The Materiality of Media

September 8, 2011
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As culture becomes increasingly digitized— from downloading and streaming videos and music to digital film production and cloud computing— arguments for the “dematerialization” of media are becoming commonplace. However, media have always been, and remain, embedded in and structured by material objects, networks, and practices that delimit their uses and meanings. Any cultural artifact bears traces and consequences of the material conditions of its production, distribution, and reception, whether the size and weight of the camera that shot a film’s images, the geography of the shipping or cable network through which a program was transported or transmitted, or the spaces occupied by physical record or DVD collections. Even ostensibly “dematerialized” digital media find material existence in hard disks, server farms, and wires— as well as in the proliferation of new media devices, from smart phones to iPads.

We should take this perception of the diminished materiality of media as an opportunity to reconsider and reaffirm the material dimensions of media, both in terms of the present moment and from an historical perspective. Considering the materiality of media means paying attention to the mutual relationship between technology and culture as shaping influences on each other. Media are, after all, to paraphrase Raymond Williams, both technology and cultural form. Media are not, of course, reducible to their technological or material dimensions, but these remain inescapable factors in what media mean in all manner of contexts. Scholars like Vicki Mayer, Lisa Parks, and Barbara Klinger have led the way in approaches to the production, distribution, and reception of media as inextricably material. In emerging concerns with media infrastructures and cultural geography, growing interest in the nine lives of VHS and cassette tapes, and calls like Max Dawson’s to “put the TV back in television studies,” we can see materiality coming into play in media studies more and more.

Engaging with media as material objects, processes, and experiences opens up a wide variety of topics for exploration. Not only are the physical formats of media important for how they shape the content they hold, but media commodities are themselves aesthetic objects that deserve study. Technological and other material factors have effects on textual production, craft practices, and style. Changing screen technologies and interfaces on exhibition devices old and new change the way we see media. Understanding the logics and operations of physical networks of media distribution and transmission is important to understanding the circulation of media texts. From labor conditions to e-waste, the manufacture and disposal of media objects and devices brings up many important political economic issues. The materiality of media objects, collections, and archives is central to historiography, fandom, memory, nostalgia, cultural capital, and taste.

These are the issues the editors of The Velvet Light Trap are interested in exploring in its latest issue. If you are also interested in the materiality of media, from film stock to network servers to TV screensand everywhere in between, we encourage you to submit a paper. We are accepting anonymous electronic submissions between 6,000 and 7,500 words in MLA style until October 15, 2011. To submit a paper or to learn more, send an email to



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