Materialism emerged as the beginning of philosophical (as opposed to mystical or religious) thought in ancient India and Greece around the 6th century bce and has from the beginning been associated with the investigation of the world in its complexity beyond the relatively immediate appearance of phenomena to human sense and thought. The thinkers whose concepts inform contemporary materialist approaches to critical communication studies can be traced through historical developments of materialist thoughts in antiquity, the premodern and modern eras, and leading up to the present day. Familiar, emerging, and potential discussions of the nature and formation of consciousness in natural and social life inform the critical study of communication, particularly rhetoric. Particular attention is paid to the relation of materialism and varieties of Marxist and post-Marxist thought, and these are situated within debates in the field of critical communication studies, particularly rhetoric. Concepts originating from the early-20th-century USSR, associated with “creative” Soviet philosophy and activity theory, are less familiar (to this field) but are pertinent to the area of materialist thought. While this area of philosophy has not yet developed deeply or been promulgated widely in communication studies, it is suited to participate in the current conversation about materialism in communication, consciousness, and practice. Its chief contribution is a treatment of the ideal in materialism that resists both reduction and dualism. It also brings to the fore important questions about the place of human activity, including thought, in the material world.
Kathleen E. Feyh
Joan Faber McAlister
The phrase “space in rhetorical theory” refers to scholarship that explores the relationships between place and persuasion, location and identity, and/or spatial dimensions of communication and communicative functions of spaces. These relationships have been theorized in a wide variety of ways, from classical conceptions of topos and the agora to recent work on new materialist and mobile rhetorics. Key themes in this research have included (1) settings where rhetoric takes place, (2) spatial metaphors for theorizing rhetoric, (3) rhetorical representations of public places, (4) the role of place in identity, (5) spatial aspects of rhetoric, (6) rhetorical functions of space, and (7) spatial-temporal-material relations. Rhetorical scholarship on such topics has been shaped by metadisciplinary movements, such as the visual, spatial, and affective “turns” in the humanities and social sciences. Rhetoricians of space have drawn on and contributed to widespread interest in public memory, mobile technologies, national borders, environmental communication, and global flows of capital and labor and tourism. Researchers in this arena of rhetorical studies have also addressed problems taken up by critical/cultural theorists more recently, including collective agency, posthuman subjectivity, and animate matter—each of which poses challenges to conventional distinctions between subjects (as individual human rational actors) and objects (as lifeless things to be acted upon). Reconsidering these categories is important when conceptualizing place-making processes and the forces exerted by living landscapes. In pursuing these topics and questions, rhetorical theorists have contributed to conversations among researchers in multiple areas of specialty within communication studies. Such research also engaged themes of interest to scholars of cultural geography, urban planning, gender and sexuality studies, literary criticism, environmental science, and additional diverse disciplines as well as interdisciplinary movements. Communication scholars studying precarity, mobility, and other evolving topics are generating promising new contributions to conversations on space and rhetoric each year. However, essential insights regarding space and rhetorical theory are still being mined from postcolonial/decolonial, critical race, feminist, and queer approaches that many critics argue are insufficiently incorporated into the rhetorical theories of space or spatial theories of rhetoric most often applied and taught.
Matthew S. May and Kate Siegfried
Louis Pierre Althusser (1918–1990) is widely recognized as one of the most significant and influential Marxist philosophers associated with the structuralist turn in the middle of the 20th century. The ongoing publication of scholarly monographs that develop his conceptual legacy, the depth of his impact in disciplinary debates in fields across the humanities and social sciences, and the continued translation of his work from French into multiple languages, to offer only a few examples, testify to the consensus regarding the enduring importance of his theoretical innovations and often controversial interventions. He devoted tremendous intellectual energy toward a critique of humanism and phenomenological-based Marxism even as he eschewed traditional positivist economic explanations of history and exploitation—engaging in what amounts to nothing less than an effort to fundamentally shift the way the West reads and interprets Marx. Despite the controversial aspects of his interventions, there is little disagreement that the concepts produced by Althusser irreversibly affected and continue to affect the trajectory of Marxist and post-Marxist thought throughout the world, albeit often through the back door, smuggled in and unrecognized—in his lexicon: as an embedded but nevertheless absent cause.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s intellectual projects have consistently foregrounded a deep and rigorous critique of power—the power of capitalism, colonialism, and racialization, ethnic nationalism and heteropatriarchy—and have established the significance of feminist perspectives for struggles for economic and social justice. Her work is generative and provocative for critical cultural communication scholarship in providing methodological tools with which to think about the nexus between power and knowledge, discourse, the appropriation of the local and the particular for the formation of the global and vice versa, the formation of universals abstracted from their histories and social formations such as the “Third World Woman,” identity, and historical materialism. Hers is an intellectual project, grounded in feminism, that takes on the thorny task of carving out solidarities through critique. Her project delineates its own ideological standpoint and formulates a feminist historical materialism that strives methodologically to hold local particularities and their global implications in a tight grip. Mohanty’s work is, in fact, a provocation to formulate modes of analysis that are founded on a careful epistemological critique, such that it has often been used most productively to unravel the formulation of ethnocentric universalism. As such, Mohanty’s work has been particularly relevant for the fields of black cultural studies, feminist media studies, postcolonial communication studies, transnational media studies, race, and communication within critical cultural communication studies.
