit (or revisit) the will.i.am video which riffed on Obama’s speech on the occasion of losing the New Hampshireprimary:


This video, I think, might tell us a great deal about the intersection of chosen and imposed memories. What happens when the face of celebrity substitutes for the image of populism and collective action? How does the song’s mournful tone interact, in terms of political effectiveness, with Obama’s “American history”? If memory is a kind of “enchantment” (as Patrick Wright, in Living in An Old Country, suggests)—that is, memory is history plus certainty—then does this song enchantor disenchant the sphere of national memory?

[1] Michael Schudson, “Lives, Laws, and Language: Commemorative vs. Non-commemorative Forms of Effective Public Memory,” The Communication Review, Vol. 2 (1), 1997, p.13.

Robyn Schroeder, Brown University

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