Memorials and Other Forms of Collective Memory

Peter Ehrenhaus. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. Sage Publication. 2009.

The decision to include a chapter on memorials and collective memory in this handbook is noteworthy in its own right. Had this volume been published 25 years ago, it is difficult to imagine that these topics would have been considered of sufficient importance to represent communication studies. Prior to the mid-1980s, published scholarship in communication and rhetorical studies was silent on the topics of “memorials,” “monuments,” and “collective memory.” At that time, memorials were studied primarily by art critics and historians, as well as by military historians. Similarly, the related topic of collective memory, and its implications for communal, cultural, or national identity, did not receive much attention in the communication discipline. Since that time, however, interest in these matters has blossomed. The same pattern holds for other disciplines and interdisciplinary arenas of study as well. In fact, critical memory studies has emerged as an important organizing term for the interdisciplinary study of collective memory and, thus, for memorials as well (see Zelizer, 1995). How can we explain the recent and rapid development of academic interest in questions of memory?

In this chapter, I first want to explore factors that have led communication and rhetorical scholars to the systematic study of memorials as memory projects—that is, to particular cases of memorializing that ostensibly speak on behalf of the community and affirm how some person, event, or moment in the past should be remembered. I suggest that the emergence of scholarly interest in memory projects reflects and reveals a crisis in contemporary cultural and political life that bears directly on our identity as members of our national collectivity. Second, since memorials designate some person(s), event, or activity as worthy of remembrance, I examine several views of “memory” as they pertain to the study of memorials and collective memory. Finally, I offer a sampling of different types of memorial projects—studies that engage a range of objects that operate as memorials—so that readers can investigate further about the growing importance of critical memory studies in the field of communication and develop a more expansive view of “memorials” and memorial practices to include a broad range of material, visual, and performative texts. Throughout this chapter, I ask you, the reader, to keep in mind the importance of historical and cultural context for studying memory projects. Rich and thoughtful contextual development enables us to appreciate how sites of memory serve as traces of a particular moment inacommunity’s life, traces that can reveal the tenor, tensions, hopes, and concerns of that moment. And since material sites of memory tend to endure through time and unfolding historical and cultural conditions, memory projects enable us to see how collective memory persists, transforms, and is open to disputation and appropriation.

Why Memorials? Why Only Recently?

We might first consider why memorials, as material sites of memory, have only in recent years attracted serious scholarly attention in communication studies. Three factors, minimally, contribute to the answer: (1) a cultural crisis of memory, (2) the historic centrality of speech in the communication discipline, and (3) paradigm shifts within the discipline. Together they provide an understanding of the catalysts that brought about contemporary scholarly interest in memorials, collective memory, and identity, particularly within the discipline of communication.

A Crisis of Memory

In 1989, the French historian Pierre Nora made this observation about a transformation taking place in the texture of everyday life. He wrote,

An increasingly rapid slippage of the present into a historical past that is gone for good, a general perception that anything and everything may disappear—these indicate a rupture of equilibrium … We speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left. (p. 7)

In this passage, Nora addresses what others have called the “fragmentation of contemporary culture” (see McGee, 1990), a general condition of life—called by some the postmodern condition—that is due to the advance of industrialization and modernization. Fragmentation is characterized by increasing compartmentalization of, and disconnection among, the “parts” of our lives; it reflects our loss of integration with the community itself, as we race about from work to school to family to other obligations, and our ever-increasing reliance on the mass and electronic media for connections to others. In the past, everyday life was characterized by the coherent integration of the entirety of our (ancestors’) lives within the rhythms of a community. And communities were “the real environments of memory” (Nora, 1989, p. 7), in which people shared stories and constructed the shared meanings of past events together. With the loss of these “real environments,” Nora argues, we hunger for “sites of memory.” In his view, community is local and situated in place rather than something more expansive. In fact, he distinguishes between history, as a narrative that belongs to no one in particular but to all of us in general, and memory, as communal narratives whose ownership is distinctly local and situated.

We can, however, take a broader view of this process of shared narrative construction and examine how we are constituted as members of a larger, imagined community based on the composite of stories that we inherit and retell about our past and that tell us who we are as a people. The unifying thread of these stories constitutes the “master narrative,” or the “grand metanarrative.” One frequent referent for this phrase is the entirety of Western thought and progress that gets labeled “modernity,” and it includes the centuries-long pursuit of human emancipation, the rise of individual liberties and self-governance, the advance of public education, the embrace of scientific knowledge and technology with its promise of security and plenty, and the belief in the preeminent human capacity for rational control of our individual and collective fates (see Harvey, 1989; Lyotard, 1984). Clearly, this is a hopeful and celebratory story, and equally clearly, the dominant “story of America,” with its own master narrative, resonates comfortably with and within the grand narrative of modernity’s promise.

