Traditional rhetorical criticism focused on the speeches of great orators and analyzed the word choices and potential effects. Scholars slowly began to incorporate other objects of study like groups of speakers, genres of speeches, and non-elite speakers. These variations still focused on the spoken and written word, however. Larger changes emerged when scholars began looking at how physical spaces constrain or offer opportunities in the way that speeches invite or construct possibilities for audiences. Moving through a space that has physical obstacles is similar to spoken commands or laws that restrict movement. Physical spaces and objects can themselves be symbols (like words) that have embedded meaning, affect, and significance. Materiality invites audience participation and makes arguments.
The first example of arguing monuments is the Portrait Monument at the US Capitol. The marble monument shows three elegant busts of prominent women in the women's suffrage movement: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. There is room for a fourth bust in a lump of un-carved stone in the rear of the monument.
|Picture retrieved from Architect of the Capitol|
This monument makes a clear argument that the work of women's rights is unfinished. There may have been great women in the past who deserve to be honored, but there is still the need for activism, activists, and progress. Furthermore, viewers of the monument are invited to honor the memories of these three great women by continuing on their work. Their memories do not invoke a sense of completeness or finality; their faces encourage the audience to ask, "what more can be done?" Some people have thought that the unfinished section is meant to be completed when the US elects the first female President. This, however, goes against the intention of the artist, Adelaide Johnson, to show the perpetually unsolved state of gender equality.
Another example is the Atheism bench. This monument is the first public monument to atheism, or a lack of belief in divinity. The American Atheists lost a court case to have a monument to the Ten Commandments removed from a Florida Courthouse. Instead of removing the monument, the court offered them the opportunity to build their own monument. The monument is a bench so as to be a functional piece of public display. It is covered in quotations that specifically mention religion and the American political and legal systems.
|Picture retrieved from Time Magazine|
These are just two examples of how physical spaces can produce arguments. Oftentimes, memorials are coupled with verbal statements, like the Atheism bench, but it is important for scholars to note that images, monuments, and material things can produce independent, standalone arguments.