An Introduction to the Materialities Research Theme

By Iain Taylor on October 2nd, 2019


Over the course of the 2019/20 academic year, researchers in the BCMCR will be producing work in relation to the research theme of ‘Materialities’. With this theme, we are interested in exploring the ways in which our theoretical work and practice interact with and exist within the material world. We will consider how the ephemerality of cultural and media forms and meanings are just one part of their wider social, economic, and political existence. We aim to question the changing material qualities of things, places and people, and the polysemous nature of the values and meanings which are inscribed upon them.  

The study of media, culture, and society has long been intimately, and arguably inextricably entangled with the material world in which meaning is produced and consumed. To discuss the mediation of ideas and meaning is to consider the means through which the transient and evasive nature of ideas and meaning becomes fixed through material means. As such, the notion of ‘materiality’, or ‘how the material character of the world around us is appropriated by humanity’ (Graves-Brown, 2001: 1) is a pervasive one in fields of study which take media and culture as their focal point. Materiality, broadly speaking, refers not simply to the material qualities of a particular artefact, object, or space. Rather, to talk of materiality is to engage with the relationships though which such material qualities are created and understood as meaningful within systems of society and culture. It is to reflect upon the power which physical tangibility affords to artefacts and spaces as sites of meaning, and the ‘inescapable situatedness’ of human existence within corporeal experience (Kallinikos et al, 2012: 6).

In adopting the theme of ‘Materialities’ as a focal point over the coming year, researchers in the BCMCR will be engaging in an active exploration of, and reflection upon, the ways in which their intellectual projects are shaped and impacted upon by the spaces in which they take place, and the objects and artefacts through which they are constituted and mediated. This might relate to the ways in which cherished personal artefacts become sites of memory, or identity. It might speak to the ways in which certain technological artefacts, such as mobile phones or laptop computers, become embedded in the communication of ideas. It might speak to how the curation of certain physical artefacts archives, or (by extension), how the exclusion of others, can come to shape cultural consensus on questions of historical fact. It may speak to the ways in which the human body itself becomes a contested site of meaning in debates of aesthetics, value, and ownership. In taking materiality as our research theme over the coming year, we are committing ourselves to considering how the ideas and theories which emerge for our theoretical work and practice are situated within and shaped by the material world.

Such considerations of material meanings, and their relationship with theoretical concepts and positions, are timely for scholars of media, culture, and society. News cycles are currently dominated with discussions of shifting environmental realities such as the current global climate emergency, with accounts of destruction and displacement as a result of global conflict, and with debates around rapid technological advancement and its cultural and economic impact. Socio-political logics of competition, control, and scarcity create a pressure towards what Law and Mol (1995: 283) describe as ‘material inflation’ or ‘material instability’, whereby the relationships between cultural and political meanings and material consequences become volatile. As such, a reconsideration of the relationship between socio-cultural meaning and the material world in which it is situated takes on a new sense of significance and urgency for scholars of media, culture, and society.

That said, while a focus on the material can provide a useful means of situating questions of social and cultural meaning within the physical world, the notion of materiality presents challenges as well as opportunities. The polysemous use of the term across a range of disciplines, and indeed, often by different authors within the same discipline presents a particular challenge. As Berger et al (1972) note, it is difficult to build theoretical models in the absence of clearly defined and relationally situated concepts. The loose and inconsistent evocation of materiality as a concept, and of its associated concepts of “materialism”, “materialisation, and (perhaps most questionably) that of the “immaterial” is problematic and must be treated critically. As such, any discussion of ‘materiality’ as a singular concept must be tempered by a consideration of its broader use across a range of academic disciplines and everyday discourses.

Furthermore, the use of ‘materiality’ in a singular sense belies the ever-shifting nature of both the physical world, and of the ways that we interact with it. The meaning of material things is never fixed and final, and remains in a constant process of negotiation and renegotiation between people, artefacts, and material spaces. To talk of materiality is not to speak of a fixed and stable sense of meaning, but rather of a particular set of meanings as part of a particular social system at a particular moment in time. One need only look as far as the polarising political positions emerging from some of the issues highlighted above to see that material meanings are, and will remain, a contested space.

As such, in adopting materiality as a research theme for the year, we also commit ourselves to challenge and problematise existing notions of materiality. We seek to consider the plurality of materialitieswhich emerge across the broad and variegated range of the term’s use, and to create spaces for conversation and debate about implications that this plurality of material meanings might have for the study of media, culture, and society.

Launching on the 2nd October 2019, and lasting for the duration of the academic year, our regular Wednesday research seminar will provide a forum through which these ideas, arguments, and explorations of materialities will play out. In addition to these regular seminars, the centre will be organising a range of events, blog posts, and publications through which these conversations can be advanced. Colleagues from within the BCMCR, researchers working at other organisations, and cultural practitioners with an interest in material cultures, materiality, and/or the issues which emerge from these concepts, are encouraged to participate. If you would like to contribute materials, or to discuss the ways in which theories of materiality might intersect with your broader intellectual project, please get in touch with Dr Iain Taylor – iain.taylor@bcu.ac.uk.

 

Graves-Brown, P. (2000) Introduction, in Graves-Brown (ed.) Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture. London: Routledge, pp. 1-9

Kallinikos, J., Leonardi, P. M., and Nardi, B. A. (2012) The Challenge of Materiality: Origins, Scope, and Prospects, in Leonardi, P. M., Nardi, B. A., and Kallinikos, J. (eds) Materiality and Organizing: Social Interaction in a Technological World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3 – 22

Law, J. and Mol, A. (1995) Notes on Materiality and Sociality, The Sociological Review, 43 pp. 274-294

Berger, J., Zelditch, M., and Anderson, B. (1972) Sociological theories in progress.New York: Houghton Mifflin