But what does this have to do with memorials? One important answer is this: When our sense of our collective identity becomes problematic, unstable, uncertain, and open to challenge, memorials—as sites of memory that claim to speak on behalf of the collectivity—become of crucial cultural importance. When our sense of who we are as members of a community is no longer clear or stable or certain, we engage the problem of collective memory itself.

The Vietnam era did much to destabilize and undermine Americans’ faith in their master narrative, from the discovery that their government had lied repeatedly to them as citizens, to the constitutional crisis precipitated by Watergate, to the massacre of Vietnamese at My Lai by American soldiers, to the racism that African American soldiers and those of other minority groups faced on return home (see Schudson, 1992; Turner, 1994). Moreover, the entirety of the Vietnam era was entangled with the challenges of the civil rights and women’s rights movements. In the wake of America’s Vietnam War and its destabilizing impact on the American ethos, it is no surprise that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated on Veterans Day in 1982, quickly became the focal point of considerable attention by communication scholars (Blair, Jeppeson, & Pucci, 1991; Carlson & Hocking, 1988; Ehrenhaus, 1988a, 1988b, 1989; Foss, 1986; Haines, 1986). All these authors, in their own ways, engaged the problematic of what the war meant, of what (if anything) was served by the more than 58,000 American military deaths and the estimated 2.5 million Vietnamese dead, of what it meant to be an American.

America’s Vietnam experience was a significant catalyst for the emergence of memory studies and the examination of “public memory” and “the politics of the past,” as the historians John Bodnar (1992) and John Gillis (1994) remark in the introductions to their volumes. However, Vietnam is hardly the only experience or event to contribute to the rise of critical memory studies. There is much in our shared national story to call into question the meaning of national identity and the promise of the American master narrative. For example, against the claims of America as a beacon for decency and human rights stand the slaughter and subjugation of Native Americans and the torture and ritual humiliation of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib Prison. Against the promise of science and technology for human betterment stands the fact that only the United States has used nuclear weapons against human beings (see Linenthal, 1995; Linenthal & Englehardt, 1996; Prosise, 1998). Against the claims of human equality that are the foundation of Jeffersonian democracy stands the indisputable fact of American racial slavery and white supremacy, and the widespread resistance to seeing that as a part of the nation’s story rather than a violation of it (see Huggins, 1991).

In sum, when the texture of life is coherent and integrated and when the stories that bind us together as a community “ring true” with narrative fidelity, then the pervasiveness of commemorative practices and sites assumes an unexceptional quality and blends into the texture of everyday life. However, in the face of cultural fragmentation and loss of faith in the narratives that ostensibly unify us, memorials become culturally significant sites to deliberate, argue, or affirm who we are as members of a community.

The Centrality of Speech in Communication Studies

A second explanation for the recent emergence of memorials as significant objects of study in the communication discipline is found in the discipline’s lineage and historic grounding in the study of speech—discursive rhetorical practice. This central focus on the spoken word, particularly in the context of public address, has long relegated nondiscursive symbolic practices to supporting roles at best. Consequently, memorials per se have been overlooked as important cultural and rhetorical artifacts, despite the fact that rhetorical scholars have a long history of valuing and studying significant commemorative discourse throughout Western history. The interest by communication scholars in commemorative discourse, as a form of ceremonial discourse more generally, can be traced to the discipline’s early reliance on a neo-Aristotelian model of criticism, with its organization of oratory into deliberative, forensic, and epideictic (see Wichelns, 1925) and, more recently, to the impact of genre criticism (see Campbell & Jamieson, 1978). Within the category of epideictic, the scope of critical interest in commemorative discourse spans the entire Western tradition, from Pericles’s Funeral Oration, delivered almost 2,500 years ago, to contemporary times. In the pantheon of American public address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has long attracted scholarly analysis and adulation (see, e.g., Black, 1994). Interestingly, while the Gettysburg Address has received extensive scholarly attention, no investigation has been published in communication studies of how collective memory is constructed at the Gettysburg National Military Park through its museum, memorials, and monuments.5

