Emory Report

April 6, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 27

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," Patton said.

"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 specialized terminology."

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 Textile Institute.

-Linda Klein

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