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Public Culture

Diversity, Democracy, and Community in the United States

Edited by Marguerite S. Shaffer

Publication Year: 2011

In the United States today many people are as likely to identify themselves by their ethnicity or region as by their nationality. In this country with its diversity and inequalities, can there be a shared public culture? Is there an unbridgeable gap between cultural variety and civic unity, or can public forms of expression provide an opportunity for Americans to come together as a people?

In Public Culture: Diversity, Democracy, and Community in the United States, an interdisciplinary group of scholars addresses these questions while considering the state of American public culture over the past one hundred years. From medicine shows to the Internet, from the Los Angeles Plaza to the Las Vegas Strip, from the commemoration of the Oklahoma City bombing to television programming after 9/11, public sights and scenes provide ways to negotiate new forms of belonging in a diverse, postmodern community. By analyzing these cultural phenomena, the essays in this volume reveal how mass media, consumerism, increased privatization of space, and growing political polarization have transformed public culture and the very notion of the American public.

Focusing on four central themes—public action, public image, public space, and public identity—and approaching shared culture from a range of disciplines—including mass communication, history, sociology, urban studies, ethnic studies, and cultural studies—Public Culture offers refreshing perspectives on a subject of perennial significance.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Dedication Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Preface: Why Public Culture?

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pp. ix-xvi

This book began as part of an extended reflection about the current status of American studies. The process of redesigning the curriculum for the American studies major at Miami University and developing an introductory American studies survey forced me and my colleagues to ask fundamental questions about the field: specifically, what could American studies offer to students and scholars confronting a politically polarized, increasingly...

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What Is Public Culture? Agency and Contested Meaning in American Culture—An Introduction

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pp. 1-26

All culture is in some sense public. Who of us would dispute it? As human beings, the meanings we attribute to our individual experiences emerge only through the use of shared codes, some verbal and some nonverbal. Culture is about the patterns of meanings we use to organize human behavior. As such, it always has a public—that is to say, a shared and suprapersonal—dimension. Meaning is never the product of individual experience...

Part I. Public Action

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Chapter 1. Looking for the Public in Time and Space: The Case of the Los Angeles Plaza from the Eighteenth Century to the Present

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pp. 29-51

On July 1, 2005, a jubilant procession marched through downtown Los Angeles to celebrate the inauguration of Antonio Villaraigosa, the first person of Mexican descent to be elected mayor in over a century. The parade route went from City Hall to the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, where an interfaith service, representing Christians,Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus, had just been conducted. Fortuitously, this event ...

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Chapter 2. Remembrance, Contestation, Excavation: The Work of Memory in Oklahoma City, the Washita Battlefield, and the Tulsa Race Riot

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pp. 52-66

The eminent Chinese anthropologist and sociologist Fei Xiaotong spent a year in the United States during the Second World War. He was struck by how little regard Americans had for history and tradition. “When tradition is concrete, when it is a part of life, sacred, something to be feared and loved, then it takes the form of ghosts,” he said. “To be able to live in a world that has ghosts is fortunate.”1...

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Chapter 3. Public Sentiments and the American Remembrance of World War II

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pp. 67-88

Victory in World War II did not mean that all Americans saw this cataclysmic event in the same way. Some people spent the war years helping to build bombers or partying in crowded nightclubs. Some slogged through jungles fighting enemies, and others mourned in the privacy of their homes. Americans have often referred to the experience as the “good war,” but no one epithet could capture the full range of personal and national experiences that...

Part II. Public Image

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Chapter 4. Sponsorship and Snake Oil: Medicine Shows and Contemporary Public Culture

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pp. 91-113

Although we are surrounded by so many commercial messages that they work without our even noticing most of them, advertising keeps showing up in new places. Ads printed on the back of a cookie fortune or pasted onto an airplane tray table suggest that contemporary consumer culture abhors a blank space; a company’s name on trail markers in a public park hints at the ways that public institutions must pander to private ones in order...