Communication scholars who conduct close (verbal) textual analysis continue to make important intellectual contributions. The past quarter of a century clearly reveals that communication scholars are now far more open to investigating a wide variety of textual artifacts. In 1984, the study of memorials gained legitimacy when Hattenhauer argued, “Architecture not only communicates, but also communicates rhetorically” (p. 71) and then further suggested that perhaps “the clearest examples of what architectural signifiers connote is exemplified in ceremonial and monumental architecture” (p. 72). In 1994, Brummett offered a valuable distinction between “traditional” rhetorical texts as primarily verbal and expositional and the texts of “popular culture” as primarily nonverbal and narrative or metonymic, noting the increasing importance of the latter category. A cursory examination of publications in recent issues of communication journals will bear out the fact that traditional verbal texts now share scholars’ attention with texts such as architecture, films, photographs, and museums.

Paradigm Shifts

The third factor I wish to note concerns paradigm shifts in communication studies during the 1970s and 1980s. These shifts were influential for those who studied rhetorical texts as well as for those who studied communicative interaction practices and processes. It would be misleading to suggest that only rhetorical/communication critics can be interested in memorials as objects of study. The communication discipline comprises scholars drawn to various kinds of intellectual questions and objects of study and educated in a variety of modes of inquiry. As paradigms of inquiry shift, so too do the questions scholars ask and the phenomena that engage their attention.

One paradigm shift occurred with the “cultural” or “interpretive” turn in the study of human communicative interaction. Prominent in this alternative to traditional empirical social scientific inquiry was the “ethnography of communication,” an approach that theorized communication first and foremost as performed cultural practice (see Carbaugh, 1991; Philipsen, 1975, 1989). Ethnographic study seeks to describe how a culture’s communication practices enable people to construct shared meaning and conduct their lives meaningfully within a community with others. Certainly, memorials are amenable to ethnographic study, as they are both rhetorical products of the community and, frequently, sites of gathering for negotiating meanings of the community’s past. A noteworthy study of this negotiation process centered on a memorial site is Trujillo’s (1993) critical ethnography conducted on the 25th anniversary of the events at Dealey Plaza, the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. However, the primary focus in the “ethnography of communication” tends to center on the ritual quality of everyday communication practices rather than on more formalized public ritual practices (e.g., giving commemoration speeches) or public sites of commemoration (e.g., memorials). Consequently, memorials tend to take a supportive role in that particular ethnographic tradition. For example, in his study of the speech practices through which Vietnam veterans authenticated themselves to other veterans, Braithwaite (1997) examined how Vietnam veterans invoked the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a valued resource for claiming their own experiential legitimacy. The Memorial played a secondary role in this study, but this is not to suggest that interpretive communication research, more generally, cannot make the study of memorials its central focus. Operating from a critical-interpretive approach, Ehrenhaus (1988a, 1988b) has examined the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as both text and context, investigating the various ways in which people craft the meaning of that site as they interact with the Memorial, with the written and visual artifacts left for public consumption, and with the others present at those moments of encounter.

Another paradigm shift was the “ideological” turn in criticism (see McKerrow, 1989; Wander, 1983, 1984b). This turn arose in response to the technically oriented political disengagement of much communication criticism during the political and cultural foment of America in the 1960s and 1970s (which I have addressed earlier). Particularly in view of an American foreign policy that was increasingly viewed as morally suspect, the central questions posed by the ideological turn were these: What are the responsibilities of the critic? Is the critic’s primary task to understand and explain how a particular discourse is constructed to achieve its desired ends? Or is the critic’s primary task to render a judgment about the moral grounds on which a text advances its claims? Should the critic subject to critical scrutiny the worldview that supports the text’s arguments? The impetus for the ideological turn was based on three related positions: first, the recognition that power and privilege are always present in communication practices and texts and that power and privilege have material consequences in the world that affect real human beings; second, that communication scholars tend to study texts in ways that ignore issues of power and privilege—that is, how a text privileges a certain voice, or ideological position, and silences or distorts or undermines other voices or positions; and third, that criticism is a mode of public engagement through rhetoric and that scholars of communication have a moral obligation to be a part of the culture’s debates through their criticism instead of residing safely apart from those debates and studying rhetorical texts with sophisticated, technical dispassion.

