Imagining the Words of Others: Public Memory and Ceremonial Repetition in American Public Discourse
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Rhetorical analyses of collective memory study how perceptions of a shared past are maintained through public texts. This analysis explores an alternative relationship between rhetoric and remembrance. Rather than study the textual form of public memory alone, I argue that communities actively interpret artifacts of public discourse as public memory. The most enduring form of this practice is ceremonial repetition, or the deliberate recitation of a text during moments of communal observance. When performed effectively, ceremonial repetition imagines a text by highlighting a resonant virtue through public reading. Such strategies to mold the meaning of a text occur through a variety of messages adjoining recitation, such as formal speech, visual display, written testament, or spatial and bodily enactment. Ceremonial repetition illustrates the extensional evolution and legacy of speech in the public imagination. In a range of historically grounded case studies, this work explores the effectiveness and dominant strategies of ceremonial repetition different eras of American public discourse. These examples include the rhetorical invocation of a text within the discursive space of repetition, illustrated in Frederick Douglass’s August First orations on the Emancipation Proclamation in the late nineteenth-century; the pairing of visual icons and ceremonial repetition, as exemplified in official and public readings of George Washington’s Farewell Address within the context of a political flag display during the Civil War; the disjunction of repetition and written reflection, as evidenced by the U.S. Senate’s institutional recitation of the Farewell Address on Washington’s birthday; and the emerging genre of repetition performed through multiple voices and resonant scenery, as clarified in a variety of modern performances, such as the reading of the “I Have a Dream” speech by elementary school students celebrating the King holiday. These case studies illuminate various strategies used to translate past words by constraining their meaning for the needs of the present. Though ceremonial repetition offers audiences the opportunity to reconstitute a text’s properties and public legacy, this study concludes that such epideictic practice is most effective during moments of perceived crisis wherein core tenets of a political culture are profoundly questioned or disrupted.
Gaffey, Adam (2013). Imagining the Words of Others: Public Memory and Ceremonial Repetition in American Public Discourse. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from