Blair and Neil: Commemorating in the Theme Park Zone

Blair, Carole and Michel, Neil. “Commemorating in the Theme Park Zone: Reading the Astronauts Memorial.” At the Intersection: Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies. Ed. by Thomas Rosteck. New York: Guilford Press, 1999. 29-83.

In “Commemorating in the Theme Park Zone,” Carole Blair and Neil Michel present a reading of a difficult public text, the Astronauts Memorial located at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center (KSCVC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Reflecting the names of fallen astronauts to the heavens, the memorial is mounted on a technological apparatus that angles the mirrors so that the names are consistently illuminated throughout the day. The memorial contributes to the legacy of space travel – and through the large number of empty area for names on the memorial – seems to suggest that more deaths will occur in the future as astronauts give their lives for the technological exploration of space.

As participant observers, Blair and Michel wished to gain a greater understanding of the way the public responded to the Astronauts Memorial. Working to determine why the public did not seem to be reading into the complexity of the text, the authors attempted to apply a critical lens, through both rhetoric and cultural studies, to learn why this text proved to be particularly challenging for its visitors. As many visitors to KSCVC travelled there from the Orlando area, Blair and Michel visited Walt Disney World (WDW) and generated a “report” of four tropes: 1) efficient fun, 2) safe (perilous) adventure, 3) the anaesthetizing sanctification of technology, and 4) the happy ending (49). Applying these tropes to the Astronauts Memorial, Blair and Michel claimed that the site presented a stark contrast to the joyful and dreamlike state that visitors to WDW were often left with.

Monuments and memorials present a unique opportunity for inquiry, and it was through a combination of rhetorical and cultural approaches that served as their framework. Through a rhetorical lens, Blair and Michel could deconstruct the ideas of text, context, purpose, and audience. A traditional rhetorical reading of the site, however, would not present the authors with enough to truly interrogate the problem of this complex text. An approach through the lens of cultural studies would fill this gap as they sought to locate the influence and phenomena of WDW as a site where culture and texts are projected to outside areas – as well as the enchanted, enthralled, and apparently apathetic visitors of the Astronauts Memorial. In turn, their inquiry generates a number of critical questions about the nature of texts and the responses of readers to those texts in cultures and communities.