Visibility, Performance, and the Representation of Identity at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Term Paper, 2016

27 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Visibility, Performance, Identity, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Site
2.1 Visibility
2.2 Performance
2.3 Identity
2.4 The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Site

3. Through the Lens of Visibility, Performance, and Identity
3.1 Visibility at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Site
3.2 Performance at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Site
3.3 Identity at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Site

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

In the United States, memorials are everywhere. They seem to represent almost everything throughout US-American history one can think of. There are memorials related to terrorism, witches, space travel victims, U.S. soldiers and presidents, lynching, slavery, and many other US-related people and occasions.

One memorial that joins the ranks of the above-mentioned examples is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which was built in 2011, and is located in the southwest of the National Mall in Washington D.C. It was designed and built by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin and commemorates the civil rights activist that was murdered in 1968, the history of the Civil Rights Movement of Afro-Americans, as well as the issues the movement dealt with and propagated. It was, like many other memorials throughout the USA, also subject to criticism, regarding its design, layout, material, expressiveness, the choice of its creator, and thus also its overall ‘Americanness’. Factors that make it all the more meaningful to investigate, and interesting to read between the lines of the memorial and its different layers of meaning.

It becomes obvious that memorials are an integral part of American culture. The sheer diversity and multitude of memorials, which cover so many fields and facets of the country’s culture, suggest a pool for potential insights regarding American culture in general, and American culture of memory in particular. Marita Sturken puts it very aptly, when she states that in order to find out about “how American culture functions and how the nation is defined” (qtd. in Gessner 55), one thing is central, and that is cultural memory (cf. ibid.).

A memorial can serve many different purposes, such as to grieve, remember, recognize, celebrate, support, help to forget, heal, confront, equalize, understand, educate, acknowledge, etc. In this paper, the focus will be on the questions of how the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial works and why it works in a specific way. It will be argued that memorials are not only about the physical site, the monument or the venue in general, they are also to a large extent about a number of external or complementary factors, such as the visitors or spectators of the site in question, and their respective performances with regard to the site of memory. Thus, a memorial never has a fixed meaning or message - to a certain extent, a memorial is always a floating signifier with meanings in constant flux, depending on its current social environment and various power relations. The visibility and interpretation of such ‘lieux des mémoire’ is of course also heavily dependent on contemporary discourses, as well as individual and national identity.

The terms ‘identity’, ‘performance’, ‘visibility’, and the site’s ‘Americanness’, or in other words, what the afore-mentioned topics tell us about American culture in the general sense, and a presumed American ‘culture of memory’, will be at the center of this paper about the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. So in the course of this endeavor, the goal is to find out how well the cultural studies concepts ‘visibility’, ‘performance’, and ‘identity’ can be applied to and worked with, when it comes to memorial sites and the act of commemorating. Cultural memory can be manifested in many different kinds of texts. A ‘text’ according to its narrow definition, such as literary texts as well as visual and electronic documents. But also ‘text’ according to its broad definition, such as landscapes of memory, monuments, and memorials (cf. Gessner 51). This is why finding out about US-American culture also makes sense in the context of, and when looking at memorial sites.

The questions that arise when juxtaposing a memorial site with the terms ‘visibility’, ‘performance’ and ‘identity’, which will thus dominate the structure of the paper, are: What does the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial site convey and how does it do it? How does the memorial define the USA? Or rather how is American national identity defined by this memorial? What kind of identity does the memorial create? Which American narratives are backed, supported or criticized? It is important for a sacred site to present a consensus of meaning. Why? And does this site present a consensus of meaning? Is national unity put to the foreground regarding the memorial? Is national unity created through this site? And thus also whether form and content fit together. Is King truly represented as an American? How is the site a contested space and what are conflicting interpretations that are entailed? And finally, how do memorials represent and also repress national consciousness?

This paper will be expository in nature. Its goal will be to shed light on the abovementioned synergy of visibility, performance and identity in connection with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Furthermore, an answer to the afore-mentioned questions will be provided. The paper will be composed of two parts. A theoretical part in which the three concepts, and also the memorial site itself, will be introduced, and an application part in which the theoretical parts that are relevant to this endeavor will be applied to the memorial’s different physical, verbal, visual, and abstract parts. The following chapter serves as theoretical introduction and will deal with several definitions and understandings of ‘visibility’, ‘performance’ and ‘identity’.

2. Visibility, Performance, Identity, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Site

In order to have a basis that can be used as a lens through which the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial can be looked at more specifically and in a more guided way, three ‘lenses’ will be established and introduced. The fields of ‘visibility’, ‘performance’, and ‘identity’ seem most suitable for the endeavor of answering the initial questions and gaining more insight from a cultural studies perspective regarding the subject of memorial sites.

