Friday, July 09, 2010

Re-membering White Privilege: Rhetorical Memory and Film

Introductory Bio

Tammie Kennedy is an assistant professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. She teaches graduate courses in rhetoric and composition studies, as well as undergraduate courses in film, writing, and rhetoric. Her scholarly interests focus on the intersections among rhetoric and composition pedagogies and critical race and gender studies, particularly how those who are marginalized manage to speak, write, and perform in ways that challenge dominant culture. She has regularly presented at CCCC, and has published her work in Rhetoric Review, JAC, and the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Currently, she is working on several projects that demonstrate how the generative, critical, and embodied qualities of memory have not been sufficiently engaged in rhetoric and composition studies. In particular, she is writing about how rhetorical memory provides a critical tool for students to analyze, disrupt, and revise truth claims often represented in traditional bodies of knowledge.

Blog Entry

As someone committed to whiteness studies and anti-racist pedagogies, I am interested in understanding how memory might address some of the frustrations I’ve experienced when teaching diversity issues. Recently, I’ve been exploring how films might be used more productively in ways that disrupt the rhetoric of racism and white privilege and sustain ethical social action. Rhetorical memory—the products and processes of remembering and their effect, or “re-memory” to use Toni Morrison’s term—provides a critical tool to investigate how whiteness circulates (in)visibly in films and how those images resonate in our memories. Rhetorical memory provides a conceptual platform from which to stage a critique about how the ideology of racism/white privilege is rooted in memory—what is remembered, by whom, for what purposes, and with what effect—and how these memories are put into discourse in ways that that shape our notions of “reality,” as well as our perceptions of self(s) and others(s). I believe rhetorical memory can enrich and expand the productive use of film in whiteness pedagogies.

When talking about identity and difference in film, I ask students to examine the links between the politics of remembering and the ideology of representation. In this way, films function as a technology of rhetorical memory that empowers students to interpret and analyze how public and private memories are complicated by our differences. Analyzing films from this perspective moves students beyond a cognitive understanding of social inequities and injustices to create a more “memorable” experience that might last after the class ends. Films appeal to the emotions, revealing both the generative and destructive effects of their construction. Such constructions have profound results on both individual and public memory, which Robert Burgoyne explains this way: “Film, in effect, appears to invoke the emotional certitude we associate with memory. Like memory, film is associated with the body; it engages the viewer at the somatic level, immersing the spectator in experiences and impressions that, like memories, seem to be [what Nietzsche calls] ‘burned in.’” Understanding how these images get “burned in” our individual and collective memory is important because it helps viewers understand how white privilege and racism is sustained as a cultural norm that conceals power and resists exposure.

In order to study rhetorical memory as well as explore the intersections among diversity, memory, and movies, I created a 300-level course called Rhetoric, Memory, and Popular Film. Here is an excerpt from the course description:

The blurring of memory and media representations bring up new questions for us to consider: How do movies shape human memory? How are memories represented in film? In addition, how does film function as memory? How does memory affect the way we see the world and ourselves? How do movies make memory vulnerable to ideological forces at the same time that they invite contestation and revision? Throughout the course, we will ask how movie memories shape our identities as individuals, community members, and national and global citizens.

To demonstrate the pedagogical power found at the intersection among whiteness studies, rhetorical memory, and film, I’ll share a class example based on Forrest Gump (FG). This 1994 film earned significant commercial and critical success but was also adopted by political conservatives such as Newt Gingrich to articulate a traditional version of postwar American history. Because most students have seen the movie and consider it a harmless comedy, FG provides an ideal text to use to locate and interpret how white privilege is “re-membered.” For example, the class discussed the following issues after watching the movie:

• Is Forrest Gump, as Robyn Wiegman argues in “Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity,” rendered “discursively black” through the analogy between disability and black social disenfranchisement? If so, do viewers remember him as anti-racist figure because he innocently participates in desegregation and has an interracial male friendship with Bubba?

• Does the film, as Thomas Byers asserts in “History Re-Membered: Forrest Gump, Postmodern Masculinity, and the Burial of Counterculture,” construct a concensus view of American history based upon the authority of the white father and the marginalization of the black, female, gay, and radical “other”?

• What does it mean that Forrest was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the KKK? Even though Forrest views these men as part of a “club” that ran around in bed sheets, pretending to be “ghosts or spooks or something,” does the film provide a critique of white privilege, or does it take the easy way out by portraying the Klan as “silly,” not vicious?

Examining Forrest Gump as a figure of what John Fiske calls “circulation and contestation” inspires engaged classroom discussions, and students were willing to explore these various interpretations. However, the discussion also revealed the hegemonic power of whiteness in many student reactions. Ultimately, after 20-30 minutes of enthusiastic dialogue, much of the conversation stalled in some of the typical ways: First, a few students insisted that the movie was a just a comedy and academics were “reading too much into it.” While these same students granted that the movie was essentially “whitewashing” the roles of African Americans and women in our collective memory, they also maintained that was the nature of movies—a movie can’t cover everything. Second, since the movie is a fictional comedy, it doesn’t have to be true, so not all of these issues matter. Finally, some students introduced notions of intentionality. They maintained that the director “didn’t mean to be racist” even if, paradoxically, his choices created such representations.
Here we were again.

