Tangled Memories

Marita Sturken, whose academic field is communications, has a felicitous writing style, despite her occasional feminist posturing and use of postmodernist jargon. Her primary focus in TANGLED MEMORIES: THE VIETNAM WAR, THE AIDS EPIDEMIC, AND THE POLITICS OF REMEMBERING is the Vietnam War Memorial and the AIDS Quilt. However, she touches on other unpleasant public events which have shaped the popular culture of the United States in the late twentieth century, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the 1991 Gulf War, and the Rodney King beating by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Rich and original in its insights and broad in scope, TANGLED MEMORIES regards the deconstruction and reconstruction of history as an inventive social practice which encompasses elements of myth, fantasy, voyeurism, image-making, and subconscious cultural amnesia. Filmmakers, television producers, advertisers, print journalists, and museum curators have developed technologies of memory that intersect and build upon each other. They create, in essence, a simplified, sanitized, ethnocentric version of past events consistent with America’s cult of masculinity, which was threatened by the loss of the Vietnam War and the spread of the AIDS epidemic.

Sturken demonstrates familiarity with the scholarly literature in the field of memory theory as well as the book’s subject areas, but she consulted no manuscript collections and conducted no oral histories, which might have buttressed her arguments, especially since her sympathies are clearly with “witness bearers” who have brought artifacts to the Memorial Wall or stitched panels for the AIDS Quilt. Her endnotes and bibliography are excellent, as are the illustrations, placed alongside the relevant text.