Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried instills within me a feeling of uneasiness, as I have a rather personal history with the text. During my student teaching practicum, I taught both eleventh and twelfth grade English. When it was time for me to decide which text and unit to focus on next for the eleventh grade, I asked the twelfth graders for their opinions. Many students suggested The Things They Carried so I obtained a copy and began reading, however, I never made it past chapter one. The text confused me. I found it to be repetitive and I didn’t understand the military jargon. Not to mention, it was war-related and to be quite frank, war stories bore me. Consequently, I chose a different text. When I saw The Things They Carried on the syllabus, (sorry!) I groaned. However, as I read, I realized it wasn’t as bad as I had remembered. Of course, this is probably due in large part to my recently acquired military knowledge. After my student teaching practicum ended, my best friend joined the army. Finally, at 24, I could understand “military talk”!
Now, although this story was better than I remembered, I still had some trouble getting through it…emotionally. A few years ago, my best friend, the same one who taught me about military culture, was KIA (killed in action) in Afghanistan. His tank ran over a bomb and he was killed instantly upon impact. When O’Brien begins describing the death of Ted Lavender, it hit home. I managed to make my way through the rest of the text by focusing on how the work relates to cultural rhetoric. I have concluded, based on my own knowledge of the military, the situations, events, and reactions in the text, and what they carried, that military members have developed their own culture, their own values, beliefs, and routines. They have their own way of perceiving and understanding the world around them. Essentially, military members live in a different dimension, one that we should all try to better understand.
In Alice Walker’s Everyday Use, the meaning of heritage as a theme is made clear through both the characters words and actions and the objects or materials involved. Dee (Wangero), has seemingly rejected her true heritage and in turn, has found a new one that seems to better suit her. She changes her appearance (hair, clothing, etc.) as well as her name (Dee becomes Wangero). When she asks her mother if she can have the churn top and dasher, Mama says yes. Immediately after asking for these things, Dee (Wangero) asks for the quilts. Sadly, she is only asking for the quilts because she wants to put them on display. She does not understand or respect the history, the legacies behind these objects or her people. Mama knows this and as a result, refuses to let her have them. Dee claims that both her mother and sister do not understand their heritage and the story soon comes to an end. Walker’s ending is clever. She intends for it to be read and perceived as ironic, for it is indeed Dee who does not understand the true meaning of heritage represented by the quilts and other material items.
Liz Rohan’s “I Remember Mamma: Material Rhetoric, Mnemonic Activity, and One Woman’s Turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century Quilt” is incredibly engaging. The idea that memory can be housed outside the mind and in material objects or things is not something I’ve actually pondered previously, but do believe to be true. Regarding her example, Rohan writes, “Janette, in fact, employed a range of material objects – diaries, letters, clothing, scraps, drawings, and photographs – all veritable ‘souvenirs,’ which she infused with meaning to aide her memory of people, places, and events” (371). These are all materials that absolutely do house memories. The progression from diary writing to photographs that Rohan explains is fascinating. How can anyone oppose the ideas of material rhetoric and memory when life is nothing but associations between objects and their meanings? I would argue that material rhetoric is one of the most durable forms of discourse. Everything has meaning and it is often, through objects, that we recall memories. Overall, Rohan does a great job supporting her argument!
At first, the excerpt from Chapter 2 of “Rhetorical Bodies” sent my mind in a whirlwind. It seemed very repetitive for me initially and I made a note in the margins on page 23 that this would be much easier to follow if they provided examples. Sure enough, this is exactly what happened and this made the excerpt particularly powerful for me (which I had not initially expected). However, the one area I disagree with is how memorials are continually referred to as “text” throughout. Memorials are not text; at least not how I view them. Through previous readings, we have made the distinction of “things” being rhetoric. I consider memorials not to be a “thing” but to be separate entirely. Memorials are rhetoric. I agree with the fact that rhetoric does not exist solely on symbolism. Yes they are there to represent something that has happened and pay tribute, in many cases, to lives lost, but they also represent something differently for each individual and invoke different emotions for everyone. With my recent trip to New York City, I was making connections continuously with this piece with the places that we had visiting including The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and a walk by of the 9/11 Memorial. With The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, each and every person was affected by the site in a different way. While the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty is connected to freedom and liberty, seeing this enormous statue and taking the audio tour provided so much insight and further knowledge of this being not just a statue, but much more. Each of the five memorials presented in this chapter stand for something different, but I do like how the author included areas of similarities such as “The activity of supplementing…the practice of decorating graves and other personal memory sites with flowers and intimate tokens” (40). Or even the irony over the Salem memorial where “The memorial advocates a spirit of tolerance explicitly, yet the large community of witchcraft practitioners currently residing in Salem maintains that their town is anything but tolerant; the absurd, made-for-tourists representations of witches, witchcraft, and the supernatural in Salem seems to bear them out” (44). Almost every year for the past 5 years I have gone into Salem near Halloween to see the town in its glorified highest moments of the year. The Salem Witch Trials was a horrific crime against humanity, and while they have memorials there, they also seem to celebrate the theme of witchcraft every year as a tourist attraction. How can you profit from past torture?
