material/materiality

The words material and materiality carry ambivalent meanings in vernacular English. On the one hand, material is defined as “things that are material,” which emphasizes the physical aspect of things; on the other hand, it means “(in various non-physical applications) something which can be worked up or elaborated, or of which anything is composed.” The second definition can be better understood through its relationship to the first definition that, again, can be differentiated into two major meanings: 1) something material is that which “pertains to a matter as opposed to form”; 2) that which “pertains to matter or body; formed or consisting of matter; corporeal.” [1] Thus, although material designates physical matter, it also assumes potential from its association with non-physical matter.

Charged with philosophical and aesthetic implications throughout the modern period, the multivalence of material, often accompanied by the word “materiality,” has surfaced as one of the crucial aspects framing the characteristics of media. The central word, matter, came into English from the old French materie, also from an ultimately traceable word, materia , from which ‘root’ meanings are derived. As a Latin word, materie refers to a building material, usually timber (with which the word may be etymologically associated); thence, by extension, any physical substance of anything. [2] Raymond Williams points out that there was a tendency to associate material with ‘worldly’ affairs and an attendant distinction, of a class kind, between people occupied with material activities and others given to spiritual or liberal pursuits. Its associations with the notions of “form” and “content” in late eighteenth century German philosophy, constitute the current use of the adjective 1) and 2), and help us to understand this context. For Kant, materie was to be distinguished from substance, or the permanent in experience, since it only refers to the distinctive nature of the object’s appearances. Bearing surface value, its physicality was less emphasized than its symbolic meaning, and considered “secondary” or “superficial.” [3] The moment when material acquires physicality as a central meaning is captured in Hegel’s understanding of the term. Hegel’s materie refers to physical matter, in contrast not primarily to “form,” but to mind or spirit and to the abstract or ideal. It is interesting to find the irony residing in this transitional moment when the Kantian notion of material gains its physical/tangible aspect. [4] Thus, Hegel’s articulation of the “content” of art objects was accompanied by the emphasis on the physicality of materie, which entailed the polemic split between material and content. It was Marx who took up the binary opposition of material and content, and yet subverted the significance of the two concepts; material came to embrace extended meanings charged not just with an element of a physical object but also with an irreducible component of what shapes the phenomenal world. [5] By defining the arts as a product of the material foundation, or the “base,” Marx broadens the meaning of material:

…Greek art presupposes Greek mythology, i.e. nature and the social forms already reworked in an unconsciously artistic way by the popular imagination. This is its material. Not any mythology whatever, i.e. not an arbitrarily chosen unconsciously artistic reworking of nature. [6]

Here, material carries its most comprehensive meaning yet as the most fundamental structure of the phenomenal world versus the superstructure to which art belongs. Marx’s further revelation concerning the relationship between art as a form of production and commodity production in general opens the sequential questions of the value of art as commodities and the fetishism of commodities. [7] Traces of these observations are found in the extended meaning of the word material in the early twentieth century.

One significant symptom of the extended meaning of material is sensed in the field of the fine arts and art criticism. Marx’s questions regarding the value of art were succeeded by twentieth-century scholars who were engaged in the anxiety of the work of art as a thing whose value can be judged by its material quality as an object. Walter Benjamin questions the lack of “aura” in the work of art in the modern technical reproduction that is indefinitely reproducible through printing and photography. [8] Although the focus of the argument lies in the new mode of production that marks the advent of the modern era, the discourse on the “material turn” in the field of art in the early twentieth century can hardly be missed. While Benjamin was to a degree nebulous in the shifting mode of technical production and re-evaluation of art, Clement Greenberg, as an art critic, made an enormous effort to redefine the value of the work of art. “It is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself….For the visual arts the medium is discovered to be physical; hence pure painting and pure sculpture seek above all else to affect the spectator physically.” [9] Greenberg’s emphasis on the significance of physicality in visual arts as such came out of his defense of the avant-garde art that was undergoing the tendency to reveal the “materiality” of pictorial space often times through the use of incongruous materials for the effect of differentiating the surface. Inherited from Greenberg, Michael Fried continued to evaluate art in its pure form in defense of avant-garde art against the newly emerging minimalist art of the 1960s. By suggesting the binary opposition of “art” and “objecthood,” Fried is concerned with what should be retained in “art”–the quality that goes beyond the condition of being non-art. The overwhelming discourse of the “objecthood” of art reveals the tension between Fried’s emphasis on the form over the specificity of material and the minimalists’, or “literalists” in Fried’s word, focus on material proper. “Like the shape of the object,” says Fried, “the materials do not represent, signify or allude to anything; they are what they are and nothing more.” [10] Thus, although Fried inherited much from Greenberg, the battle here reveals that the focus of the discourse on material was shifting dramatically. Material that had been merely part of form, as opposed to content/meaning of an art, became the defining factor of what is art and what is not.

