Sunday, November 16, 2014

Arguing Monuments and Material Rhetoric

The concept of "materiality" and how physical objects argue is becoming popular in rhetorical criticism. Scholars are beginning to theorize that buildings, cities, monuments, and other physical objects can argue, influence people, and tell stories -- just like words. The history of "the material turn" is quiet expansive (as I've discovered while writing my dissertation about it), but I will summarize some key points before discussing examples.

Traditional rhetorical criticism focused on the speeches of great orators and analyzed the word choices and potential effects. Scholars slowly began to incorporate other objects of study like groups of speakers, genres of speeches, and non-elite speakers. These variations still focused on the spoken and written word, however. Larger changes emerged when scholars began looking at how physical spaces constrain or offer opportunities in the way that speeches invite or construct possibilities for audiences. Moving through a space that has physical obstacles is similar to spoken commands or laws that restrict movement. Physical spaces and objects can themselves be symbols (like words) that have embedded meaning, affect, and significance. Materiality invites audience participation and makes arguments.

The first example of arguing monuments is the Portrait Monument at the US Capitol. The marble monument shows three elegant busts of prominent women in the women's suffrage movement: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. There is room for a fourth bust in a lump of un-carved stone in the rear of the monument.

Picture retrieved from Architect of the Capitol
This monument makes a clear argument that the work of women's rights is unfinished. There may have been great women in the past who deserve to be honored, but there is still the need for activism, activists, and progress. Furthermore, viewers of the monument are invited to honor the memories of these three great women by continuing on their work. Their memories do not invoke a sense of completeness or finality; their faces encourage the audience to ask, "what more can be done?" Some people have thought that the unfinished section is meant to be completed when the US elects the first female President. This, however, goes against the intention of the artist, Adelaide Johnson, to show the perpetually unsolved state of gender equality.

Another example is the Atheism bench. This monument is the first public monument to atheism, or a lack of belief in divinity. The American Atheists lost a court case to have a monument to the Ten Commandments removed from a Florida Courthouse. Instead of removing the monument, the court offered them the opportunity to build their own monument. The monument is a bench so as to be a functional piece of public display. It is covered in quotations that specifically mention religion and the American political and legal systems.

Picture retrieved from Time Magazine
The Atheism bench claims space for non-belief outside of a courtroom that, like Lady Liberty, should be blind to concerns of religion. The bench argues that religious belief should not be a factor in the courts. The bench also argues that public space should be free and open space where no ideas should dominate and none should be excluded. The bench also includes, in writing "consequences of breaking the Ten Commandments" as a direct verbal argument against the Ten Commandments monument displayed on the other end of the courthouse.

These are just two examples of how physical spaces can produce arguments. Oftentimes, memorials are coupled with verbal statements, like the Atheism bench, but it is important for scholars to note that images, monuments, and material things can produce independent, standalone arguments.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Denialism Studies and Re-claiming History

Image retrieved from this site.
I have been a little behind on my blog posts because I have been focusing on my prospectus. Also, last weekend, I attended a conference called, "Manufacturing Denial" which took up time with some great presentations and discussions. I was honored to be invited by the Strassler Center to take part. At the conference, I gave a paper on the similar argument patterns and rhetorical strategies in Holocaust-denial, climate change denial, and evolution denial. The three forms appeal to a unifying framework of conspiracy that allows them to construct enemies, discredit evidence, and shift the burden of proof onto historians and scientists. The article that served as the launching point for this larger piece can be read here. Summarizing comments from the conference can be read here by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, who I had the pleasure to meet and discuss evolution with at the conference.

Presenting on my panel at the Strassler Center at Clark University. Photo credit to Khatchig Mouradian.
This post will address some important themes that emerged and will place them in conversation with a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke out against the Vietnam War. His words echo in the present conflict as relevant and insightful. Similar to the foreign war sanctioned by government with dire, material consequences, denialism is often a pervasive, legitimized, and powerful force that begs us look at history and important rhetorical moments for guidance. 
The series of panels addressed many instances of denial, such as the genocide during World War II, the Armenian genocide, genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia, climate change, evolution, health effects of tobacco, autism vaccines, GMOs, political myths, and others. The variety of opinions ranged between questioning the worth of focusing and responding to denial to trumpeting the great work of exposing denial in its various forms. Some even went as far as to advocate for criminalizing denialism, as some European countries have done with the Holocaust, in all of its forms. They argued that not only are the memories of victims tarnished and 'the truth' being re-written, but also the mental and emotional well-being of descendants and citizens are affected by denialism.

Image retrieved from this site.
In the case of climate change, scholars argued that denialism promotes gridlock in the political system and stymies preventative action. Denialism, thus, is paramount to leading to thousands (and even millions) of preventable deaths. One scholar argued that the genocide of both humans and nature may have more casualties than any genocides in the past. Though I appreciate the candor of these scholars and respect that they are elevating issues such as climate change to the level of genocide in its consequences, criminalization is not the answer. It is quite easy for denialists to take advantage of criminalization as silencing the truth. The University of Utah Press, who came under fire repeatedly for published books that denied the Armenian genocide, has recently published a book by Lewy called "Outlawing Genocide Denial: The Dilemmas of Official Historical Truth" about the dangers of outlawing. Any type of law against denialism must somehow avoid issues of freedom of speech, specifically in America, and that everyone has opinions, however seemingly irrational or misguided they are.  In his speech, King argued that "communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons." Taking firm, violent action against those with differing opinions is rarely a way to change people's minds or completely quash those opinions. In fact, a common theme at the conference was the likelihood that being faced with opposing information may encourage a backfire effect that heightens the original belief. War and violence conquers; it does not convince.
One common theme that came up among the panelists and my own paper were that although literal and blatant denial is often most studied by academics and heard about by the public, denial in its implicit and subtle forms can be the most insidious. In the Q&A, an audience member asked if scholars were not misplacing their time and efforts by trying to combat denialists instead of working on other research. I argue with King, Jr., however, who argued that "silence is betrayal." To not address important points of deception and denial is to remain passive and allow for evil to flourish. One of my co-panelists argued that "sunlight is the best disinfectant." Scholarship, in part, is based off of the very values that we are decrying: skepticism. Scholars look critically at the state of reality, question norms, and expose constructed and often subtle workings of power. Denialists occupy an extreme version of this healthy skepticism to where even basic evidence, consensus of truth, and facts are discounted, seen as fabricated, and are questioned. How do we negotiate and foster healthy skepticism and critical analysis without invoking cynicism and isolation?

Image retrieved from this site.
Although King was met with resistance to his speaking out against the Vietnam War and his advocacy for peace in the Civil Rights movement he felt obligated to fulfill his duty, follow his path, and oppose the evils that he saw. King argued that "men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy." At the conference, the Armenian genocide and the Turkish government's attempt to rename the genocide as "the events of 1915" and paint the Armenian victims as insurgents speaks to a national, government-supported policy to change the past and rewrite history. It is not easy to oppose the government and break out of the "apathy of conformist thoughts." It is certainly much easier for many of us as scholars to turn the other cheek and focus on other issues. But when denial of facts and the subsequent gridlock and inaction occurs that threatens knowledge, public deliberation, and the future stability of the world, how can we not act?