2.1 Visibility

Visibility can be said to be located at the intersection of aesthetics on the one hand - meaning relations of perception - and politics on the other hand - meaning relations of power. Brighenti, a sociologist from the University of Trento argues that these two domains are mediated by the symbolic. In this sense, something that is aesthetically impressive and at the same time semiotically relevant - such as a memorial (cf. Brighenti 324). This triangle can then be used in order to control particular narratives that are related to a specific nation and its public. It can also be used or misused to establish and maintain social and political agendas in order to counter or keep down certain discourses, narratives, or particular people’s interests (cf. Doss 1).

In any case, the term visibility stands for more than just an image - it is rather a “metaphor of knowledge” (Brighenti 325). Brighenti calls it furthermore a “real social process in itself” (ibid.) and a “supply and demand market” (ibid. 327). Moreover, the invisible is not just something that is randomly out of sight. Actually it can be argued that the invisible is something that is indeed ‘here’, however without being an object (cf. 328). Doss, an American Studies professor at the University of Notre Dame, poses a vital question when, in her book Memorial Mania, she asks “How do memorials represent and also repress national consciousness?” (8). The term ‘repress’, just like the afore- mentioned ‘political agendas’, again stresses the political character that can be ascribed to visibility, vision, and also the choice of making visible or not. When the United States military invades a certain country, it is not uncommon that a site, a memorial, or a statue of for example a leader, or another object which has public feelings and a sense of power attached to it, is torn down or completely destroyed. Through this act, the US military erases the country’s leader’s “symbolic authority” (ibid. 5) and the power that resonates and acts as a cohesive element which keeps the particular nation state in question together.

It thus becomes clear that questions of visibility are never just a technical matter, but are by nature practical as well as political - or, as Brighenti phrases it, “vision is a sense of power, or better, a sense which confers a sense of power” (Brighenti 327 f). This considerable power and influence that comes with visibility, especially in the case of memorials, enables social and political entities to “[mark] social and political interests and [claim] particular historical narratives” (Doss 5).

If one looks specifically at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the politics of recognition that are behind the crucial term visibility come to the forefront - as will be shown later - and not only recognition, which can furthermore be seen as a form of social visibility, but also the consequences for, and the relation between the memorial site, the minority group at least partly represented by it, and the mainstream (cf. Brighenti 329). The question that always comes with memorials, visibility, and power is, what or who should be remembered. Or put differently, “what is worth being seen at which price” (ibid. 327).

But not only ‘visibility’ as a cultural studies field can be interesting when it comes to memorial sites. Since there is always more to a memorial than just physical objects, and since they are always connected to a form of ‘doing’, the field ‘performance’ can also be a helpful category when it comes to investigating memorials and their influence or impact on society and culture, as well as sites where commemoration in any way, shape or form takes place.

2.2 Performance

Before establishing a connection between memorials and performance, it seems advisable to define the term ‘performance’ as seen from and relevant for a cultural or performance studies perspective first. Komitee does this when she states that performance is [A]ny action that is ‘not-for-the-first time’ - that has been learned, rehearsed, and is then ‘twice-behaved,’ or performed. PS scholars claim that any action follows this ‘performative’ paradigm, even those we typically assume are natural or spontaneous (like getting dressed in the morning, or ‘being’ a man). PS scholars study how the behavior is prepared and presented as a means to understand an individual’s or group’s values and organization. (Komitee 19)

If one turns to Judith Butler, who is known for having a performative stance on the topic of gender, it becomes all the more clear what the link between performance and memorials and commemorating is. One of Butler’s quotes about gender being a performative act can for example be modified by exchanging the word ‘gender’ with the word ‘commemorating’.

It can be argued that [commemorating] can be seen as performative... The [commemorating] act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, [commemorating] is an act which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again. (Butler in Komitee 13)

The result of this modification and the memorial site together with its procedures and practices as a whole, which will be addressed in more detail at the end of this chapter, show that individual and collective reactions or processes at memorials can indeed be interpreted as possessing a performative nature. Since there are many memorials and the opening ceremony, as well as the act of commemoration is (with certain variations) almost always going in the same direction by following certain behavior patterns, or at least an act that has rules and can be rehearsed, it can be argued that the performance perspective is a meaningful perspective and in the next chapter it will be shown that it can also tell us something about US (memorial) culture.

