A few days ago, the New York Times featured the topic of roadside memorials, asking whether they should be banned. While few among us would blithely dismiss the desire of friends and family members of people killed along the highway or in some other shared environment to memorialize their loved ones, reasonable people may disagree about the acceptability of appropriating public places for private uses. For me, these memorials are a mostly positive phenomenon, but I agree with the title of the NYT blog that addressed this issue: there is room for debate.
In my book, City Ubiquitous, I briefly touch upon roadside memorials as examples of locales that can pierce the omnitopian bubble (I used the image above in chapter nine to illustrate the concept), yet I remain unsure about the appropriateness of these performances. Roadside memorials speak to larger issues of death, memory, and meaning; sometimes those topics must be thrust upon us, though we'd rather avoid them. Moreover, as with other kinds of folk art, they gain some of their power from their slightly unauthorized natures. At the same time, roadside memorials evoke awkward possibilities that some may exceed the bounds of good taste (ah... there's a phrase ripe with trouble), and that the privatization of the public sphere, no matter how partial or ephemeral or well-intended, leads to a slippery slope: Who decides?
That question certainly brings to mind hours of conversation with anyone who has ever taken my COMM 149 class. For me and many of my students, investigations into the nature of public life requires us to ask three questions: Who's In? Who's Out? Who decides? Responding to those queries, roadside memorials problematize some of our legal answers to debates about ownership, challenging our formal assumptions about the public-yet-anonymous nature of places like the highway or the street corner. Thinking about future versions of Rhetoric and Public Life (and reflecting on my recent post about street art), I thought I'd share this link with folks who may want to consider the issue as well.
Room for Debate: Should Roadside Memorials be Banned?
(Photograph by Andrew Wood)