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August 11 , 2008

Ersatz America

Hidden Traces, Graphic Texts, and the Mending of Democracy


From the popular legend of Pocahontas to the Civil War soap opera Gone with the Wind to countless sculpted heads of George Washington that adorn homes and museums, whole industries have emerged to feed America’s addiction to imaginary histories that cover up the often violent acts of building a homogeneous nation. In Ersatz America, Rebecca Mark shows how this four-hundred-year-old obsession with false history has wounded democracy by creating language that is severed from material reality. Without the mediating touchstones of body and nature, creative representations of our history have been allowed to spin into dangerous abstraction.

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Other scholars have addressed the artificial qualities of the collective American memory, but what distinguishes Ersatz America is that it does more than simply deconstruct – it provides a map for regeneration. Mark contends that throughout American history, citizen artists have responded to the deadly memorialization of the past with artistic expressions and visual artifacts that exist outside the realm of official language, creating a counter narrative. These examples of what she calls visceral graphism are embodied in and connected to the human experience of indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, and silenced women, giving form to the unspeakable. We must learn, Mark suggests, to read the markings of these works against the iconic national myths. In doing so, we can shift from being mesmerized by the monumentalism of this national mirage to embracing the regeneration and recovery of our human history.

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