Document Type


Date of Degree

Fall 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

Hingstman, David B

First Committee Member

Depew, David

Second Committee Member

Bennett, Jeff

Third Committee Member

Gronbeck, Bruce

Fourth Committee Member

Wittenberg, David


The decade of the 2000s witnessed a series of events that challenged traditional notions of America as an "exceptional" nation, one that had withstood or escaped the crises that toppled other global forces until the United States remained the final superpower. These ten years opened with a presidential election decided not by the Electoral College but by the Supreme Court, advanced through terrorist attacks on home soil and the devastating ramifications of military, policy, and moral reevaluation in their wake, to reach a close in the worst failure of capitalism since the Great Depression. Newly identified terror networks "hated" the American way. While the world had momentarily agreed with the headline on the front page of Le Monde, "Nous sommes tous Américains," within a year most of them refused to join the "Coalition of the Willing." Uncertainty about who "we the people" were when under duress provoked the collective to search for reinforcement of the value of their union in this Union. At this conjuncture, as it had during such cycles in the past, the nation sought both to find reassurance and to reassert a sense of control through exercises of both government and governmentality with that element of the other and the outside that was the closest to within: immigrants and the processes of immigration.

This project considers not the figural "person" of the citizen or immigrant, but rather a number of exemplary "thresholds" across which immigrants (real and imagined) cross on their way to becoming citizens (real or imagined). It is my contention that the transition between immigrancy and citizenship powers this dialectic, and thus that the form of these transitions is where rhetoric accomplishes its work. That work fashions a "national fantasy," or an imaginary reserve in which the body politic stores up the affective energy necessary to gather political force toward materializing boundaries of belonging through the (at least tacit) approval of public policy. Rhetoric names the modus operendi at work cathecting the citizen to the nation, attaching individuated emotional investment to the assumed relation that fabricates "America." Ultimately, I make an intervention in that relation by suggesting that national fantasy is frail in the best possible way, such that it may be rhetorically realigned to new purpose. I have chosen to consider a diversity of thresholds across which this transition is symbolically enacted: in the institutional context of law and bureaucracy of the Naturalization Exam, in the historical matrix of materiality and memory of documentary films about Ellis Island, and in the cinematic spectacle of popular culture through the movie Gangs of New York. By reading across and within these case studies in rhetorical form, I engage questions about how American identity is coalesced through enduring expectations of national selves and foreign others.

Most broadly, I focus on these mythic transitions as a way to recuperate two terms long-embattled and considered discredited by many in the critical humanities: "nation" and "patriotism." How is a love of nation constituted, perpetuated, and deployed in and by these processes? How do narratives enable both predictable outcomes and creative resistance? How do political actors make use of these rhetorical possibilities in accomplishing their material goals? And most importantly, in what way does a reconsideration of the rhetorical transitions from immigrancy to citizenship as well as from citizenship to immigrancy allow us to re-theorize, re-imagine, re-present, and most important re-practice how nation and patriotism might be-other-wise?


Citizenship, Immigration, Nation, Patriotism, Rhetoric


xi, 379 pages


Copyright 2012 Meryl J. Irwin

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