The other three readings all had a focus surrounding sewing, letters and photographs as rhetoric. While I have read the novel The Things They Carried many times, I had never viewed it solely from a rhetorical perspective. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ preoccupation with Martha’s letters and photographs is what he directly attributes in the death of Ted Lavender. As he sees it, his mind was constantly distracted with thoughts of Martha. The photographs would bring back memories, the letters would leave him trying to read between the lines to see what the hidden message may possibly reveal, the good luck pebble he carried in his mouth led him to wonder with whom she had been when she found this. Cross had a preoccupation with Lavender’s death and it is quite apparent as it comes out many times throughout and often unconnected to what is happening. It even seems as if the letters, photographs and pebbles then made him think of the death and that could possibly be a reason why he rid himself of these. Or, it just could be as he suspects, that he was distracted. Or even more, this horrific event could have also just put reality into perspective with a union between himself and Martha not possible. Regardless, the death was an accident, but sometimes it is easier to blame yourself than to face the reality.
The significance of the quilt in both “Everyday Use” and the piece by Liz Rohan show the importance and memories held within quilts. Each piece discusses how the quilts were formed from relatives clothing. I have to say, I was so glad when Dee or “Wangero” was denied the quilts and left to who they were intended for, Maggie. Dee claims that Maggie would put them to use and not appreciate their heritage. However, her Mother argues that that is what the quilts are for: use. Ultimately, I was just glad the bratty Dee was denied and the true appreciation of the quilts was with who they belonged to. The other piece by Rohan was interesting in the fact that the quilt also served as a scrapbook of sorts with explanations for each piece of clothing being explained by a certain significance. Then the diary with included letters and photographs all to preserve memories. I was also intrigued how the mother/daughter relationship was almost completely opposite of what it i
Emily VanLeuvan-Reflections on Readings for July 23, 2014
I really enjoyed the readings for today’s class, especially the works of fiction by Alice Walker and Tim O’Brien. As I have mentioned in previous reflections, I teach The Color Purple to my eleventh graders. We often read “Everyday Use” and an excerpt from In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens to supplement the unit. While I don’t teach The Things They Carried because the text is used in a senior elective course, we often look at O’Brien’s short story “Ambush” as an example of Postmodernism. When I teach The Color Purple, I always stress that the quilt Celie makes with Sofia is suggestive of the value of female bonding and unity. After reading “I Remember Mamma: Material Rhetoric, Mnemonic Activity, and One Woman’s Turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century Quilt”, I plan to spend more time next year discussing the cultural significance of quilting and other domestic practices. Liz Rohan cites Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s insights into the practice of quilting, asserting, “As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg explains the phenomenon “Women who were thrust together by the roles in the domestic sphere “turn[ed] trustingly and lovingly to one another” (74). As soon as I read Smith-Rosenberg’s comment, I thought of the day we did beading in class. I think that was such a wonderful activity because it provided us with the opportunity to create something beautiful and steeped in tradition, but it also helped us bond as a class. Why do domestic activities, such as quilting or beading, foster connections between females? Would the types of bonds forged by females during such activities be different if the activity wasn’t traditionally domestic or associated with femininity?
