Although the term material has come into use in English only since the end of the 14th century, the etymology of this word is closely related to the Latin word for matter (māteria).The OED proposes that the term matter (māteria) comes from the Latin word for mother (māter), which, appended with the suffix –ia, abstracts the term to make it akin to “the trunk of a tree regarded as the ‘mother’ of its offshoots.” Appending the suffix –ālis to māter forms a modifier (i.e., materialis) referring to “that which is related to the first element” (e.g., abysmal, global, etc.). The term material was usually used to describe a wide variety of objects ranging from wood and timber to subjects of discourse. This conceptualization carried over from the Greek term hyle (ὕλη), which means “matter, substance; the first matter of the universe.” In post-classical Latin, Augustine seems to apply a “spiritual” meaning to the term material to contrast what is “temporary” with what is “eternal” (Augustine, 2009, 1.4.4). Thus, the word “material” carries senses of that which is made up of matter and physical in contradistinction to what might be considered spirit or metaphysical.

Material, Matter, Materiality, and Materialism

A branch of philosophy committed to the concept of material as that which is made up of physical, observable matter is materialism (Stack, 1998).This sense of materialism and interest in materiality, broadly speaking, can be considered to have historical roots with the first articulations of “atomism” offered in the ancient thoughts of Lucretius (On the Nature of Things, 2014). Richard Engnell has described materiality in at least two senses within speech communication scholarship: (1) Primary (e.g., the biological, sex, the neuro-chemical, the life sciences, etc.), and (2) Secondary (e.g., social superstructures, Le Langue, economics, technology, the political, the historical, etc.) (1998, pp. 3-5; cf. McGuire, 1990, p. 203). Thus, those who hold to materialism posit that all processes and phenomena are in principle reducible and explainable “in terms of body, material objects or dynamic material changes or movements” (Stack, 1998). This sense of material recalls the etymology presented above, in that materialism posits matter as the “mother” of all that proceeds, as Michael McGuire explains, "All materialists eventually make an argument of the form: all apparently complex and spiritual phenomena are reducible to material events; therefore, complex superstructures can be understood in terms of underlying, material substructures" (McGuire, 1990, p. 188). On the one hand, materialism has been scaled to explain societal changes and fluctuations, and has been expanded to include human activity such as economic behavior (Williams, 2015, pp. 147-149). On the other hand, the material can also act as a constraint, or as Kenneth Burke terms a materially derived poetic limitation, “recalcitrance” (1984, p. 255). Within this family of concepts, matter seems to be the central hub from which each other morphologically related concept radiates.

The Material and Rhetorical Studies

As the above suggests, the different senses of material can evoke divergent interpretations of what qualifies as matter in communication studies and rhetorical studies in particular. Marxist approaches to rhetorical inquiry regarding the material typically fall under a methodological category for treating “ideas as surface phenomena, and [looking] beneath them for material causes” (McGuire, 1990 p. 194). These approaches attempt to demystify “false consciousness” or ideological covers imposed upon lower classes that mask "true" material conditions (Cloud, 2009, p. 612). These stances are critical in orientation and attempt to unveil how powerful groups disabuse and disenfranchise others (Wander, 1983, p. 18; 1984, p. 210; Mckerrow, 1989, pp. 92-95; Greene, 1998, p. 39; Cloud, 2006 p. 331; Artz, Macek, & Cloud, 2006; McCann, 2007, p. 383; Kapplan, 2008, p. 2; Shugart, 2008, p. 281)

Turning from the unmasking of material conditions to the implications of a material existence, others have discussed the constraints and possibilities of materiality. Lloyd Bitzer theorizes the “rhetorical situation” as comprised of “natural conditions” that invite rhetorical utterances and direct rhetoric’s practical impact (Bitzer, 1968, pp. 5-6). Michael McGee has observed how rhetoric assumes its own materiality through experience, and he proposes a critical, material perspective for rhetoric that arises from the “natural” conditions in which speech (i.e., every-day and oratorical) take place (McGee, 2009, pp. 23, 30). Similarly, Ronald Greene offers a “new materialist rhetoric” that attempts to account for the means by which governing apparatuses take advantages of materials to police populations (Greene, 1998, p. 39). Others have focused on the relationship between embodiment and performance (Butler, 1994, p. 32; Grosz, 1994, pp.x-xi; Crowley, 1999, pp. 357-358; Selzer, 1999, p. 9; Hawhee, 2004, p. 4) and the impact of physical spaces on persons and vice-versa (Blair, 1999; Ackerman, 2003; Edbauer, 2005; Zagacki & Gallagher, 2009)

Some scholars have a more synthetic sense of materiality, one that would merge both physical and social senses (Engnell, 1998, p. 5). These researchers construct frameworks around the concept of materiality, foregrounding the power of technologies and discourse to transform or transcend the limitations of physical materiality. Here we consider the theoretical perspective of social construction (Luckmann & Berger, 1966 p. 59-61) or some media ecological accounts that study the materiality of technology represented by Katherine Hales (2005 p. 40), Cannon Schmidt (2004, p. 11), Matthew Fuller (2005, p. 2), and Marshall McLuhan (1964, p.9). Rhetorical scholars who uphold perspectives that include the discursive within the concept of material beyond the purely physical–despite Dana Cloud’s warning of the material implications of such a view (Cloud, 1994, p. 154)–have promoted the effectivity of discourse to shape social morality, alter political conditions, and even constitute political identity (Charland, 1987, p. 182; Condit, 1987, p. 82; 1994, p. 210).

Despite these varied senses of material within the scholarship reviewed here, ultimately, the senses of material responded to, built upon, and carried forth are rooted in what material means as purely physical, earthly, present, empirically real, and deducible from what is "principally" real.

Revised by José G. Izaguirre, III (2015)


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