So when it comes to memorials, one question is inevitably how the different individuals act in and around the space of a memorial site. ‘Act’ because of the theatrical aspect that memorial sites can exhibit. They feature a stage, roles are assigned to individuals (visitors, orators, organizers, etc.), who then follow a specific script (as mourner, tourist, site hopper, presenter, representative, reviewer, etc.). Memorial sites thus become ‘spaces of performance’. Accordingly, national memorials function as spaces for performing national identity, which will be dealt with in more detail in the next subchapter. It can also be argued that by mourning, remembering, celebrating, supporting, helping to forget, healing, and confronting, all visitors (or actors) create a certain kind of active identification in their interactions. Around the practices of commemorating, new combinations of cultural symbols are tried out and become either accepted or rejected.

‘Identity’ thus comes into existence as a constantly changing process, as fluid and situational. It is an everyday practice, rather than a fixed phenomenon with an unalterable definition. Actors make up the rules as they go along.

If one looks at a memorial site and the process of commemoration from a performance perspective, a few more fruitful aspects than just the physical memorial site and the visitors have to be taken into consideration. These could for example be the rules and regulations for the site provided by the National Park Service (NPS), a possible opening speech (in the case of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the speech by President Obama on October 16th 2011), and regular ceremonies that take place in connection with the memorial and the commemorated subject or circumstance. In the case of this paper, only the National Park Service’s notes from its website and President Obama’s speech will be looked at in more detail, in order to establish the connection between the field of performance and the memorial site itself.

It has already been mentioned that national memorials can function as spaces for performing national identity. In the next subchapter, more light will be shed on the field of identity in general and national identity in particular.

2.3 Identity

For the upcoming endeavor, the basis of how ‘identity’ is incorporated in the field of cultural studies should be outlined. According to Marchart, cultural studies are that kind of intellectual practice which investigates how social and political identity is (re-)produced in the field of culture by means of power. Similarly, one cannot speak about cultural identity without considering its power-based enforcement - its articulation in relations of dominance and subordination (cf. Marchart 34 f). This articulation and enforcement is something that, in both individual and collective cases of identity, needs to be constantly reinforced from within. This can, for instance, be put into practice by means of ‘cultural memory’. In other words, by rituals, myths, fixed symbols of unity, as well as the stigmatizing construct of a ‘collective other’, in order to confirm one’s own superiority (cf. Nünning 71). Consequently, it can be argued that identities are produced, consumed, and regulated through culture. In a particular culture then meaning is produced by means of symbolic systems of representation (cf. Woodward in Lutter, and Reisenleitner 95). These systems provide the frame within which we give sense to our experiences, by symbolically marking identity and difference (cf. ibid.). One of these symbolic systems of representation can also be the memorial and its various components, as well as the process or act of commemorating.

If one focuses closer on the nation as a collective identity, the question of what actually makes up a nation arises. Ernest Renan suggests that in order to constitute a nation, the factors language, territory, and culture are not enough to be able to do so. Something else is needed. Something additional that is not easy to name or pin down. He speaks of a “common substance capable of binding” (Burgett, and Hendler 165 f) individuals into a collective whole. And as vague as the definition of this substance is, as vague is also the end of the process in which an individual or a collective defines itself as a complete and fixed identity. The identity formation process can thus be described as “neither something we possess nor something that defines us, but . . . instead . . . [as an] unending linguistic process of becoming” (ibid. 125). So the identity formation process is rather a discursive endeavor than an essentialistic or intrinsic one - a strategic concept that considers identity as positionable, rather than a concept that implies a stable and unalterable core. Identity is a construction and a process that is never finished. It can thus always be won and lost (cf. Hall in Lutter, Reisenleitner 96 f).

This insight leads to the next conclusion, namely that identity, just like in the field of gender, forms itself through, and is constructed by discourses. So at and in different historic places and institutions, and through particular discursive formations, practices, and strategies of articulation. These formations, practices, and strategies then produce knowledge, meaning, and also purport significance, thereby creating the conditions for what can be said and what has to be said (Hall in Lutter, Reisenleitner 97). Another important point has already been suggested by the phrase ‘different historic places’, which implies that a particular identity, individual or collective, person or nation, is differently produced ‘at’ and ‘in’ different times. It is furthermore differently produced in other contexts, such as gendered, sexualized, and raced social and political formations (Burgett, and Hendler 170).

The complementary part that is still needed will be dealt with in the next subchapter. In order to intertwine the three afore-mentioned perspectives, the actual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial site and its different components will be discussed now.


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Visibility, Performance, and the Representation of Identity at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg  (American Studies)
American Cultures of Memory
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term paper, seminar paper, research paper, martin luther king jr., martin luther king, memorial, martin luther king memorial, martin luther king jr. memorial, memory, site of memory, lieux des memoires, lieux de memoire, visibility, performance, identity, master, master program, american studies, cultural studies, literary studies, university, paper
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Matthias Köbrich (Author), 2016, Visibility, Performance, and the Representation of Identity at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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