Making Material Rhetoric Matter More

I’d been studying the material rhetoric of shadowboxes for nearly decade (mostly through my work at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Center Museum) when I encountered them in a new space: the corridors of a residence for people with Alzheimer’s. My stepfather was in the early stages of the disease and my mother and I had begun to look into options for senior daycare. Outside each resident’s door was a plexiglass box containing objects from their past, “to help them find their way home,” a nurse explained. The boxes so closely resembled the shadowboxes in the OKC Memorial’s Gallery of Honor that it took my breath away. “Material eulogies” I call them in that other context, suddenly being something very different (though in some ways not) in this place where memory was a living and dying thing every day.

I knew then that this was the connection I’d been praying for, between “memory work” and memory work.¬†For many years I searched for ways to make the work I do–community-engaged rhetoric and writing–matter more. When I began graduate school in 1995 I knew that rhetoric was the field that best suited my abilities and questions and yet I couldn’t escape the fact that I wasn’t going to cure cancer with it. Despite all the ways I know that words matter, despite all the ways teaching deeply matters, I couldn’t live with myself if I felt my research was merely interesting or descriptive or even instructive. I was fascinated by rhetorical theory. I’d eat it for breakfast if I could. But it seemed to me that too many of our lauded public intellectuals were people talking about things (smugly, wistfully, often to one another), instead of doing much to help. I didn’t want to be another one of those. So I kept my head down, kept working in the community and teaching my classes and taking notes and looking for connections between what I was doing and how I might make a contribution beyond words.

I’m not kidding myself. I’m still not curing cancer. But I’m seriously engaged in this matter of what artifacts can do for us, how they preserve our stories, and what all this can teach us about the relationship between thought and expression, material and memory. This is what I’m thinking about when I stumble across postings like this one: