Dissertation: “Mourning and Memory: September 11 Commemorations as American Theodicy”
My dissertation examines rhetorical responses to the events of September 11, 2001 in American political and commemorative culture. Such rhetoric, I find, frequently addresses questions of meaning once understood as the province of clergy. Why do people suffer? How can we reconcile suffering with an image of the world as rational and just? I argue that these speeches offer what Weber termed theodicies: interpretive vocabularies, religious or secular, that explain human suffering. Building on literature that conceptualizes meaning as an end of politics in and of itself, I argue that contemporary politicians face the imperative to engage the problem of theodicy in this sociological sense. In the dissertation, I first identify competing theodicies deployed to understand 9/11 in American political and commemorative rhetoric and build on Griswold’s cultural diamond to explain this divergence. I then historicize the dominant theodicies, demonstrating that the terms and tropes deployed in 9/11 rhetoric are frequently borrowed from pivotal moments in American history—especially the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Second World War. Through this case study, I work to develop an approach to cultural analysis that is both meaning-centered and historical.
An article drawing on my dissertation research, “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy,” will appear in the December 2012 American Sociological Review.