Thoughts on Materiality

24 October 2011

One link that came across me today is an excerpt of Materiality by Bill Brown that starts with

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 paragraph made me wonder. Is thought dependant upon the matter in which it happens? Is there a difference between a thought, thought in a neural system and a thought happening in silicone? Until now, my understanding was that information (as the static subset of thought) does not change it’s content (well, it somehow is the content itself) when it is transferred from one matter to another. More, all information is preserved even if the information is converted to a different form of representation (kept in another data structure).

Maybe my view is too much fixed on common technochratic notions, or, the key in Browns argumentation is that he talks about thought instead of information, which is a process rather than something fixed.

On a side note, I regret to talk about medium here since I agree with McLuhan that the medium is (at least part of) the message, if it comes to a communication between individuals. A thought, though, is not mediated from one to another but remains and evolves in one’s head.

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. […]

We can extend this list by notions like content, information, semantics, meaning, interpretation, or tool.

And yet materiality has a specifity that differenciates 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. […]

In my point of view, Brown here describes a notion that is covered by the same word but means something else. Here, materiality gives insight about a certain, not necessarily physical, quality of something whereas the word materiality in my opinion can also be used in a rather technical way to describe solely physical aspects. In this sense, it shares this sort of ambiguity with tangibility.

Materiality thus glimmers as a new rapier, cutting two ways. On the one hand: Doesn’t the medium […] elide the materiality of the object […] 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? […]

It came to my mind that, with my current work on (digital raw) material, I try to uncover this medium, try to let it speak and unveil its inner structure.

[quotes via]

I collect web pages on materiality that came across me at delicious under the tag project-materials.