CCCC 2001 in Review: H-Featured Session "A Town is not a Culture:" Writing Laramie after the Murder of Matthew Shepard, chaired by Richard Miller

Beth Loffreda, Assistant Professor of English and Adjunct Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, gave a personal, poignant, and sometimes provocative presentation about her new book, Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder. Loffreda, who was relatively new to the Laramie area when Shepard, a young gay college student, was brutally murdered, discussed the "struggle of representing a town in disagreement with itself, a town simultaneously committed to remembering and forgetting both Shepard and the gay and lesbian residents in its midst." In the process of unpacking her narrative and analysis, Loffreda offered a moving, socially relevant, and often sophisticated reading of Laramie as a complex text--one that frequently resists closure (e.g., understanding violence but not wanting to let go of its homophobia) even as it strives to make meaning out of its disparate parts (e.g., understanding and respecting its gay residents). The sophistication of Loffreda's presentation was perhaps only matched by her simultaneously relaxed and dynamic presentational style.

While, on the surface, any summary of Loffreda's work is going to make it seem as though it simply rehearses some of the standard tropes and clichés of postmodern discourse analysis (the failure of texts to close or cohere, the fragmentariness of meaning, the reliance of meaning making on the creation of silences or the silencing of voices), Loffreda pushed beyond to consider critically the merits of her work--from an academic, cultural studies standpoint, and from various personal and political perspectives as well. Specifically, Loffreda eloquently described how she wanted her work to have a larger social purpose beyond understanding a series of complex rhetorical negotiations as a town constructed and reconstructed its identity during a time of crisis; rather, Loffreda talked about how she wants not only her own work but also cultural studies work in general to push itself to the point of engaged political relevance--in other words, to talk about those rhetorical negotiations in ways that might forestall future violence and query bigotries more effectively. And the difficulty of negotiating such a path, according to Loffreda, shouldn't deter us from seeking it.

Some in the audience voiced their concerns--both before her session and during the question and answer period following her presentation--that she might just be "taking advantage" of Shepard's death to generate her scholarship. But Loffreda seemed to have thought through, or to at least be in the process of thinking through, her own rhetorical position vis-à-vis her scholarship about the murder, as well as how her rhetorical position/s can--and should--imply various politics. Indeed, one of the most moving aspects of this session was not Loffreda's eloquent description of Laramie in the wake of a homophobic murder, nor her metaphorically rich description of a cultural studies analysis of the rhetorics circulating around the murder and its aftermath, but rather Loffreda's own sense of the urgency of connecting a study of those rhetorics to a politics that would seek to address Shepard's death. In this way, she figured her work as more than just "rhetorical"--and, at the same time, rhetorical in the very best, most engaged sense of the term. [JA]

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