Essay: Unpacking Materiality


Essay: Unpacking Materiality


Student Project from Robin Wharton's Rhetoric and Composition Senior Seminar class. See the original project here.


Daniel Lamb



Essay Text

Unpacking Materiality

by Daniel Lamb

In a venue like Manuel’s Tavern, a place full of people at any given hour of the day, there is a bustle to the space and a transience that permeates the atmosphere. At the same time, the objects that fill the building serve to offer this kind of a grounding effect, connecting the past and the present, indicating a liminality where two meet.

The artifact in question,the memorial plaque of Bud Foote brings up a potent intersectional issue. Foote was a well-loved husband and father, as well as an influential English professor at Georgia Tech. He also co-founded the Atlanta Folk Music Society, and held a deep scholarly interest in science fiction.

Professor Bud Foote; image via Georgia Tech

According to his daughter Anna, Bud Foote enjoyed intellectual conversations, and Manuel was the kind of man who engaged with him on a level that kept him interested. She noted he would often enjoy a Sunday afternoon of reading, accompanied by beer and smoking his pipe at the bar, under the reading lamp which hangs midway down the bar. It was also a place where Bud and his wife Ruth Anne could bring their children in for some food and a few rounds of pinball. Their children were delighted when Manuel installed the “Eagle’s Nest” as the place for all of the games.

Manuel never thought of his establishment as a “bar.” He would correct people—it’s a “tavern.” It is common lore at Manuel’s that Maloof wanted his bar to reflect the warm atmosphere of British taverns he had experienced during his service during WWII.

In his description of London’s taverns from Inns, Ales, and Drinking Customs of Old England, Frederick Hackwood offers a series of insights:

“The tavern life of old London opens a large field for the study of our national manners and customs; ore than mere places of sojourn for travellers and traders, they became the rendezvous of politicians and publicists, the recognised meeting-places for much social intercourse, and especially for that pleasant form of sociability which is accompanied by friendly entertainment. How useful they were in the days when travelling was difficult and newspapers scarce, and all means of intercommunication were correspondingly slow, is indicated by the extraordinary number of taverns with which the main thoroughfares of old London were lined. (Hackwood 178-9).

Manuel’s embodies this kind of community space that privileges conversation above all else. Absent from the floor is any kind of jukebox or roster of bands playing: Manuel wanted to preserve the space as a place for conversation and social engagement, rather than promote the Tavern as a venue or place for other entertainment.

“How much taverns were frequented by the literati in the early part of the eighteenth century, the Spectator and the Tatler, and other British essayists, bear abundant evidence; and there is little doubt but many of these papers were produced at a tavern, or originated at the ‘wit combats’ that frequently took place within the walls of such” (177).

Foote would probably have appreciated this current moment in Atlanta’s literary scene; Manuel’s has become a haven for groups meeting after local literary events such as Write Club, which model the spirit of “wit combats” that Hackwood mentions.

The artifacts which memorialize the deceased to the living have the potential ‘layered or multiple readings…encoded in memory spaces’ (Maddrell 503). That is to say, relationships, time, proximity, and awareness come to bear on the artifacts’ function on different people.

Jane Bennett would agree, in that objects and human agencies overlap creating a concomitant agency of person and material artifact. In “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter,” Jane Bennett is a proponent of the idea that there is this simultaneity of agency located within human and non-human actants (vibrant bodies), considering language as rhetoric—word sounds— tuning the human body, rendering it more susceptible to the frequency of material agencies inside and around us; for her, the goal is to use words to make whatever communications already at work between vibrant bodies more audible, detectable, and sensible. Her analogy supporting non-human agency comes as this embodied concept of the human body itself as a site of multiple agencies, considering micro biomes, elements, metabolized foods, sounds and odors, and prosthetic technologies. She invokes Spinoza’s idea that every body comes with a drive to seek alliances with other bodies that seek to enhance vitalities. She suggests a symbiosis that is embodied as these overlapping agencies between the human and object.

