The Cultural Memory of Violence

Class Abstract

How do cultural texts, objects, and performances like Avatar, 9/11 teddy bears, and a Civil War reenactment each reflect different ways that American society remembers violence? History books, literature, photographs, museums, memorials, and film are among a list of cultural productions that attempt to represent history. However, history is always a partial, subjective representation of the past. And when the historical events are violent and traumatic, the debate about accurate representation becomes particularly contested. For instance, how is the Holocaust remembered differently by Americans touring the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., watching Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List or reading Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus?

To answer these sorts of questions, we will rhetorically analyze cultural representations of violence that inform American memories and identities today. Because different mediums and genres contribute to the message they are conveying, your research-based argument can analyze “texts” as varied as photography, museums, film, websites, performances, or music related to a historical account of violence that matters to you. To achieve this, we have at our disposal arguments from literature, history, cultural studies, political science, sociology, psychology, or anthropology. With our chosen text(s) and disciplinary arguments, we’ll use the rhetorical tools acquired in this course to understand how cultures produce (and are produced by) memories of violence.

Rhetorical Analysis (1200-1500 words; 4-5 pages): For this essay you will provide a close reading of the rhetorical strategies of a work of textual, visual, or performative rhetoric. For example, you might analyze the rhetorical strategies of an op-ed article, film, art exhibit, or history book to understand how the creators of these cultural texts make an argument about the “correct” representation of a violent event. For instance, you could closely read the film The Kingdom of Heaven to analyze Ridley Scott’s rhetorical strategies in making the memory of medieval Crusades relevant to Americans after 9/11.

Texts in Conversation Essay (1800-2400 words or 6-8 pages): For this assignment you’ll begin work on your final research project by surveying, analyzing, and synthesizing the conversation surrounding and shaping the research topic of your choice within the larger field of cultural memories of violence. Because the literature of cultural memory is so vast and interdisciplinary, you will at this point need to choose one historical event to narrow your research in on.

Research-Based Argument (3600-4500 words or 12-15 pages): In this essay, you will make a unique argument based on the research you conducted and the insights you developed in your TiC. Your RBA will be based on the historical event you studied in your TiC, and you will focus on a specific example of how that event is remembered in American culture. You might study how the cultural memory of slavery is illustrated in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, while that same memory is simultaneously “forgotten” through the absence of an official memorial or museum in Washington, D.C. (as there is for the Holocaust, for instance).

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