Over the last century, rapid developments in communication technologies have transformed politics and culture on a global scale with ambivalent consequences. Digital technologies like smartphones and social media platforms are now ubiquitous. They facilitate instantaneous global communication and afford users unprecedented access to information. But, while they have aided social movements lobbying for progress, digital media technologies have also proven to be a resource for white supremacists lobbying for hate. And, while new media has widened access to information, it has famously helped foster the spread of political disinformation and extremist propaganda. Further, the data gathering practices afforded by digital media have abetted corporate and governmental surveillance at a massive scale.
The blending of the technological and the social we see in digital culture provides the backdrop for the “material” or “ontological” turn that begins to take place in communication studies and the humanities more broadly near the close of the 20th century. Ontology refers to the study of “being” – the metaphysical reality of things, as they exist apart from human perception or linguistic representation. Material scholars argue that understanding the cultural and political consequences of new communication technologies necessitates extending critical attention beyond the textual aspects of communication to investigate the materiality of media.
Material perspectives have gained a great deal of popularity and influence in communication studies in recent years, but there remains considerable ambiguity and disagreement as to what materialism is and what exactly a turn to the material involves. This article aims to provide an introduction to material perspectives in media and technology studies that is helpful to prospective graduate students interested in these topics. It considers different varieties of materialist media criticism by mapping three major threads of materialist thought that have profoundly impacted communication research: post-Marxism, materialist media theory, and new materialism.
A Brief History of Material Perspectives in Media and Technology Studies
At first, it may seem redundant to discuss the “materiality” of technology. After all, if one is interested in studying a type of technology, does that not entail studying something material? However, when considering how humans discuss the politics of television, for example, one can see that people are typically far more likely to focus on what media communicates – what it signifies, or represents – than on its material or technical features. For example, it is common to debate about how television programs portray sexuality or violence, or how they represent members of marginalized cultural groups. It is less common to hear people discuss how television networks require massive, hierarchical corporate organizations in order to function, or how they only allow unidirectional communication as opposed to a multidirectional medium like the telephone or email. The material features of the medium, in other words, tend to be overshadowed by the message, despite the important role they play the shaping of culture and ideology.
The tendency to focus on the message and exclude the medium characterized media research up until the middle of the 20th century. As discussed in the Introductory Guide to Media and Technology Studies, in early social scientific media research, media technologies were studied for their impact on human communication, conceived narrowly as the transmission of information. Research on propaganda and mass media effects share this singular focus on the information being disseminated and its sociopolitical effects.
During this same period, a more critical strain of media research inspired by Marx developed in Europe, specifically within the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School. As explored further in the section below, Marx is a foundational thinker in materialist thought. Put simply, where previous philosophers (namely, Hegel and Kant) conceived reality as a product of human consciousness, Marx inverted this formulation, arguing that human consciousness was, instead, produced by the material conditions that precede and surround it.
For Marx, these material conditions are primarily economic, dealing with the dominant mode of production within a given economic and political system (capitalism, feudalism, communism, etc.) and the forms of labor that this particular mode of production requires. Ideology, in this formation, is a production of cultural institutions that aim to support the dominant mode of production and justify its labor relations. This was the ideological function of the mass media technologies of the early 20th century, according to thinkers in the Frankfurt School.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Marxist thought fell under heavy criticism from scholars working in cultural studies, among others, for its economically determinist vision of political culture. British cultural studies scholars like Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall argued that cultural institutions did not simply reflect power relations, but were in fact a space where political forces struggled to gain power.
Critical / cultural scholarship helped initiate a broader “cultural turn” in the humanities and social sciences by introducing a more nuanced critical focus on the politics of representation, and urged that contextual elements like power and culture influence the reception of messages. However, this shift left the focus on the textual typical of previous media and technology criticism largely undisturbed. Researchers still tended to “read” media cultures primarily by analyzing their major cultural discourses through the texts they produced. This bias toward the message reflects what “new materialists” argue is an exclusionary focus on the textual or discursive in prior scholarship. As Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (2010) argue, new materialism is designed to overcome the “inadequacies” of the textual focus of the cultural turn.
In response, a “material” or “ontological” turn in critical communication and media scholarship took place beginning late in the 20th century. The neo-materialist or “new materialist” accounts of materiality associated with this turn continue to gain influence today. The materiality of media has always mattered, but new media technologies make this especially visible and urgent. Spurred on by changes in science and technology taking place around them, communication scholars have become increasingly invested in understanding the materiality of communication. This renewed focus on the material focuses on the physical, technical, biological, and otherwise embodied aspects of being and attempts to de-center human thought and representation in its analyses of culture, politics, and communication.