After such a productive discussion where students were able to locate whiteness, I was disappointed that we had ended up—once again—adrift within the various intonations of denial. While it wasn’t necessarily important to make a case that the director was “racist” in his intentions, it was essential to examine why many of the students felt compelled to defend the film with the argument “the filmmaker didn’t mean to be racist.” After all, whiteness sustains its power through one’s blind spots to racism and white privilege that reflect deeply held and often unconscious biases. Furthermore, the “s/he-didn’t-mean-to-be-racist” defense is less persuasive when we consider that “intentions” don’t necessarily matter when we consider how ideologies are written in discourses. In fact, this type of defense only makes sense in a world where white privilege is normal.

But then something different happened. Because we had been looking at films through the lens of rhetorical memory and noting how powerfully a film’s construction shaped our individual and collective memories, I was able to stage a different kind of critique that moved us beyond the usual impasse. I asked, “but what about memory?” How is this film shaping the way people remember important historical events and their relationship to the present? How are white ideologies more powerful in FG given the fact that mediated memory functions like what some psychologists calls “flashbulb memories”—intensely vivid and emotionally charged responses that enhance their resonance and read as “real” like a documentary?

The spirited conversation resumed. We started discussing our previous readings about how movies construct both individual and collective memory. Through rhetorical memory, we see how films like FG transform the past by eliminating contradictory or unwanted memories and prioritizing those more favorable or useful. Such a process describes the rhetoric of white privilege/racism. In addition, we discussed how “memories” are often the memory of a mediated experience in the first place, which makes it more difficult to determine “fact” from “fiction.” For example, we discussed how many of our memories of 9/11 are based on the media images and how those intersected with our personal memories, such as where we were when we first experienced the collapse of the Towers or if we knew people in NYC who were affected.

Then I offered the students this statistic from a TV Nation study quoted in Wang: "34% of Americans who voted Republican in the 1994 congressional elections thought that Gump was not a fictional version of ‘60s history, but a documentary.” The students went silent for a minute while they pondered that percentage. Many of them recognized that they had a similar experience the week before when we studied JFK and admitted that they had remembered it as a documentary film, not fiction-based. By the end of class, the students had resumed their critical conversation about how a film like FG maintains white privilege. In fact, they agreed that films like FG make white privilege even more invisible (and scary) for two reasons. First, because the film uses digital and mediated images that read like “real” memory, people forget it’s fictional. Second, because the film seems like a harmless comedy, viewers tend to overlook biases and ideological assumptions and implications

Most of the students agreed that while we can read and interpret the meaning of various choices made to construct white ideologies, questions of interpretation are more profound when we also consider how digital and mediated memory in films construct the ways we re-member a certain decade, event, or person. I am optimistic about the ways rhetorical memory can inform how we theorize and teach diversity issues. The focus on the rhetorical nature of memory has helped to augment classroom critiques and productively redirect discussions about white privilege and the power of ideology, even in the most seemingly innocent films. I would love to hear how other scholar-teachers use film and memory in their work on diversity issues.


Kyle Simonsen said...

The idea that comedy somehow nullifies, neutralizes, or obfuscates the issues at work in a text is interesting and a bit baffling to me; comedy has always been the most adept form, historically, for social commentary and critique. If the notion that "if we laugh at it, it must be harmless" doesn't smack of privilege, then nothing does. This isn't to say that comedy is "bad," or any such thing, just that what delights us should also probably disturb us. I watched Gilliam's "Brazil" the other night for the first time and that film provides as good an example for what I mean as any.

I think it's interesting that not only are films a part of our memories, and in some cases a substitute for absent memories, but that they are so emotionally resonant. I'd be interested to see if the students who were quickest to defend "Forrest Gump" actually enjoyed the film, had seen the film previously (and thus had some of those impactful memories) or were just generally dismissive of film's power to affect and change us. We can't afford to be so nonchalant about the impact of an entire artistic medium just because it's been largely co-opted by a titanic industry, and perhaps students seeing film as socially important can be a good way to open them up to seeing other texts as similarly significant.

I really like the way that a focus on memory and film allows students to reflect on their own experience and evaluate their own beliefs and actions for ideologies they likely aren't even aware they are adopting. However worthwhile it is to critique "Forrest Gump," to get the student critiquing themselves is infinitely more rewarding.

HeidiAZ said...

It seems like FG is the perfect movie to start with, it's seemingly simple, like FG himself. Do you ever use animated or sci-fi films in your classes? Some of them have characters that seem to have a non-white racial identity, either in their voices, or the way they carry themselves. I think one of the later Star Wars movies had some.

Another thing I like about your discourse with the class is that you brought up two of the key questions to ask yourself when critiquing any film, writing or work of art: what is the director/artist/writer/studio including in the movie/project; and what are they leaving out? Every decision is made "on purpose" and it sounds like your students caught on to that in the discussions about FG.