Meanings of “Memory”

Central to the decision to study a memorial or to ask questions about memorializing is one’s choice about how to think about “memory.” The concept of “memory” has a long tradition in communication studies, originating in classical rhetorical theory with the five Roman canons of rhetoric—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. In his Sourcebook on Rhetoric, James Jasinski (2001) notes Corbett’s (1971) observation that of all the classical canons, rhetorical scholars have paid the least attention to memory (p. 355). The reason is not difficult to discern. Since antiquity, memory has been associated with memorizing speeches, and this locates (and hides) memory within the individual, apart from the more accessible and—for communication scholars—more interesting substantive, stylistic, and performative aspects of public discourse. This general assumption about memory as internal, individual, and hidden continues to be prominent today and resonates with contemporary cognitive psychology’s view of the individual as an information processor, retrieving stored information from memory. In fact, Bartlett’s (1932) classic psychological work on individual memory is often cited as a starting point for theorizing “collective” memory (see Middleton & Edwards, 1990; Wertsch, 2002, chap. 3). In this view, even if collective memory is constructed in interaction with others, the basic resources for that social product must come from the private memory of each individual; moreover, that interactively constructed memory then returns to, and helps shape, the individual’s memory. Jasinski (2001) further notes a renewed interest in memory through two trends in communication studies. Both require rethinking this classic view of memory as essentially individual. The first trend is grounded in the now widely held assumption that reality is social constructed through communication (see Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Mead, 1934). Building on this assumption, memory is conceptualized as a publicly accessible and socially constructed phenomenon; individual memory ceases to be the focus. Here, we find the basis for examining the relationship between memory as communally shared and memory as practices of commemoration, including the creation and use of memorials. The work of the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1992) prior to and during World War II is foundational to theorizing memory as socially and rhetorically constructed. Halbwachs proposed that we think about memory as a collective resource and that remembrance can be evoked by material objects—such as memorials—as well as by narrative recounting of events within the group. Moreover, the substance of collective memory is always selective, tied to groups’ experiences and life worlds. As a result, there can be a diversity of “collective memories” about the “same” event or person. As groups’ collective memories differ, so too do the meanings and significance of what is remembered. Ultimately, the choices and courses of action that we perceive available to us, and the actions that we ultimately undertake, depend on how we remember what we remember.

From this perspective, and consistent with the “cultural turn” in communication studies, a memorial could be studied by the ways in which that material object provokes, and evokes, a particular range of memories that are shared and negotiated by members of a community and that construct a collective identity. Or, more resonant with the training of text-based critics, one could read the signifiers that constitute a memorial as a coherent text for the meanings that it invites and encourages us to find; certainly, the text-context relationship would be crucial to enrich the critic’s insights, since the memorial’s meanings are shaped, in part, by the historical and cultural context in which the critic engages it. For this reason, and consistent with Halbwachs’ belief that there can be multiple collective memories of the same memorial, critical analysis of a memorial might help us understand how meanings of the “same” past differ among groups or transform across a community’s life. Meanings of the past are always contingent on the needs of the present (see Schwartz, 1982).

To explain the second trend, Jasinski (2001) draws on Cox (1990), who characterizes memory as a resource for disrupting prevailing relations of power in a society by bringing to public awareness evidence and an understanding of the past that has been hidden, silenced, or suppressed. In this view of memory, we encounter the ideological turn. More than just a social construction, memory is conceived here as a resource of invention and social critique—that is, a resource for thinking about the world, for arguing, and for revealing how powerful interests benefit by the hegemonic dominance of privileged viewpoints. Here, we find the theoretical move that underlies critical memory studies—scholarship that analyzes and “unpacks” the manner in which memory is rhetorically constructed to advance particular ideologically grounded viewpoints and agendas at the expense of other viewpoints and groups; that reveals how dominant constructions of memory “naturalize” present conditions through the selective process of remembering and forgetting; and that demonstrates how “forgetting” has been managed through silencing, absence, and suppression. Here, memory pertains to a reclamation process of recovering what has been lost or suppressed, to challenge the comfortable and comforting (for some) prevailing notions of “history”—how the world “is” and how the world “must” operate. In the arena of Holocaust studies, Irwin-Zarecka (1994) refers to the possibility of memory, which results from this reclamation work. Only when memory is recovered and made possible can a society deliberate about its obligations and responsibilities to (and not for) that past; this is the necessity of memory.

Operating from the agenda of this second trend, the study of memorials is motivated by a series of related questions about the politics of memory. First, implied by the phrase is the notion that memory is not a repository in which objective, factual, and stable content is stored away and from which “truth” can be retrieved; nor is it a location in which stored memories can fade if they are not properly tended. Rather, the “politics of memory” assumes that memory is constituted through our use of symbols and is manifested in this moment as we rhetorically construct memory through our communication practices. This assumption in no way requires us to abandon belief in “the past” or in “material fact” (i.e., that “things happened” or that “people committed particular acts,” as Holocaust deniers have attempted to claim). Rather, the politics of memory leads us to appreciate the contingent and positional nature of making meaning—that the significance or consequentiality of particular material events as well as their impact on human beings depend on how we value those events and those people. And this leads us back to memorials.

