Recently, I had a student come by during my office hours. Upon entering, one of the first things he said was something like “Whoa, Dr. Smith – I wouldn’t have thought that you’d have a knife!”
To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what he was talking about. Then I remembered that I have an old knife hanging in a shadowbox frame on my office wall that I use as an art piece (it’s got some very interesting markings). Frankly, I’d never made much of it, except that it didn’t make the aesthetic cut at my house. In the hierarchy of interior design to which I ascribe, that means that my office became its new home.
But what was really more interesting about the conversation that next ensued was not the story of the knife, but the lack of such a story. I felt compelled to provide a narrative about where I got the knife from, what its meaning was, the interesting circumstances of its acquisition, etc. He was clearly expecting such a story that would explain why his humanities professor would have a weapon on her wall, and if I had to guess, he was also anticipating a short lecture on its cultural significance or use.
But to tell the truth, I don’t remember anything more than finding it in a flea market about 20 years ago, having a minor spat with my then boyfriend (now husband) about whether or not I had grabbed the knife in some sort of dangerous fashion, and then taking it to my grandmother, who at the time owned an art framing shop.
That’s it. Nothing else. I don’t know if it is actually old, I can’t recall why I found it interesting at the time, and I have no clue of its value.
It’s funny how sometimes things don’t have a story – or, at least, one that we find worth telling. As luck would have it, this conversation with the student about the knife coincided with a discussion in one of my classes about the power of origins narratives. As we talked in class, the power of a good origins story (or any story, for that matter) is that it legitimizes a particular rendition of events. Scholars who maximize an origin story are, in a sense, not only re-creating a past that potentially never existed, but are simplifying the social process until it is nothing more than a faint resemblance of itself – a single point in time, a claim of order — in an otherwise very chaotic world.
Yet it seems that the real power of contextualizing stories is not just that they make the world appear very simple and easy to navigate, but they also tell us more about the storyteller than anything else. The knife in my office is testament to the fact that the things for which we create stories are things that we’ve granted significance, and in this sense, they do not exist as “things in themselves.” If I discover tomorrow that this knife is nothing other than a recently-made fabrication (e.g, “junk”), then it becomes “junk” only to the degree that it cannot fetch money in my present social world. If, on the other hand, it’s proven quite old, rare, or significant somehow, nothing physically changes about the knife, even though its meaning in my social matrix transforms quite dramatically.
There’s no doubt that someone else out there might have something to say about my knife, and perhaps provide a more interesting account of its history than I can. No matter what details that account entails, the knife’s social context — it’s meaning, to use a more popular term — will always function more as a mirror than a weapon.
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