A Conversation with Thomas R. Dunn
In this issue, Public Address Division member Thomas R. Dunn discusses his study of the Alexander Wood Memorial, a statue of a “Gay Pioneer” who settled in Toronto, in Upper Canada, in 1797. The statue was designed by Del Newbigging and was built with funds from local businesses and the City of Toronto. Erected in 2005, the memorial is located on the corner of Church and Alexander Streets in Toronto’s Church-Wellesley neighborhood, home of Toronto’s largest GLBTQ community.
What do you find especially compelling about this artifact?
The memorial falls into that category of rhetorical artifacts that scream out for critical attention. I found it compelling for two primary reasons. First, its very existence is fascinating. As Carole Blair has suggested, the mere presence of certain commemorative sites signals a cultural recognition that someone or something is worthy of attention. Historically, this attention has rarely been bestowed on gay men or lesbians. As what Michel Foucault would label “subjugated knowledges,” queer pasts are regularly regarded as unimportant, nonexistent, or forgotten. This is particularly true for queer pasts prior to 1969. As such, a statue to a “gay” man who lived in the early 1800s is a rare artifact that inevitably generates an array of remarkable audience responses.
The second feature that drew me to this artifact is the style in which Wood is remembered. Of all forms of commemoration, statuary—particularly neoclassical statuary—is the least likely form that one would expect. Since queer pasts are often rendered ephemeral by heteronormative society, to see such a memory expressed in stone is stunning. To see a publicly gay man on a raised pedestal is unheard-of. The memorial’s aesthetic is highly traditional, while a plaque on the pedestal blatantly proclaims Wood a “Gay Pioneer.” Yet at the same time, the statue maintains a queer mystique; the figure is highly buttoned-up while expressing a campy, in-your-face attitude almost indecorous to the occasion. As a critic and a gay man, I found myself pulled in for a closer look.
What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of this artifact?
To understand the artifact, it is important to note two particular contexts, one broadly historical and the other local. Beginning more broadly, the statue has to be understood as emerging from and responding to a relative paucity of publicly available queer memories. Along with a small set of similar queer memory projects (which it both echoes and positions itself against), the statue represents an effort to stave off the public forgetting of GLBTQ lives. This is made easier—and even encouraged—by a profound cultural shift in how GLBTQ persons are viewed by wider society, particularly in Canada. The Wood memorial was created in the same year that Canada legalized same-sex marriage and, to an extent, began accepting gays and lesbians as full citizens. In many ways, the statue responds to that moment, implicitly and explicitly making claims that gay Canadians have always been a part of the nation.
At the local level, understanding the Wood memorial means situating it within an evolving geography and landscape. The memorial is located in the midst of Toronto’s Church-Wellesley “gaybourhood”—a former gay ghetto transformed into a thriving business district, gentrifying upper-class neighborhood, and tourist destination. In this complex space, the memorial serves a variety of audience needs. Certainly, it is a symbol heralded by GLBTQ residents and tourists during the annual Pride Week. But it is also a cruising spot for the neighborhood “bears,” a common place to meet for a first date, a rallying point after the bars close, and a lucky charm for superstitious residents who “rub the bum” of a militiaman pictured on a plaque at the base of the statue. At the same time, the memorial is a source of anxiety for some new residents who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the neighborhood’s character. Collectively, these contextual elements make for a rich artifact that inspires an array of public sentiments and statements.
How would you characterize your critical approach to this artifact? Why have you chosen this approach?
Overall, my approach to the Wood statue mimics common practices for examining most commemorative sites in rhetorical studies: after selecting the artifact, I researched Wood, collected and analyzed pertinent discourses, crafted an initial reading of the statue from a distance, and visited Toronto to conduct an on-site analysis.
I also went beyond this approach to attend to the artifact’s unique qualities. For example, I spent a significant amount of time verifying the Wood narrative. As a historical queer, Wood possesses fame largely based in rumor and innuendo. Therefore, to assess the memorial, I spent a number of days in local archives to become as proficient in Wood’s documented life as possible. Another way I approached the artifact was to question to what degree I was supposed to take this statue seriously. Queer culture is highly reliant upon tongue-in-cheek commentary, camp, and kitsch. If the Wood statue could be read queerly, could I really take it at face value? Did its meanings need to be teased out in a different way?
For personal and political reasons, it was also important for me to go beyond writing a critical essay and build a queer archive. Consequently, as I collected information, preserved images, and conducted interviews, I did so with an eye toward making those resources publicly available, particularly to the wider GLBTQ community. I think all critics, particularly those in public address who so often deal with transitory materials, should consider how they can contribute to the preservation of these materials and not just the completion of their projects.
Finally, I chose to embrace a polysemic reading of the statue among three prominent audiences, or “viewing positions.” The more time I spent with the memorial, the more apparent it became that large parts of the Toronto community were developing their own meanings of it, sometimes in ways that were completely antithetical to each other. To engage these diverse interpretations, I needed to reach different audiences. This meant expanding my critical approach to incorporate subcultural discourse, to conduct oral history interviews, and to spend some time with local community members to get a better sense of the statue’s place in everyday life.
How would you incorporate this artifact into a class?
I find that memorials always make interesting pedagogical tools, either because students take to their rhetorical value immediately or because they have rarely given memorials the critical attention that such artifacts deserve. Unfortunately, when studying any memorial that doesn’t happen to be located in the city in which you teach, it becomes nearly impossible to put students in its physical presence. However, I think that this challenge is really a pedagogical opportunity to give students a vivid introduction to the importance of “being there” in evaluating material and visual forms of public address.
In my rhetorical criticism class, I begin a session by showing a large, front-facing image of the Wood memorial and asking the class to read the artifact. This view of the memorial is the most conservative, and student comments usually reflect this messaging. Next, I introduce other images of the statue from different perspectives. With each additional image, I invite students to refine their readings, asking questions like these: What happens if you only see the memorial from the front? What readings become possible if you violate the prescribed pathways? How might filling the space around the memorial with hundreds of revelers alter your perception of its meaning? By the end of the activity, students become cognizant of the role that material and visual elements play in understanding the memorial. After the class completes the analysis, I always follow up with a trip to a local monument or memorial to reinforce these ideas and to highlight the insights that “being there” can provide. Overall, it is a good exercise to introduce critical standpoints and concepts like framing, modes of looking, materiality, and polysemy.
To help orient students to these concepts and critical perspectives, I recommend Carole Blair’s chapter “Contemporary U.S. Memorial Sites as Exemplars of Rhetoric’s Materiality” in the 1999 book Rhetorical Bodies, edited by Jack Selzer and Sharon Crowley, and Blair’s essay “Reflections on Criticism and Bodies: Parables from Public Places” in the Summer 2001 issue of the Western Journal of Communication.
Where can interested readers find additional information?
Dunn, Thomas R. “Remembering ‘A Great Fag’: Visualizing Public Memory and the Construction of Queer Space.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 97 (2011): 435–60.
Firth, Edith. “Alexander Wood.” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, ed. John English. Toronto: University of Toronto; Québec: Université Laval, 2000. Accessed 1 June 2012. http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=3734.
Phillips, Kendall R., ed. Framing Public Memory. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Contributor: Thomas R. Dunn is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Colorado State University. His research examines the intersection of queer culture, politics, and rhetoric with a focus on public memory and visual rhetoric. He is the 2011 winner of the National Communication Association’s Stephen E. Lucas Debut Publication Award and the Critical and Cultural Studies Division’s Outstanding Dissertation Award. His research is featured in the Quarterly Journal of Speech and Rhetoric & Public Affairs.
Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.