Patton explores making of
American political identities
A $4,000 University Research Committee grant allowed Cynthia Patton to
spend last summer working on a book about social movement rhetoric. Who
I Am: The Making of American Political Identities is based on material
she and co-author Harry Denny originally developed for a course on American
political campaigns and movements.
The two authors taught the course together at another university before
Patton joined the Emory faculty in 1996 as an assistant professor in the
graduate school teaching gay and lesbian studies. She and Denny decided
to write their own book after finding themselves unhappy with all the existing
textbooks, Patton said.
The bulk of their book explores three themes in the American political
experience: legitimacy, community and publicity. "Legitimacy has been
the central problem of American politics, and the construction of identity
has been the persistent solution," Patton said.
Each chapter is a case study of a particular point in U.S. history and
the way in which political identities are formed through various kinds of
protest. "Starting with the American Revolution, we talk about the
early American colonists' protests against Britain as a kind of original
knowledge of a new political identity that's formed around protest,"
"We're arguing that there's a unique dimension of this that occurs
in the founding of the American democracy," she said, adding that the
United States-the first democratic nation-was basically formed by a "bourgeois
middle class protest against a king."
The book also grapples with the ways in which protests in the 1960s were
both new and continuous to other kinds of political speech in the United
States. Patton and Denny move back and forward in time to show how the feminist
movement, the lesbian and gay movement and the "new right" took
many '60s strategies that appeared in violent forms and reused them in both
violent and nonviolent ways.
One unique aspect of the book is its consideration of legal cases as
part of these social movements. "Typically people consider protest
movements to be outside of formal processes," Patton said. But their
book looks at the language in law cases and the way in which they relate
to these social movements. "We consider the legal case to be an extension
of the protest movements rather than a ceasing of protest into some other
type of activity," she explained.
Who I Am is an interdisciplinary book that includes historical
research and sociological and communication theory. Currently under contract
with Guilford Press, the book will be marketed both as a trade paperback
and textbook, Patton said, because of broad popular interest in the relationship
between political speech and contemporary identity. "We've worked really
hard on making the book extremely accessible," she said. Cutting-edge
theory underlies the construction of the book, Patton said, "but we
tried to keep that out of the text itself and introduce relatively little
A former journalist, Patton has written four books on HIV politics and
education. Two other books will be released soon-one on AIDS and globalization
and another on the emergence of method acting in the late 1940s in a series
of films about anti-Semitism and racism.
Denny, a former student of Patton, currently teaches at the Philadelphia
to April 6, 1998 Contents Page