Spotlight on Scholarship – Featured Scholars in Material Perspectives in Media and Technology StudiesDiscover how scholars in media and technology studies apply materialist perspectives to theorize the relationship between media and culture, from critiques of new forms of technologically-centered capitalism, to research on the importance of nonhuman technologies in shaping politics and culture.
Dr. Patricia Clough is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York, teaching at the Graduate Center and Queens College. An influential thinker on affect and the relationship between technology and identity, Dr. Clough’s work investigates the ways in which human experience is constituted by media and other technologies, as in her books Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Technology (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), and The Affective Turn: Retheorizing the Social. Dr. Clough’s materialism is as grounded as cutting edge; she is currently engaged with her students in an ethnographic project on Queens, New York, where she grew up. Dr. Clough has been a politically engaged scholar over the duration of her career, whose public projects include establishing the College and Community Fellowship, which helps formerly incarcerated people gain higher education and training in political leadership, at CUNY’s Graduate Center.
Dr. Samatha Frost is Professor of Political Science, and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she is also affiliated with the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. Dr. Frost has been an influential voice in bringing European new materialist thought into conversation with cultural studies in the United States. With Diane Coole, she edited the important volume New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics (Duke University Press, 2010).” Dr. Frost’s research explores the relationship between biology, feminism, and political theory, as exemplified in her most recent book Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human (Duke University Press, 2016).
Dr. Michael Hardt is Professor of Literature at Duke University. He is a prolific and profoundly influential scholar who works at the intersections of philosophy, cultural studies, and political theory to theorize the new forms of political domination and resistance that characterize our contemporary, globalized culture. He is most famous for his coauthored works with Italian social theorist and activist Antonio Negri, which include Empire (2000), Multitude (2004) and, most recently, Assembly (2017). He is also a committed activist scholar, whose scholarship works to both theorize and support global democratic movements like Occupy.
Dr. Sarah Sharma is Associate Professor of Media Theory at the University of Toronto Mississauga's Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, and Director of the McLuhan Centre for Cultural and Technology. Her work explores the relationship between technology, labor, and time, and the implications this relationship has for power structures related to race, class, and gender. Her first book, In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (Duke University Press, 2014) is an illuminating reflection on how time works to reinforce race, gender and class inequalities in the gig economy. Her forthcoming research, including the co-edited volume with Rianka Sigh MsUnderstanding Media: A Feminist Media is the Message, explores the contact points between materialist media theory and feminist politics. This volume also reflects the public aspect of her work at the McCluhan center, which focuses on negotiating the profound role of digital technologies in everyday life.
Dr. Iris van der Tuin is Professor of Theory of Cultural Inquiry in the Department of Philosophy at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, where she is also Director of the School of Liberal Arts. She is a preeminent figure in new materialist thought, whose research focuses on the intersections between new technologies, especially artificial intelligence, feminism, and critical theory. With Rick Dolphijn, Dr. van der Tuin edited New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies (Open Humanities Press, 2012). Her most recent monograph is Generational Feminism: New Materialist Introduction to a Generative Approach (Lexington Books 2015).
Dr. McKenzie Wark is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at The New School in New York City. Her work, which takes British cultural studies and German media theory as its primary points of departure, also incorporates a materialist emphasis on the environment and the body. She is a prolific writer and commentator on contemporary media, and a politically engaged public scholar. Her many works include Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (2015), Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? (Verso (2019), and, most recently, an autoethnographic exploration of transgender identity entitled Reverse Cowgirl (Semiotext(e), 2020).
Kinds of Materialism
The discussion in the following section reflects that there has been, and continues to be, great diversity among different types of materialist thought. Marxist materialism emerged as the first dominant model of this approach. Media, according to this viewpoint, is a superstructural institution. Like other superstructural institutions — churches, political parties, schools – media institutions work to uphold the interest of the economic structure of that society (in Marx’s terms, the “economic base”). According to “economist” or “orthodox” interpretations of Marx, the superstructure produces the ideology of a given society to support and justify the economic base. This process is “material” insofar as the contents of ideology are dictated by the material laws that govern the economy.