After reading Liz Rohan’s article, I reviewed “Everyday Use”. I appreciate the honest tone of the story. I feel as though many works of literature focus on the insecurities of the child as opposed to the insecurities of the parent, so I find Walker’s exploration into Mama’s feelings of being underappreciated to be thought provoking. Dee is certainly characterized as being selfish and arrogant. Walker employs irony at the end of the story when Dee tells Mama, “You just don’t understand”. When Mama replies, “What don’t I understand?” Dee retorts, “Your heritage” (6). Dee is not interested in exploring her true heritage. Instead, she wants to connect with her ancestry in a more glamorous way-by hanging the quilts and detachedly taking Polaroids of Mama and Maggie. While I do not think that Walker uses Dee’s character to suggest that exploring one’s heritage cannot be meaningful, I do think “Everyday Use” implies that one should not romanticize such an experience.
I made connections between “The Things We Carried” and both Sherman Alexie’s piece and Carol Blair’s article “Memorial Sites”. When Bowker talks to Kiowa, a fellow soldier, he tells Kiowa to do him favor. Kiowa asks, “Shut up?” and Bowker replies, “That’s a smart Indian. Shut up”. By referring to Kiowa as a “smart Indian” for shutting up, Bowker silences Kiowa and suggests that in a world dominated by white privilege, a “smart” Indian is one who understands that his or her opinion is not valued.
After reading “Memorial Sites”, I spent some time thinking about the rhetoric of material items. When O’Brien describes the items that the men carry, he suggests that the men also carry the intangible burdens of their experiences in war. However, how important are the tangible items that the men carry? What do the items that a man carries to war reveal about his cultural history?
Carole Blair, in “Contemporary U.S. Memorial Sites as Exemplars of Rhetoric’s Materiality” poses the question, “How Does the Text Act on Person(s)? She proposes an answer beginning with, “Perhaps the largest “miss” of symbolic heuristic for rhetoric is its understanding of rhetoric as appealing rather exclusively to the mind of the reader or listener.” She continues, “Rhetoric of all kinds acts on the whole person – body as well as mind-…” Enter Daisy Levy, “all human body movement is directed and coordinated by the activity of our nervous systems, in other words, our thinking.” The body and mind work together when “experiencing” rhetoric, as Blair posits, “There are particular physical actions the text demands of us: ways it inserts itself into our attention, and ways of encouraging or discouraging us to act or move, as well as think, in particular directions.” Constructivism, Progressivism, and Traditionalism aside, far too much curriculum, instruction and assessment design, despite the efforts of Wiggins and McTigh, continues to require students to sit down, and not “stand on one leg” to consume texts and “make meaning” of all. Material texts, invite touching, and as Blair states, “touching them is different from touching a book.”
Beyond the consumption of rhetoric, is the production of rhetoric. Again I declare, more production is relegated to a ‘linear process,’ as Liz Rohan elucidates in “I Remember Mamma: Material Rhetoric, Mnemonic Activity, and One Woman’s Turn-of-the Twentieth-Century Quilt.” Rohan, in her chronicling of Janette Miller’s “memory-making activity,” establishes “memory-making as a multimodal endeavor, which challenges an understanding of rhetorical activity as a linear process.” Why then, I ask, do we continue to place students at desks, provide writing prompts, and expect a rhetorical product that is formulaic in structure and process which is too often devoid of true “meaning making?” Read, annotate, discuss (perhaps), TTQA (ugh!), extract evidence, and establish a clear relationship among claim, reasons, and evidence, which more often than note results in “this shows” statements represent the skieltal steps expected of students to demonstrate comprehension or consumed texts. “I Remember Mamma,” is an argument for the integration of “memory-making multimodal endeavors” as alternative assessments.
In our efforts to afford students with authentic opportunities to obtain “Enduring Understanding” we would be wise to consideras Rohan explains Latour’s concept of translation, “the relationship among material objects, people and experience that results thereby in “the creation of a link that did not exist before…” Consider questioning a senior about the contents of the Long Composition he/she wrote on the 10th grade English Language Arts MCAS assessment. I wonder if they can recall the work of literature from “in or out of school” they chose, let alone the prompt, or the meaning/comprehension they demonstrated…
Please indulge me as I recall a memory, as these articles certainly served as mnemonic devices…
Four years ago I was considering revisiting the “meaning making” assessment of a theme quilt, which I had come to rely on as a meaningful “multimodal endeavor.” I walked into a neighborhood Cumberland Farms and was immediately greeted with, “Miss Nelson, do you remember me?” I did thank God, but my recollection was not what was of import for the young man behind the counter; what was of greater import was his recollections of making a theme quilt in my class. Six years after the event, he vividly, and as he told me often, remembered the making of the quilt, and more poignately the lesson he learned from the work of literature. The quilt was entitled, “Freedom is never a gift, it must be won and won again.” Before I could complete the question, “Do you remember the lesson you learned from the work of literature?” he was reciting the quote, by HEART. To quote Elliot Eisner, “Art is the literacy of the heart,” and… “In order to be read, a poem, an equation, a painting, a dance, a novel, or a contract each requires a distinctive form of literacy, when literacy means, as I intend it to mean, a way of conveying meaning through and recovering meaning from the form of representation in which it appears” (Eisner, 1997).
