Why do we study the things we do?
As a scholar who more often than not writes about methodology, I have always been intrigued by this question. I am curious how and why we are attracted to certain objects, places, people, or events. There is, of course, no single answer to this question. Some study an “object” because of kairos—because it’s an opportune time in our cultural or disciplinary context to turn our attention to something. Others choose an object because of social exigence—because that thing can help us find answers to our most urgent and pressing problems. Still others, I suppose, choose an object out of pure fascination with the thing itself; in these latter cases, it is the object that poses the problem or raises the burning questions to which we feel compelled to find answers.
Many also come to study the things we do for unconscious reasons that relate to our unique life experiences. We may not be aware of them during our initial encounters with an object. But, with distance, we come to realize that the things we study have some relation to us, some uncanny connection, perhaps, that makes sense only upon reflection or epiphany. Our objects of study are often biographical, then, in that as much as we come to tell stories about them, they come to tell stories about us.
At least this is what I now realize after spending the last eight years chasing Obama Hope, the now infamous political design by Shepard Fairey that has become as iconic as Uncle Sam Wants You. Initially, I chose this object for all the nonpersonal reasons listed above. When I started my dissertation in 2008, Obama Hope had just begun to circulate, and kairos was building, as it was already creating a buzz in the spheres of politics, art, and popular culture. In terms of social exigence, viral circulation was a digital phenomenon brought on by the Internet that had yet to be fully explored and was thus poorly understood. And yes, Obama Hope was fascinating, spurring numerous provocative questions. How do we trace a viral image circulating across the globe as it takes on a life of its own? How do we account for its ongoing rhetorical transformation and divergent contributions to collective life? And how do we give visual images their due without taming, in Roland Barthes's terms, their “madness, excess, and ecstasy” with our endless interpretations?
But while all these questions did draw me to Obama Hope, I realize now that I was also drawn to it because of some deeper connection to its content and, in fact, its circulation. Like Obama Hope, I have always been mobile, on the move, never staying in one place too long.
Just recently, I accepted a new position at the University of Colorado, which means that in a couple of months I will be moving to Boulder, the home city of University Press of Colorado. In packing up my own Obama Hope poster, I could not help but pause to think about all the places I have moved. As the map below shows, by the time I get to Boulder, I will have lived in two countries, ten states, fifteen cities, and twenty-six houses. I don’t know if this living experience is rare for a forty-five-year-old American woman or how my life's trajectory compares to those of others. But I do know that like Obama Hope, I always seem to be circulating—surfacing sometimes to cause ripples here and there, but always on the move to someplace new.
In the last eighteen months, for instance, I have moved back and forth between Portland, Oregon, and St. Augustine, Florida, twice. I have traveled to India for two separate month-long trips, spent a week in Paris, and visited Boulder, Nashville, Tampa, and East Lansing, each for a three-day work stint. These are just some of my travels. I am not factoring in the biweekly, 150-mile commute back and forth from St. Augustine to Gainesville that I did for seven of those eighteen months. Or the weekend trips from Portland to the coast or to the mountains because my husband, too, does not stand still. Or the flights to New Jersey to see family or to Montana to spend time with friends. Similar to Obama Hope, despite my fatigue, I am like the Energizer Bunny, who just keeps going and going.
But it's not just incessant mobility that I share with Obama Hope. There is also shared content. I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1970s, a time when segregation was outlawed but still carved lines in lunchroom cafeterias, among neighborhoods, and ultimately between ourselves. Like many others, I never believed back then that I would see an African American man become the president of the United States during my lifetime. The biggest hope then was that black men could be safe—a hope we still have not seen come to fruition. Fairey, of course, tried to deracialize Obama by painting him red, white, and blue. My courses are never deracialized. But as a commitment to social justice, I am always teaching for hope, for a time when our president’s skin color doesn’t have to be distorted for people to identify with her or him. For a time when black families are not massacred when praying to God and black children are not gunned down for playing with toy guns.
Maybe we come to our objects of study, then, for reasons that have as much to do with the future as they do with the past. We study things because they give us hope for an unimagined future. Because they teach us something about ourselves we have yet to learn. Because they inspire us, whether or not we are exhausted, to simply keep going.
Laurie E. Gries is assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Florida, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses focused on writing, rhetoric, theory, and new media. She will be joining the University of Colorado Boulder in the fall of 2015 with a joint appointment in Communication and the Program of Writing and Rhetoric. She is the author of Still Life with Rhetoric.