Second, because memory (and the meanings of memorials) is constructed through our communication practices, it is open to disputation by others who seek to frame the past differently in order to draw different lessons or guidance from it. Taken together, the phrase the politics of memory leads us to conceive of memory as a fluid discursive field (i.e., an arena of public discourse) of contested meanings, a site of struggle that reveals diverse and competing interests in society.9 Viewed in this manner, we can begin to understand how the politics of memory, and thus memorials as material manifestations of memory, bears directly on our collective identity—that is, how we think about who we are as a people. Marita Sturken (1997) writes about the connection between memory and identity in Tangled Memories,

Memory forms the fabric of human life … [it] establishes life’s continuity; it gives meaning to the present, as each moment is constituted by the past. As the means by which we remember who we are, memory provides the very core of identity. (p. 1)

A compelling example of Sturken’s observation is evidenced in Savage’s (1997) study of the extensive program of monument construction after the Civil War. One of the projects that he focuses on is the Freedmen’s Memorial—a memorial to Lincoln funded entirely by contributions from free African Americans and completed in 1876, a year that also marks the end of the Reconstruction. Consider the possibilities for the design of such a memorial at a moment when the possibilities for redefining race relations to create an interracial society were prominent in the national conversation. As Savage writes, the plan for this memorial “was in itself a test of emancipation’s strength” (p. 89), and the project was “an enactment of the cultural change that the nation had to bring about” (p. 90). It is noteworthy that the entire project was under the control of the Western Sanitary Commission, a white-run agency providing war relief. The final result of the project was a memorial in which a freed African American slave is kneeling in gratitude at the feet of a standing Lincoln, whose hand is outstretched over the head of the supplicant. In this representation, we find the unequal master-slave relationship reproduced in the liberation of the black slave from bondage by the noble white man. That unequal and inequitable relation of power would remain in place for nearly another 100 years.

The questions that many communication scholars pose about memorials and memory reflect the assumption that memory (and thus collective identity) is not so much a stable condition as it is a dynamic and unstable site (i.e., a fluid field of shifting meanings) where competing and contesting points of view vie to be heard and to prevail. Consider questions such as the following (perhaps as they might have focused Savage’s work on the Freedmen’s Memorial): What merits remembrance? How ought we to remember what merits remembrance? What voices or “positions” are (or should be) invited into these cultural conversations? Who is authorized to extend these invitations? How does this memorial advance a particular viewpoint of how the past should be remembered? Whose interests are represented by this viewpoint? What are (or have been) the consequences of this privileged viewpoint? What voices are suppressed or denied full legitimacy? What points of view ultimately prevail? And what are the implications of certain voices prevailing?

Haines’ (1986) essay about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is among the first studies of a memorial in the communication discipline and one centered expressly on the politics of memory. Haines draws on public addresses, news reports, and the poetry of Vietnam veterans to articulate the political struggle to control the Memorial’s meanings, to examine “the mediated struggle now generating the meaning and memory of the Vietnam War” (p. 1). Like Foss (1986), who is drawn to the architectural “ambiguity” of the Memorial’s physical design, Haines (1986) argues that this ambiguity permits administrative voices (of the Reagan administration) to appropriate the Memorial in their mediated, revisionist construction of the war’s meaning and purpose. This appropriation, he argues, denies Vietnam veterans control over the Memorial’s meanings as a place for therapeutic healing and creates for some a sense of personal despair so profound that some veterans see the Memorial as a potential site for suicide. His conclusion is particularly apt in view of contemporary American circumstances:

Maya Lin’s Memorial design transforms Vietnam’s grim statistics into an abstract image of sacrifice, generating rituals of remembrance and self-recognition within the context of Vietnam memory … The administrative attempt at co-opting the Memorial for political purposes is clear, and is linked to the power strategies of future wars … The Memorial’s profound meaning is not so much in how the dead are remembered … but in how that remembrance is used by power to explain—to justify—future sacrifices in future Vietnams. (p. 17)

Memory Projects in Communication Studies

I end this chapter with a refrain of Nora’s (1989) observation: “We speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left” (p. 7). In one sense, this is an odd comment, immersed as we are by material signs of memory, reminders that remembering the past matters. In another sense, Nora’s observation is poignantly apt. In many cases, the public dialogue, argument, and anticipation that precede a memorial site’s dedication often exceed the actual importance that the memorial site comes to acquire for the community; once the project is completed, it fades away from the public eye and becomes a familiar part of the landscape.