Thanks for a clear explanation of your process. I'm sorry I don't live close enough to take your class.

Devin said...

I completely agree with Kyle. A good example of comedy as social commentary: Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Funny? Yes. Harmless? Definitely not.

I find the question of memory, and the ways in which it is linked to perception, particularly intriguing. As Kyle mentioned, if a student had been introduced to "Forrest Gump" at a young age and had come to associate childhood "feel-good" feelings with the film, it might then be quite jarring to deconstruct its underlying commentaries and the ways in which these correlate with the student's own beliefs or, at the very least, denials.

The timing of your piece is funny for me--my fiancee and I went to the new Predator movie over the weekend (it was surprisingly entertaining) and we ended up in a long discussion about the film's racial/sexual hierarchy. All the humans in the movie are morally questionable in some way, but the film clearly ranks them by race and even links redeemability to whiteness (the only character that upsets this framework is the one woman, who is not white--but this also regurgitates the stereotype of the morally infallible woman). I also noticed that some of the actual Predators wear neck rings like those in African cultures (not to mention they have "hair" that resembles dredlocks)....needless to say, it's an interesting "artistic" choice. Memory also plays a part in the film--the characters all have recollective "blindspots."It might be a good film for your course.

Like Kyle, I think that examining the connections between memory and film--particularly the juxtaposition of film memories and viewer memories--provides a unique and enlightening approach to formulating a critique of both the film's ideology and the self.

Jeremiah Dohn said...

I was lucky enough to be a student in Dr. Kennedy’s class and I’d like to contribute to the conversation. In response to HeidiAZ: while our class did not watch science fiction films we did watch an animated film, Waltz with Bashir (WB). Unfortunately this film was not discussed as in-depth as I would have liked and was critiqued via critical reading responses where students write 2-3 pages on the film and how it relates to rhetoric and memory. I found WB and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (ESSM) to be the “feature films” of the class because of the numerous allusions to memory, identity construction, and major psychological concepts such as displacement.

I completely agree that science fiction films should be brought into the class. More recent films such as Avatar have characters that can be contributed to several indigenous tribes around the world. It would have been interesting to see how a class discusses the construction of the individual characters and their portrayal in the film. How does the translation from science fiction reflect and discuss real life individuals or groups? Is this relation from films obvious or how do directors encourage their viewer’s terministic screen to focus on one specific group or individual (while forgetting others)?

Dr. Kennedy focused on Tony Morrison’s concept of individuals having to re-member their past in order to confront and produce effective discourse which (de/re)constructs collective memory. This concept struck a cord with me regarding Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex individuals (LGBTI). Relating this concept to Milk (2008), which had its debut just after proposition 8. LGBTI individuals were able to re-member their struggle against proposition 6 by the first openly gay elected-official, Harvey Milk. I noticed that a majority of this film focused on the gay man’s struggle for rights with the honorable mention of a lesbian, his campaign manager. Director Gus Van Sant had to make choices to “forget” these individuals because they were not in the rhetorical lens of the film. Milk’s message was not to empower every individual but to have them be re-indoctrinated into their culture; this is what it means to re-member and be re-membered. Although bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals were omitted from the film, they are still able to be (re)mediated by the film due to their struggle with defying “normalcy” by having a different sexual orientation and by possibly having been discriminated against because of it. After having been (re)mediated and re-membering, the LGBTI individuals can discuss, not only with themselves, but with other members of society their history and continuing struggle for acceptance. They are able to strengthen their ethos and become mediators rather than the simply mediated.

I feel that this process is necessary in order to begin to critique oneself, in regards to Kyle’s comment. Mediation versus mediated is an inversely proportional relationship. Someone has to receive information before they can effectively critique others or themselves. From my experience, I know it is harder to critique myself than it is to critique others. Someone else can see what is blind to me. I believe I have to discuss my experience with others so that they may point out my blindspots. With remembering also comes forgetting. What is scary is that we sometimes forget ourselves.

Joyce Middleton said...

Really great comments, Folks. I think that Tammie Kennedy's piece on rhetorical memory, film, and white (skin) privilege is important, engaging, and encouraging. I really enjoyed reading the online discussion that this post has generated so far.

I now wonder if Tammie said anything in her class about whiteness studies and anti-racist pedagogy when she talked about "Milk"). She does in her post. I especially wonder about the complex relationship between whiteness studies and the interests of the LGBTI community.

The invisibility of whiteness (McIntosh) or the absent presence of whiteness (Prendergast) or the ocularcentrism and cultural logic of whiteness (Ratcliffe) is a big part of anti-racist pedagogy. Whiteness and non-whiteness cuts across all of our various identity interests (I'm thinking about the U.S. Census that we all completed earlier this year--which racial box did we all check off).

I would like to know what readers think about whiteness studies and diversity studies. The relationship between the two topics seems to be of interest to Tammie, I think. Can we make whiteness more visible? Should we? Would her readers agree that we should? I'd love to know what you think.

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