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Manifest Re-Destined: The Politics of Remembering and Forgetting in the American West


Representations of the nineteenth-century American West, including media, reenactments, and edutourism sites have long informed political constructions of ‘Americanness’ in popular culture. The American Western frontier, once hailed “the most American part of

America,” often exemplifies the United States’ perceived distinctness from the rest of the world in respect to individualism, ingenuity, resilience, economic equality, opportunity, and strength (Slatta, 2010; Katz, 1971, p. xii; Turner, 1903). As such, frontier mythology plays a pivotal role in embedding particular notions of race, place, gender, and ‘Americanness’ into our national consciousness. This dissertation focuses on one particular (re)telling of the American West: the ‘birth’ of California as historically and culturally located in San Diego, the site of Europe's first permanent settlement on the Pacific Coast. This examination traces how a particular cultural remembrance of the West remains culturally entrenched not only because of continuous reiteration, as prevalent scholarship generally discusses American Western mythology (Limerick, 1988; Brown, 2007; Smith, 1950), but also on the important ways in which this origin story adapts and shifts over time when aspects of it are no longer serviceable. Charting this evolution through specific cultural, historical, and civic projects of remembrance, this dissertation examines what falls in and out of this narrative in the face of sociocultural, economic, and political change. And it reveals how this origin story’s recalibrations not only ensure its survival and keep the past relevant, but how, despite these repairs, the overall cultural work of the story remains intact: reaffirming notions of American exceptionalism. In doing so, this examination interrogates the ways in which recalibrated forms of racial, social, ideological, and political power work and operate, even--and especially--within seemingly celebratory, festive, and ‘innocent’ American commemorative practices, foregrounding the entangled relationship between memory and politics at the core of our national imagination. Deploying historical, archival, and textual analysis, media archaeology, and visual ethnography methods, this dissertation bridges insights and approaches from Media & Cultural Studies, Performance Studies, and the Learning Sciences to create new knowledge about how we make meaning, imagine a nation, and shape adjacent notions of identity, power, and belonging in the process.

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