Remembering the Iraq War : the rhetoric of public memory and the memory of publics

Rancourt, Michael A.
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Haskins, Ekaterina V., 1969-
Deery, June
Zappen, James Philip
Halloran, S. Michael
Winner, Langdon
Stromer-Galley, Jennifer
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Communication and rhetoric
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In this dissertation, I analyze representations of the Iraq War beginning with texts produced while the war was still in its early stages to gain a sense of how these texts and their underlying discourses were and are circulated to influence the dominant public memory. This allows me to look at how not just traditional commemorative texts play a role in public memory, but also how news media representations--namely, photographs--produced immediately following events initiated the discourse over which, and through which, publics compete. By attending to evidence of reception and recirculation of such texts, I am able to see how individuals and groups engage in the discursive competition over public memory through online discussions and new media, through film, and through public protests. Examining the connections between these various media and discursive modes presents a picture of public memory formed by a web of texts across diverse levels of discourse as publics compete to make their ideas about the war prominent and ultimately dominant in the larger public discourse. In this model, it is not enough that texts are produced representing the war. Public memory is constructed by the individuals who take up the ideas in these texts and pass those ideas around when they reproduce or redistribute those texts or produce new ones.
I argue that the public memory of the Iraq War has been dominated by publics critical of the Bush Administration as they have been able to respond to events and produce durable, potentially far-reaching texts that made their critiques seem like the "natural" or authentic evaluation of the war. This discursive model of public memory formation accounts not only for how a dominant public memory is formed but also how it is subject to change as competing publics rise in prominence and gain legitimacy for their counter-framing of the past. In order to maintain this position, groups must continue to circulate critical discourse through various texts reaching even those individuals and audiences who have little interest in following politics. This process ensures that references to the Iraq War as a failure of the Bush Administration are received more readily than references to the war as a successful foreign policy endeavor. In this sense, I present public memory as not only a resource for building relations among strangers but as a figurative archive of ideas, images, narratives, and evaluations of events about the past that serves as an inventional resource for subsequent rhetoric. In this research, then, I demonstrate how the struggle over public memory is a process by which circulating texts help make particular ideas appear most legitimate and particular publics appear dominant in public discourse.
Although scholars have widely acknowledged the fact that public memory is a partisan and contested phenomenon, little work has been done to identify the processes by which groups engage in this contest over the meaning of the past and how public memory can seem to "shift" over time as different sets of views about the past dominate at different times. By calling on Warner's view of publics and scholarship from political communication on framing, public opinion, and attitude influence, I extend theories of public memory to demonstrate the ways in which discourse constitutes publics and gains its impact on "public consciousness" through circulation in more and more prominent texts. When a set of ideas becomes visible and appears to be in ascension or even appears to be dominant for more people, those ideas seem to represent the public opinion or the public memory, implying that this view is held by the majority, all, or typical members of society. Of course, there is never consensus in the diverse public sphere, and so in this research I take the position that it is more useful to think of public memory as "the memory of publics" in order to highlight the ways there are multiple groups composed of individuals united by their shared views of the past. Public memory in this sense is a contest between groups constituted by circulating discourse, and it is this discourse that public memory scholars study, not to merely identify what given texts say or do, but also to examine how they help constitute publics vying for influence in the public sphere.
May 2013
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Dept. of Communication and Media
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
Rensselaer Theses and Dissertations Online Collection
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