Mary E. Triece
The term ideology originated in 1796 and has been taken up in a variety of ways by scholars in disciplines including communication, sociology, anthropology, and economics. Generally understood as an organized set or system of belief, the term over the past 200 years has been variously situated vis à vis material relations and processes of production; has been assigned negative, positive, and neutral connotations; has been rejected as outmoded and replaced by the more sweeping term discourse; and has been revived as once again being relevant by contemporary scholars. Ideology is closely associated with the economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who first used the concept in The German Ideology, published in 1845–1846. Marx and Engels discussed ideology specifically in terms of the economic means and relations of production and framed it largely in negative terms, as the ideas of the ruling class intended to distort or mystify processes of capitalist exploitation. Early 20th-century Marxist followers like Vladimir Lenin, Georg Lukács, and Antonio Gramsci expanded the understanding of the word to include the belief systems of either dominant or resistant groups. Throughout the 20th century, the structuralist theories of Louis Althusser lent the word ideology a deterministic quality. Althusser and others explored how Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), such as schools, churches, and media, constitute subject positions for individuals, leaving them little room for agency or struggle against oppressive thought systems. Structuralism’s emphasis on the primacy and force of ideology reached its apex in poststructuralist, postmodernist, and post-Marxist theories that discursified the material—that is, it made no distinction between belief systems and the real world of relations, processes, systems, etc. These theories invigorated discussions surrounding epistemology, ontology, and the role of communication in forming identities and shaping social struggles. Critics of poststructuralist, postmodernist, and post-Marxist theories have attempted to resituate ideology within its original theoretical context of Marxist dialectical materialism. These efforts attempt to show the importance, for theory and for democratic struggle, of distinguishing between ideas and real-world experience.
Bryan J. McCann
The term materialist rhetoric refers to scholarly approaches that seek to account for the relationship between rhetoric and the world that it inhabits. Rhetoricians have differed sharply on the character of this relationship and how it should inform rhetorical theory, criticism, and practice. To be a materialist is to insist that there exists a world outside of human agency that exerts force on human affairs. Marxism is the most influential philosophical tradition for materialist rhetoric, although rhetoricians vary in terms of their adherence to and interpretation of its principles. Karl Marx argued that the antagonistic class relations at the core of capitalism were the chief material determinant for social being. Historical materialism is the primary methodology of Marxist critique, and it rests on the premise that the character of class relations is not governed solely by human volition. Rather, these relations create the conditions of possibility for and shape the trajectory of social life. While Marxism has informed the liveliest debates regarding materialist rhetoric, not all materialist rhetoricians are Marxists. The earliest iterations of materialist rhetoric drew on Marxism for inspiration, but did not adopt an explicitly anticapitalist orientation. Rather, materialist rhetoric initially referred to calls for rhetoricians to better account for the material character of rhetoric itself. Later developments in materialist rhetoric emerged from debates regarding the nature of Marxism as a rhetorical method, the question of whether rhetoric is representational or constitutive, the character of rhetorical agency, and the existence of a knowable material world outside of rhetoric. Classical Marxists in rhetoric have argued that scholars should predicate their work on the presumption of an experiential reality outside of discourse that exerts force on human symbolic activity. They argue that grounding rhetorical critique in a nondiscursive materiality is necessary for ethical judgment and political practice. Others who reject classical Marxism embrace the claim that rhetoric is material—so much so, in fact, that it comprises every dimension of social being. Debates between these perspectives hinge largely on how different scholars theorize contemporary capitalism. Whereas classical Marxists retain faith in the revolutionary agency of the working class, their critics contend that rhetoric itself has become the central modality of labor in the modern economy and, therefore, the chief resource for resistance. Other materialist perspectives do not dwell on theoretical debates regarding Marxism, but instead attend to other dimensions of being beyond human symbol use. Whereas some scholars are interested in rhetoric’s relationship to the human body and physical spaces, others theorize rhetoric in ways that reach beyond the limits of human cognition.
Raymond Williams (1921–1988) is often cited as one of the founders of the interdisciplinary field of education and research known as cultural studies (CS). To be more specific, he formulated an influential methodology that he named “cultural materialism,” which has an affinity with CS but is a distinctive perspective in its own right. Williams’s most celebrated book, Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1958), traced British Romanticism’s critical response to the Industrial Revolution and successive debates on social and cultural change. At the time of publication, Williams declared “culture” to be “ordinary,” thereby challenging the cultural elitism of literary study and opening up questions concerning mass-popular culture. However, Williams distanced himself from the populist study of communications and culture that became fashionable in the 1980s. His transition from literary criticism and history to sociological commentary and speculation on future prospects was signaled further by his 1961 sequel to Culture and Society, The Long Revolution. Williams challenged the behaviorism of American-originated communication studies and drew upon European critical theories in his own work. His academic specialism was dramatic form, which he studied historically and related to theatrical and audiovisual trends in modern drama. His perspective of cultural materialism broke entirely with idealist approaches to the arts and communications media. However, he was firmly opposed to technologically determinist explanations of the emergence of new media and the dynamics of social change, On technical innovation, he emphasized the role of intentionality, the materiality of discourse, and the social conditions of cultural production and circulation. His key concepts include selective tradition, structure of feeling, and mobile privatization. Williams later coined the term “Plan X” to refer to the rise of military recklessness and unregulated “free-market” political economy and communications during the late 20th century. His final non-fiction book (he also wrote novels), Towards 2000 (1985), has been updated to take account of developments in culture, society, and the environment over the past 30 years.