Citing history

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© 2019, © 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. Although rarely considered within the existing scholarship on social movements, even a cursory analysis of protest activity suggests that movements regularly invoke historical citations (whether consciously or not) while working to clarify aims and mobilize constituencies. In order to make sense of this process, and to account for the variations that arise among the different citation modalities favored by movements on opposite ends of the political spectrum, I draw upon the theoretical contributions of Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin and, in particular, on his exploration of ‘wish images’ and ‘dialectical images,’ their attributes, and their interrelationship. According to Benjamin, such images summoned the past either to project visions of future happiness (as with the wish image) or to deposit the witness before a moment of decisive, present-tense reckoning. After outlining the role of historical citation in social movements and in the broader cultural field through which these movements find expression, I analyze two recent protest events–the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, VA, in which wish images were actively deployed, and the 2017 Women’s Strike in New York City, where a dialectical image arose from the constellated nodes of the march’s route–to consider the relationship between citation modality and protest outcome. Following from this analysis, and in keeping with the unapologetically partisan nature of my investigation, I conclude by advancing some strategic recommendations for movements seeking–as Benjamin once enjoined–to ‘improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.’.

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Social Movement Studies



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