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Chapter 5. Entertainment Wars: Television Culture after 9/11

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pp. 114-142

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, traditional forms of entertainment had to reinvent their place in U.S. life and culture. The de rigueur violence of mass media—both news and fiction—no longer seemed business as usual. While Hollywood usually defends its mass-destruction ethos with claims to “free speech,” constitutional rights, and industry-wide discretion (à la ratings systems), in the weeks following September 11 the industry ...

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Chapter 6. Screening Pornography

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pp. 143-168

In the 1990s, the Internet was sold as the marketplace of ideas, as democracy, come true. Al Gore contended that a global information infrastructure heralded “a new Athenian Age of democracy” because it gave citizens free access to information and thus the power to control their lives.1 The U.S. judiciary declared the Internet “the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed . . . [and thus deserving of] the highest protection from ...

Part III. Public Space

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Chapter 7. The Billboard War: Gender, Commerce, and Public Space

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pp. 171-198

As the urban environment decentralized in the 1920s and 1930s with the adoption of the car as a routine part of American life, the highway became more than merely a route to be traveled. It became the site of a new kind of public landscape and conception of public culture. To some, including the outdoor advertisers who are the main subject of this essay, the highway had become the “buyway,” a boundless marketplace bursting out of its ...

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Chapter 8. The Social Space of Shopping: Mobilizing Dreams for Public Culture

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pp. 199-218

Nostalgia for older forms of community and the public space in which they were enacted stirs us to appreciate the places where we have shopped in the past. Partly this reflects their technological and social obsolescence— as my grandparents recalled “the delights of corner-shops, gas lamps, horsecabs, trams, pisstalls: all gone, it seems, in successive generations,” so I regret the passing of friendly chats with shop clerks and greengrocers...

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Chapter 9. Gates, Barriers, and the Rise of Affinity: Parsing Public-Private Space in Postindustrial America

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pp. 219-246

I pulled my car in front of the building, where a large sign welcomed me to “Home Courts,” a combination gym and recreational center that sponsored youth and adult basketball and volleyball leagues and instruction. The sign advertised courts for rent, leagues for kids and adults, and space for parties of all sorts. A schedule offered a weekend volleyball tournament, advertising club teams from around the region....

Part IV. Public Identity

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Chapter 10. To Serve the Living: The Public and Civic Identity of African American Funeral Directors

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pp. 249-262

African Americans historically have had a fraught relationship with public culture and, consequently, with their public identity.W. E. B. Du Bois’s metaphor of the veil, which captures both the envy and contempt black Americans have felt toward the white world, centers on the idea of the veil as visual barrier. The veil both obscures the wearer from being seen and empowers one’s ability to survey others without being noticed. The portrayal of ...

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Chapter 11. Denizenship as Transnational Practice

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pp. 263-272

The city of Toledo is in northwest Ohio. Situated just south of Detroit, the Glass City, as it’s called, has been in the Motor City orbit as long as there have been cars assembled in the region.Workers from western, central, and eastern Europe, the Middle East, Mexico, Indian reservations, and the American South gravitated to these cities throughout the great surge in automobile manufacturing that powered the national economy throughout ...

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Chapter 12. The Queen’s Mirrors: Public Identity and the Process of Transformation in Cincinnati, Ohio

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pp. 273-302

On a warm summer night in late August 2004, a candlelight procession of seven hundred men,women, and children walked slowly across the 140-year-old suspension bridge that spans the Ohio River between Covington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio. Their voices raised in song, the Freedom Center Choir retraced the route followed by generations of enslaved Americans who had crossed that “River Jordan” in search of freedom. The...

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Epilogue: Pitfalls and Promises: Wither the “Public” in America?

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pp. 303-314

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the war on terror that ensued, energized an ongoing debate over civic engagement in America and led many scholars to speculate about the potential for civic revitalization in the United States.Would this conflict, like others in America’s past, mobilize the citizenry, increase volunteerism, and enhance community sentiment? 1 Political scientist Robert Putnam, who not long before 9/11 had ...


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pp. 315-362

List of Contributors

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pp. 363-366


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pp. 367-374


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pp. 375-376

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206845
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812222029

Page Count: 392
Publication Year: 2011