Carole Blair and Neil Michel (2007) observe that we are immersed in a contemporary “culture of public commemoration that began with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (p. 596) and that persists to this day; this is the “crisis of memory” cited earlier as a reason for the rise of the study of memorials and memory. The study of this crisis, manifested as a cultural preoccupation with public remembrance, has been the focus of Blair’s work since her original project on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as postmodern architecture (see Blair et al., 1991). Sites of memory that Blair and Michel have studied include the Civil Rights Memorial (2000), the Astronauts Memorial (1998), and the AIDS Memorial Quilt (2007), as well as the Witches Trial Memorial in Massachusetts and commemorative efforts at Kent State University (Blair, 1999). Their essay on the AIDS Memorial Quilt is one of seven essays in a recent special issue of Rhetoric and Public Affairs (Winter, 2007) devoted to examining the rhetorical implications of the AIDS Memorial Quilt; among the questions raised and addressed are whether the Quilt should be viewed as a memorial or an archive (DeLuca, Harold, & Rufo, 2007) and its impact on negotiating the public’s relationship with memory of the epidemic and homosexuality (Rand, 2007). And in his introductory essay in that collection, Morris (2007) notes the significance of Sturken’s (1997) earlier cultural analysis of the entanglements of Vietnam memory with the AIDS crisis, in which she examined the Quilt as a site of cultural witnessing, of bearing witness to trauma.

Zelizer’s (1998) Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye is a significant volume that concerns the global circulation of Holocaust photographs and its implications for witnessing. For a site of memory anchored in place, arguably the most important national memorial site for witnessing is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In one study at that site, Crownshaw (2007) examines the capacity of photographic evidence to evoke a kind of trauma in contemporary audiences that bears upon the transmission of memory. In another, Hasian (2004) examines the museum’s rhetorical dimensions and finds compelling evidence that the museum frames the Holocaust as an American affair. Using the film Saving Private Ryan as text, Ehrenhaus (2001) argues that Holocaust memory is embedded in the film’s narrative as the underlying explanation for the American war effort. Biesecker (2002) draws on that film, as well as Brokaw’s (1998) homage, The Greatest Generation, and analyses of the World War II Memorial and the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, to construct a text that together offers clear civic instruction to Americans on the celebration of their national identity. Implied in this civic lesson is the problematic that Owen (2002) identifies in her study of post-Vietnam films; the thematic development across these films articulates a falling away from the nation’s foundational principles, issues a jeremiadic call back to those principles, and results in the reaffirmation of a unified national identity in (once again) Saving Private Ryan.

But the problematic of memory is not limited to bygone decades. Indeed, the challenges of collective memory are substantial in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and in the wake of American responses to those attacks. Fried (2006) has studied the Smithsonian Institution’s “September 11” exhibit and finds that the exhibit positions visitors as witnesses to trauma and avoids the “larger geopolitical contexts” that would problematize the meaning of the day’s events; she concludes that this curatorial choice “impoverishes public knowledge and collective memory” (p. 387). Cohen and Willis (2004) direct their attention to National Public Radio’s “Sonic Memorial” project, which uses “digital multimedia convergence to create a national aural memorial” of the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center. Despite the fact that the Sonic Memorial “bridge[s] radio and new media environments through the creation of a lasting memorial website” (p. 591), the politics of memory is a prominent concern for these authors, who conclude with observations about the privileging and silence of various voices. And in a study of the commemoration of the American military dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, Grider (2007) examines how the “information architecture of the internet” has fostered the development of online memorial Web sites that decontextualize “human loss at the expense of a coherent representation of a military” (p. 265) or political rationale for these deaths.

In conclusion, once we move beyond the idea of a memorial as a stable physical structure located in time and space, we acquire a much more expansive notion of memorials as memorial projects—as organized rhetorical efforts to shape communal understanding of some aspect of our shared experience and past, to manage and struggle over its meanings, and to stake out a claim on how we should (or should not) stand in relationship to that past. Particularly in view of the continuing challenges to the American nation and the meaning of our collective identity, we have every reason to expect that memorials and memory studies will continue to be an important focus of attention in communication studies.