Like orthodox Marxists, critical / cultural scholars advocate for studying media as a product of the material relations that make up culture. But critical / cultural scholars also resist the idea that media representations simply reflect and determine dominant power interests. If the reality of the dominant economic interests are the “material” in Marxist thought, critical / cultural studies understands the significance of media and technology as socially constructed, emerging from the relations between the different power structures that operate within culture.
These political forces, moreover, are driven by factors beyond the “material reality” of the economy. Many different forms of power express themselves through cultural institutions, not just economic power. As discussed in further detail in the Introductory Guide to Critical / Cultural Studies, critical / cultural scholars in communication and other disciplines have, over the last century, expanded their analyses of the media to consider hierarchies that are related to but independent from class-based power structures: for example, those built around racism, patriarchy, hetero- and cis-normativity, or ability.
One version of materialism, then, represented by critical / cultural studies, analyzes media and communication as material products of the diverse relations and structures of power that make up culture, and as material resources that are used in cultural struggles.
A second version of materialism, which is not necessarily incompatible with the first, engages with a more literal or concrete form of materiality. It is invested in the material infrastructures, technologies, biological organisms, and nonhuman actors involved in communication and culture. As detailed below, there are three versions of this latter type of materialism, which attempts to grapple with the significance of technology, matter, and the non-human world to human communication and culture. These are materialist theories of media, autonomist Marxist thought, and new materialism.
Materialist Media Theory: The Medium and the Network
The Toronto School, German Media Theory, and Actor Network Theory all responded to the focus on content and messages that, up until that point, characterized both social scientific and critical thought on media. As a result, they in turn developed a very similar focus on how different technologies engender certain dominant forms of social and political communication.
Marshall McLuhan (1964) famously summarized the goals of a “media ecological” approach to media studies by declaring, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that prior media research was too fixated on the content of the message being communicated. Media ecologies – dominant forms of media and how they are distributed and instituted in society — have more weight in establishing the character of social communication than the content transmitted in any particular message. Media technologies are not simply instruments for communication; they also establish new social, cultural, and political possibilities for human existence.
While McLuhan’s media ecology paradigm gained influence in North America, in European thought a very similar shift was taking place. German Media Theory emerged as a distinct scholarly tradition, contrasting itself with the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. As leading representative of the field Bernhard Siegert (2015) puts it, German Media Theory argued that media scholars ought to shift their object of focus “from semantics itself” — that is, the meaning being communicated — “to the exterior and material conditions” that allow for communication. The Frankfurt School understood the political function of mass media primarily in terms of its ideology, which is located in the content of the message rather than the medium.
From the perspective of German Media theory, as Friedrich Kittler (1990) puts it, media technologies “determine what in fact can become a discourse.” The study of discourse networks — the media technologies and infrastructures that make certain forms of communication possible — is therefore of primary concern to German Media Studies, as media systems are to the media ecology of the Toronto School. Similarly, in France during the same period, historian of technology and sociologist Bruno Latour developed a similar perspective on the materiality of communication called Actor Network Theory. According to Latour (2005), humans are not the only actors in social processes; technologies, like media technologies, are actors within social networks as much as human communicators. Like his German and Canadian counterparts, Latour concludes that the technical features and organizational structure of networks help produce the effects of media technologies; the individuals who use those technologies are part of those networks, but do not have an instrumental mastery over them.
However, as these perspectives have asserted the comparative significance of the medium so strongly, contemporary media scholars often critique them as technologically determinist. Too exclusive a focus on the media environments, cultural techniques, and nonhuman actors may preclude recognizing the roles both domination and resistance playing in shaping media culture. This is, however, not a necessary oversight. As Sarah Sharma’s (2014) work In the Meantime illustrates, studies of the medium are often key to locating the ways technological culture positions and discriminates against race, gender, and class, in ways as material as mediating a gig-worker’s relationship to time.
Autonomist Marxist Thought
One leading branch of Marxism today, sometimes referred to as “autonomist” Marxism and associated most strongly with a group of Italian thinkers, explores the materiality of culture by depicting how contemporary capitalism has developed techniques for producing, measuring, and managing the consciousness and creative capacities of human subjects.
Different thinkers give different names to this “new” form of capitalist production, which is said to define cotemporary neoliberalism: post-Fordism, communicative capitalism (Dean 2009), cognitive capitalism, semiocapitalism (Lazaratto 2014), psychopolitics (Han 2017), or even “the death of capital” (Ward 2017). But each tells a similar story about the development of global capitalism into an economy in which human communication and creativity are some of the most highly valued commodities. Lazzarato, for example, gives us the image of the stock trader, whose body and cognition serve only as a relay or circuit in a vast technical network that exchanges information at a speed and scale they could never hope to comprehend.