And yet, “the material turn” entailed multivalent factors and an equally complex reception in the early twentieth century. Varying in details, the shared characteristic of the phenomenologists in the early twentieth century shows the newly charged meaning of material in relation to the ontology of things. For instance, Heidegger loaded a full range of meaning to the word thing (ding), with its widest sense which comprised anything that is ‘a something not nothing.’ [11] By including any thinkable categories of being in the concept “thing,” Heidegger denies the strict definition of the things as limited to physical quality and releases it to the point where it carries the most abstract meaning. The material aspect of things thus is blurred, and the very meaning of material becomes associated with the abstractness of things, which prompts the use of its nominalization, “materiality” in the late twentieth century.

With criticisms from various fields on the strictest definition of material in Marx’s vocabulary, the second half of the twentieth century saw an interesting amalgamation of the very Marxist notion of material and the Heideggerian reception of the material and things: material that is immaterial. This double-edged meaning can be best articulated by the word “materiality.” Materiality is defined currently as “that which constitutes the ‘matter’ of something: opposed to formality; the quality of being material; material aspect or character; mere outwardness or externality.” [12] The significance of the notion, conveying the quality of being material despite its being non-material in actuality, has been recognized in the burgeoning media discourse of the 1960s. A prominent example is found in Marshall McLuhan’s notion of media as “extensions of man,” which includes any material in unfixed form, or even formless material, such as electricity. Here, the notion of materiality plays a crucial role in locating the media as a paradigm, which is articulated by its relationship to form and content of a medium. By emphasizing the “content” of the electric light, McLuhan underscores the materiality of this seemingly contentless as well as formless medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. [13] His axiomatic phrase, “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium,” [14] first problematizes the immateriality of any formless medium, and thereby enunciates the latency of materiality in any medium. Raymond William’s insight into media as social practice can also be read in a similar context. By tracing the modern idealization of art and the reification of medium as the result, Williams emphasizes medium as “the objectified properties of the working process itself.” [15] Thus, by focusing on the “relations” embodied in media that are constructed by subsequent material processes, i.e. printing and distribution, Williams urges the reconsideration of modern media as social practice where any medium functions as a habitat rather than just as a specific material means of communication.

These attempts to understand media beyond the materiality of them in a literal sense have accelerated inquiries into the relations between different media where often another medium takes its form. Friedrich Kittler’s delineation of diverse mediums in his discursive historiography of modern media captures this aspect well: “Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effect.” [16] As Kittler connotes, the “surface effect” is one of the multifaceted features of the materialities of modern media, which implies that “any medium can be translated into another.” [17] The notion of materiality also plays a significant role in differentiating modern media from “new media.” For instance, Lev Manovich’s overemphasis on the “newness” of media derives from his limited reception of materiality in its literal sense; by dismissing the materiality of new media such as a computer, of which the functioning process itself embodies specific materialities, Manovich underestimates the common ground shared by modern media and “new” media. [18] The most extreme perspective on the materiality of medium is found in Jean Baudrillard’s provocative characterization of a medium as a system administered by the code that is interwoven with a technical apparatus (sound,image, etc.) and a corporeal one (gesture, sexuality, etc.). ” Reciprocity comes into being,” says Baudrillard, “through the destruction of mediums per se.” [19] Composed of the “immaterial” code, yet still to be “destroyed,” a medium here is fully charged with its materiality. Forged within this discourse, yet more fundamentally questioning the negative reception of material in the twentieth century, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht envisions perhaps the most expanded meaning of material/materiality by far. Citing Lyotard’s words, Gumbrecht suggests:

The fall of matter and materialism does not lead to the immaterial pure and simple; rather, it branches into the immaterial and its material “sites” or “supports” (French “supports”). Instead of substantial objects and their meanings, we get information overload and a new hardness of “supporting” materials, a new “performativity” of things and bodies. [20]

Thus, the point becomes that what is at stake is not a search for the reality of the material nor the materiality of the real. Rather, Gumbrecht looks for the underlying constraints whose material, technological, and procedural potentials have been dismissed by interpretational conventions.

JeeHee Hong
Department of Art History
Winter 2003

NOTES

[1] Oxford English Dictionary.

[2] Raymond Williams, 1976, 164.

[3] Howard Caygill, 288-89.

[4] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “Introduction,” 69-90.

[5] Karl Marx, 1973, 109-11.

[6] Ibid.,111. Emphasis is mine.

[7] Karl Marx, [1867] 1974.

[8] Walter Benjamin, 219-53.

[9] Clement Greenberg, 32-33.

[10] Michael Fried, 22.

[11] M.J. Wood, 214; Martin Heidegger, 165-86.

[12] Oxford English Dictionary .

[13] Marshall McLuhan, 9.

[14] Ibid.,8. [15] Raymond Williams, 1977, 161.

[16] Friedrich Kittler, “Introduction,” 1.

[17] Ibid.,2.

[18] Lev Manovich, 21-26.

[19] Jean Baudrillard, 177. Emphasis is mine.

[20] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K.Ludwig Pfeiffer eds., 2.

WORKS CITED

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