In “Living with the Deceased: Absence, Presence, and Absence-Presence,” Avril Maddrell discusses the way grief and space interact. Maddrell offers:

“Practices associated with absence-presence intersect with growing trends to mark private grief and remembrance of individuals in public space, through the creation of a range of informal memorials that frame a ‘Third Emotional Space’ for the bereaved. The material memorialscape [sic] is indicative of the interwoven narrative journeys in and through particular place-temporalities for the living, for whom bereavement is a confluence of emotional-spiritual-practical way-finding (Maddrell 501).

Again, Maddrell highlights the way in which memorials function as third space:

[memorials] offered a ‘Third Emotional Space’ for embodied-emotional and performative remembrance, mediating between absence and presence and other related dichotomies. Thus, there is no single static reading of memorials, but practice needs to be considered in conjunction with location and form. I argue that in triangulating context, text, material form and embodied-emotional practices around such memorials, it is possible to gain insight to the dynamic negotiation of absence and presence in relation to the dead (Maddrell 504).

Specifically, Manuel’s functions simultaneously as a temporal and spiritual space—as a memorial site and space for grieving and also as a site for everyday activities like community planning meetings, business luncheons, and happy hour.

Campbell also points out, in discussing roadside memorials, the effect of interaction between the person and space:

“[A] public sphere does not emerge from a particular configuration of the component properties of roadside memorials, but…their ‘capacities for interaction’…. [a]re always-already immanent in the sites, technologies and modalities of contemporary memorial display, and in the words, deeds and voices which they may incite (Campbell 532).

Here, it is easy to locate Manuel’s as a site of interaction between person and artifact, but it is also important to note the way the artifacts inform the human agents and vice versa. The space fosters a kind of synergy. In terms of the connection beyond the immediate, Campbell notes that “[memorials] provide a place for the bereaved to communicate not only with the deceased, but also with the outside world (Klaassens, Groote and Huigen 2009: 187) (quoted in Campbell 531).

My own experience as an employee confirms these notions of conversation, interaction, and memorialization. Often, the objects emanate their own power, their own mood. Patrons almost always had remarks about the objects—especially the urns and plaques. People would often say, “I want my name on the bar. How do you get a plaque?”

I would respond, “First, you’ll have to die.”

Generally, employees of the Tavern decide to memorialize regular customers and have the plaques engraved and mounted. Sometimes, the process is a collaboration between a patron’s family and the people of Manuel’s.

Bud Foote Plaque Edits 1

Again, the words of Hackwood resound:

“A tavern (says an old writer), ‘is a common consumption of the afternoon and the murderer or making away of a rainy day. To give you the total reckoning of it, it is the busy man’s recreation, the idle man’s business, the melancholy man’s sanctuary, the stranger’s welcome, the scholar’s kindness, and the citizen’s country. It is the study of sparkling wits, and a cup of canary their book’” (Hackwood 172).

Here’s a video housed at the Georgia Tech video archive, an oral history interview with Foote himself:


Bud and his wife Ruth Anne interviewed Manuel back in 1970 for The Great Speckled Bird:

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter,”

Campbell, Elaine. Public Sphere as Assemblage: The Cultural Politics of Roadside Memorialization. British Journal of Sociology. 2013. Vol. 64 No. 3.

Hackwood, Frederick. Inns, Ales, and Drinking Customs of Old England. Bracken Books: London. 1985. Print.

Maddrell, Avril. Living with the Deceased: Absence, Presence, and Absence-Presence. Cultural Geographies. Vol.20 No.4. 2013. Print. Pp.501-522.

Woodthorpe, Kate. “Private Grief in Public Spaces: Interpreting Memorialisation in the Contemporary Cemetary.” Hockey, Jenny, Komaromy, Carol, and Woodthorpe, Kate, eds. Matter of Death : Space, Place and Materiality. Basingstoke, Hampshire, GBR: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 11 April 2016.

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