These theories have been essential for media scholars aiming to understand the sociopolitical importance of digital culture, and the rise of social media. These thinkers above are describing two related developments that define contemporary media. First is the birth of an “attention economy,” where a user’s every online activity and interaction is valuable data for advertisers and corporations. In the era of Big Data, every moment of our attention is a commodity to be bought and sold. Second, is the rise of user-produced media. Social media platforms invite us to engage in free, creative labor, which is then monetized through advertising revenue and data collection.
Together, this leads to the merging of human communication and creativity with technological systems and political economic relationships, so that they cannot be disentangled. Autonomist Marxism is therefore materialist in the Marxist, critical / cultural sense of seeing the social order as the result of historically specific economic and political relations. But it is also materialist in the ontological sense, stressing the ways that human subjectivity is produced in relation with different nonhuman logics.
New materialism is a set of critical perspectives in the humanities and social sciences that are united around their interest in matter – the physical aspects of the world. New materialism(s) have their intellectual foundations in the post-War philosophy of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and contemporary feminist, antiracist, and postcolonial movements. As Rosie Braidotti (2013) summarizes in her interview with Iris van der Tuin and Fred Dolphin, new materialism, “refuses the linguistic paradigm, stressing instead the concrete yet complex materiality of bodies immersed in social relations of power.”
The tradition of new materialism shares the emphasis on networks and nonhuman agents found in media ecology research and Actor Network Theory, and the emphasis on creativity found in Autonomist Marxism. This investment is driven by a critical interest in what has been covered over by previous theories of culture and communication because of their focus on the content, messages, or texts circulated by human actors. But, while discourse networks and media ecologies focus on the overarching technological structures that define a given culture, new materialism is more interested in the vitality and overlooked significance of nonhuman actors (Latour, discussed above, holds something of an intermediate position between these two poles of materialism).
New materialist scholars also share critical / cultural scholarship’s investment in politically engaged academic practice. In particular, the deconstruction of the boundary between subject and object, human and machine, and human and animal practiced by new materialists has been a fundamental part of contemporary feminist theory. European feminist theory along with the critical philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault are new materialisms’ leading drivers. Understanding the world from a new materialist perspective, as primarily unified as opposed to individualist or atomistic, allows for a fundamental rethinking of gender and sexual difference. New materialist critics call for an intersectional feminism that dismantles the hierarchical and dominating tendencies that proceed from the fallacious separation of human subjects from their material environments.
Materialist Thought in Media and Technology Today
While materialist thought may seem speculative and abstract in nature, the major threads of materialism outlined in this article are essential to understanding concrete problems posed by contemporary technology. Thinking about the relationship between the human and the nonhuman is key to understanding the active role, for instance, that social media algorithms play in shaping our lived experiences.
On platforms, everything we see on our “feeds” is selected and sorted by algorithmic processes that adapt to our behavior and passive feedback. Elsewhere, similar algorithms may determine whether one is eligible for a bank loan, or whether the police routinely patrol one’s neighborhood. They also function behind the scenes, organizing our reality before we experience it, in ways that are not transparently communicated to us. Algorithms like this often import racist, classist and otherwise discriminatory and oppressive logics into their decision making, perpetuating biases that happen behind the curtain and, as a result, can escape critique.
The materialisms surveyed in this article are all vital areas of contemporary research in media and technology; indeed, they arguably form the cutting edge of academic work in communication studies and media criticism today. At first, this may appear counterintuitive. If materialist thought focuses on that which cannot be grasped by studying human culture, that which escapes human consciousness of human communication, then why are these theoretical developments so important to communication studies?
In truth, few, if any, of these scholars wish to ignore the importance of human communication or the human problems to which communication is central. Inevitably, scholars who are interested in bettering life through research or in socio-politically engaged practice cannot stray too far from human considerations. The aim of these materialisms is, instead, to recognize the influence of the nonhuman on the human as much as we recognize the influence of the human on the nonhuman. Likewise, it is to consider the importance of that which does not communicate to communication, as much as we consider the importance communication holds for how we understand that which does not communicate.
Sources and Additional Resources
Materialist media research is one of the more exciting, experimental, and rapidly development subfields of communication and the critical humanities. To learn more about it, start with the following theoretical and applied texts:
Additional Topics on Media and Technology Studies
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