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Christine Mitchell (McGill University) Language, Material Misfit

In the study of media, culture and communication has undergone a theoretical and methodological turn towards ‘materiality’. While language would seem to have been well accounted for in such materialist frameworks, it nevertheless sits uneasily within such discourses. This paper interrogates this discord by considering the theoretical/methodological provenance of ‘materiality’ and ‘materialism’ in approaches to language-based cultural forms. It then discusses a particular manifestation of this discord as it emerges in material/materialist contrasts between language and code(s) in studies of computers, software, and machine translation. The ‘material’ trajectory as it is encountered in media studies carries important traces of its movements through literary criticism and cultural studies. The overall result has been a “centering upon media” (Winthrop-Young & Wutz, xiv) which responds to a range of ‘material’ and ‘materialist’ imperatives. Chief among these was the deconstructionist impulse to disrupt, decentre and denaturalize speech. As Derrida had argued, conceiving of speech as disembodied essence, saturated with pure, original and interiorized meaning, had resulted from the neglect of the material sign. It prompted a cross-disciplinary retreat from texts and language, and a focus on things and media. The ensuing interrogation of a wide range of material artefacts and the networks of production and consumption by which they circulated further blended the ‘material’ with the Marxist ‘materialist’. Add to this mix the more strictly technologically-oriented media and information materialist stances of McLuhan and Kittler, and a range of trajectories within cultural criticism might be properly relocated under an all-encompassing ‘media studies’ (Wellbery, xiii). As a reflection of this development, Winthrop-Young & Wutz propose updating the Derridean buzzphrase to: “il n’y a pas de hors-media” (xx). Despite this terminological update, however, the extent to which the substitution of ‘mediality’ for ‘textuality’ can do the theoretical (and political) work expected of a material/materialist stance is open to debate. Under closer inspection, we see that studies positioning themselves under the banner of ‘materiality’ appear to be harmonized in neither conception nor application. At the same time, a familiar impasse challenges the ‘material’ at every stage: the philosophical and metaphysical dilemma of matter and mind. ‘Materiality’ emerges in relation to a range of ‘others’ (whether in speech, mind, idealism, abstraction, interpretation, meaning, etc). As Miller observes, “[i]t seems as though all theorists of materiality are doomed to reinvent a particular philosophical wheel” (14), by which one becomes ensnared in the circularity of distinguishing subjects from objects--in this case, the impossible task of separating language and minds from bodies and humans from machines. The point must be to acknowledge the co-constitution of the concept of materiality with its ‘others.’ Tellingly, Miller points out that “the definition of humanity has often become almost synonymous with the position taken on the question of materiality” (2). But as conceptions of humanity are closely tied to those of language, the integration of linguistic and technological processes pose a challenge for ‘material’ analyses of new media objects. In particular, the ‘material’ and ‘materialist’ study of code and programming practices prompts a re-naturalization of human language as something essential and ordinary, practically ‘immaterial’. In particular, the material specificity ascribed to machine code and to software starts to strain the status of human language as materially-grounded in many accounts; the more urgent challenge is to account for the increasing sedimentation and miniaturization of code and programming languages, which are more often described as black-boxed, “inaccessible, inscrutable processes” (Raley, 2006). When it comes to critiques of Machine Translation software, the ‘material’ of the apparatus as conceptual centerpiece is rendered near-superfluous, overridden by attention to the ‘materialist’ critique of the capitalist and rationalist push for linguistic optimization. The drive to reveal the material constructedness of language is superseded by a commitment to protect human language from technological corruption. Thus, while the ‘material’ terrain is marked by certain convergences, the overall picture demonstrates that there are not only variable and newly-developing ‘materialisms,’ but that the invocation of materiality is often a shifting combination of method, strategic research posture and theory. While these approaches may not necessarily work at cross-purposes, the implications of such ‘materialist’ claims for the analysis of language-based technologies must be considered in all their variety. Because technologies and systems for manipulating and processing language are progressively more ubiquitous—as are ‘intelligent’ devices that are conceived as extensions of human cognitive capabilities—reinstating a retrograde opposition between language and media threatens to become a serious methodological oversight for communication and media theory. Miller, D. (2005).


Works Cited
Materiality. Durham: Duke University Press. Raley, R. (2006).
“Code Surface || Code Depth”, dichtung-digital 36 (1/2006). Wellbery, DE. (1990).
“Foreword”. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. F. Kittler. Stanford: Stanford University Press: vii-xxxiii. Winthrop-Young, G. & M. Wutz (1999).
Translators’ Introduction”. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. F. Kittler. Stanford, Stanford University Press: xi-xxxviii.