Katrina Carnival in New Orleans

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Zulus [the oldest African-American carnival organization] acted as stewards of their ravaged and demoralized communities and as ambassadors of the cultural traditions they had preserved for over a century. Using their reputation as one of the most anticipated Mardi Gras attractions, the Zulus re-energized their once subversive spectacle of black identity to draw attention to the politics of race and place in New Orleans.

In the last three decades, ordinary Americans launched numerous grassroots commemorations and official historical institutions became more open to popular participation, according to Ekaterina Haskins, associate professor of rhetoric in the Department of Communication and Media at Rensselaer. In her latest publication, Popular Memories: Commemorations, Participatory Culture, and Democratic Citizenship, Haskins critically examines this trend by asking how and with what consequences participatory forms of commemoration have reshaped the rhetoric of democratic citizenship.

The publication investigates four distinct examples of participatory commemoration: the United States Postal Service’s “Celebrate the Century” stamp and education program, the September 11 Digital Archive, the first post-Katrina Carnival in New Orleans, and a traveling memorial to the human cost of the Iraq war.

Popular Memories serves as the first book-length study of participatory memory practices,” said Haskins. “The book addresses how public commemorations of the last decade both reflect the rise of participatory culture and constitute an important site for contesting what it means to be a citizen in today’s liberal democracies. Throughout the book, I investigate how citizenship, understood as a relation among strangers bound together by a common national or cultural identity, is negotiated through a variety of cultural practices and media, including official and grassroots commemorations, museums, and electronic archives.”

Ekaterina Haskins

Ekaterina Haskins.

Haskins, who is interested in the theory and history of rhetoric, visual rhetoric, and rhetorics of public memory and national identity, also noted that approaching commemorations as both representations of civic identity and politically consequential sites of stranger interaction was important.

“Despite differences in sponsorship, genre, historical scope, and political purpose, all these commemorations relied on voluntary participation of ordinary citizens in selecting, producing, or performing interpretations of distant or recent historical events,” Haskins said. “These collectively produced interpretations—or popular memories—in turn prompted interactions between people, inviting them to celebrate, to mourn, or to bear witness.”

According to Haskins, the book’s comparison of the four case studies suggests that popular memories make for stronger or weaker sites of civic engagement depending on whether or not they allow for public affirmation of the individual citizen’s contribution and for experiencing alternative identities and perspectives.

“By systematically accounting for grassroots memory practices, consumerism, tourism, and rituals of popular identity, the study enriches our understanding of contemporary memory culture and citizenship,” she said.

Haskins is the author of the award-winning Logos and Power in Isocrates and Aristotle. Her research on classical and contemporary rhetoric has been published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Philosophy and Rhetoric, History and Memory, Space and Culture, Journal of Communication Inquiry, and the American Communication Journal.

She has received numerous awards, including the Karl Wallace Memorial Award from the National Communication Association in 2007, the Eastern Communication Association’s 2005 Everett Lee Hunt Award for Outstanding Scholarship, the Rhetoric Society of America’s Kneupper Award for Best Article published in 2000 in the Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and Outstanding Dissertation award from the American Society for the History of Rhetoric in 1999.