Ever since I read it for the first time in high school, I’ve loved Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” O’Brien’s juxtaposes items with material weight and the metaphorical, but just as real, weight of memories. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s letters are mentioned first because he feels the weight of these letters more acutely than the pack of supplies he carries with him. Along with his “compass” and “.45-caliber pistol,” Cross carried “the responsibility of the lives of his men.” When the guilt of Ted Lavender’s death becomes too heavy for Cross, he discards the letters and the daydreams of Martha.
“They shared the weight of memory,” O’Brien writes. Here we see memory described in a physical way. This makes sense to me because memories become part of who we are. They can cause physical reactions: laughter, tears. No matter how the men try to conceal it, these memories are never far from the surface. “They used a hard vocabulary,” O’Brien explains, “to contain the terrible softness.” O’Brien’s own writing mirrors this practice: the military acronyms and lists of combat equipment contrast with the image of Martha finding a pebble on the beach.
“Everyday Use” is another story that I have always loved, and that I see more meaning in each time I read it. Dee wants to cast away her old memories. She does not want to see her past as her own past, but rather as a collective historical past, choosing to look at objects from her own life as if they were artifacts in a museum. Dee is by no means a sympathetic character, but I wonder if she is simply trying to find a way to deal with the discrimination she and her family faces. The narrator, the mother, is strong enough to keep her memories as her own, even if they do represent oppression. Dee explains her name change to her mother: “I couldn’t bear it any longer. I couldn’t bear being named after the people who oppress me.” Her mother replies, “You know as well as I do that you were named after your aunt Dicie.” Wherever the name originated, to Mama it represents her sister, and her grandmother before her. Dee has detached herself from the name, just as she has from the memories that accompany it.
Dee’s selfish desire for the quilts, to “hang them” further demonstrates how she has turned away from her family’s memories. Just as she would like to use a butter churn as a centerpiece for her table, she wants to hang the quilts as an homage to her heritage, but as separate from her own experience. She chides Maggie for being “backward enough to put [the quilts] to everyday use,” because, unlike Maggie, she can’t make more. Maggie, because of her ability to make a quilt, is part of the memories in the quilt, part of the tradition. We cannot look at objects as simply representative or rhetorical without first looking at the memories, the personal significance they carry.
Liz Rohan’s article was particularly interesting because of its description of objects and the memories they contain. Like Janette Miller, I’ve kept a diary sporadically since second grade. Rohan describes Janette’s “overall interest in keeping a diary” as its “memory keeping function.” Even though I typically buy or receive a beautiful new notebook and fill it with gusto for a few weeks before abandoning it, I’ve see that even my irregular writings captured memories I wouldn’t have recalled had I not written them down. The description of the quilt she made with her mother before her mother’s death was beautiful. The memories contained in the quilt, the meaning of the quilt, could not be captured the same way on paper.
Carol Blair’s article about the rhetorical significance of memorials was also interesting for its treatment of the memories signified by the memorials. I found her analysis of the witch memorials in Salem to be interesting. The people who currently practice witchcraft felt that the memorial was in many ways ironic because of the bigotry that exists towards those practicing witches in Salem. I’m not sure I agree because it was more than likely that the women hanged for witchcraft (and the man who was crushed to death) were in fact not practicing witchcraft, but were hanged because of the fears of the townspeople and because of the virtual lack of rights women had at the time. The memorial is not a memorial for “witches” but for women whose lives were subject to the power of an oppressive and cruel religious regime. The contemporary fascination with witches and the tourist trade in Salem have perhaps changed the meaning of the memorial, at least for some visitors. The memorials that Blair describes are all rhetorical in this sense: they contain the original inte
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This blog is designed for us to share responses to readings and to engage in conversations about Cultural Rhetorics.