Required Reading: Materiality by Bill Brown


The thorn lodged in your swollen thumb is matter; the thought lodged in your mind is not. Yet that discrepancy can be troubled by any admission that thoughts are the outcome of, say, electrochemical impulses, or even (to borrow a medium-inspired tripe) the effect of synapses within a neural network. No matter how immaterial you understand your thoughts to be, you can't help but grant that they have some neurophysiological ground. Which is simply to say that the process of thinking has a materiality of its own.

This hardly means that you should abandon the original distinction (phenomenological or epistemological or ontological) between thoughts and thorns. Rather, it's a way to begin recognizing how, both in ordinary language and more specialized language, materiality can refer to different dimensions of experience, or dimensions beyond (or below) what we generally consider experience to be. Like many concepts, materiality may seem to make the most sense when it is opposed to another term: the material serves as a commonsensical antithesis to, for instance, the spiritual, the abstract, the phenomenal, the virtual, and the formal, not to mention the immaterial. And yet materiality has a specificity that differentiates it from its superficial cognates, such as physicality, reality, or concreteness. When you admire the materiality of a sweater, you're acknowledging something about its look and feel, not simply its existence as a physical object. When you complain of another sweater that it lacks this materiality, you're not asserting its immateriality. And if, after machine-washing the first sweater, you allow that you have witlessly destroyed its materiality, you mean that you've altered some of its physical qualities, not that you have eradicated the object tout court. Nonetheless, the obfuscation of an object can be the requisite result of gaining greater access to its material components -- dramatizing its materiality, let us say -- especially when that access has been technologically mediated. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can show us the material within objects -- the brain tissue within the skull and thus, perhaps, the material source of some pathological condition -- but it does so at the expense of skin and bone. You might say, then, that this visualizing medium at once materializes and dematerializes the human body.

Such permutations should be kept in mind when considering any declaration about the dematerialization, via digital encoding, of the material world. Nonetheless, insofar as such declarations register genuine change -- changes in what we experience how we do so -- they merit attention, not least because they inhabit a tradition (extending from Karl Marx and Max Weber to Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard) within which the process of modernization or of postmodernization has been understood as one of abstraction. It could well be argued, moreover, that the digital's apparent threat to materiality helped provoke a new materialist turn that began to thrive in the 1990s within a variety of disciplines: anthropology, art history history, cinema studies, the history of science, and literary and cultural studies. Within media history, media theory, and cybercultural studies, this provocation has focused attention on the materiality of the medium, of information, and of communication, inspiring research on a wide range of topics, from the material substratum of media to the human body's interaction with technology to the socio-economic systems which support the interaction (see, e.g., Gumbrecht and Pfeiffer 1994; Lenoir 1998; Mitchell and Thurtle 2004).

Materiality thus glimmers as a new rapier, cutting two ways. On the one hand: Doesn't the medium (be it telegraphy or photography or television or digital video) elide the materiality of the object (or the violence or the degradation) it represents? On the other: Aren't you ignoring the materiality of the medium itself, the material support, the medium's embeddedness within particular material circumstances, its material ramifications? No matter how variously the term may be deployed, materiality has come to matter with new urgency.

Whatever the urgency, when we think about media and materiality it may be difficult not to begin by wrestling with some very basic questions: What do scholars mean when they assert that one medium or another has a dematerializing effect? What do scholars do when they attend to "the materiality of communication"? What might scholars accomplish through a materialist analysis of media? And a corollary bonus question: What sort of materialism would help us assess the materialites of dematerializing media? What critical act is comparable to that casual yet cataclysmic moment in a movie theater when you happen to glance backward and see...a funnel of light that streams from the projector?