Materialist Media Theory: An Introduction

Materialist Media Theory: An Introduction
by Grant Bollmer

Bloomsbury, NY, NY, 2019
208 pp. Trade, $84.00; paper, $20.96
ISBN: 9781501337123; ISBN: 9781501337116.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
April 2020

Although this book has strong didactic intentions –it aims at charting a field; its structure is neatly following the presentation of the key concepts; its tone is overall pedagogical, even including some efforts to address the reader as if we were in a classroom situation; each chapter opens and ends with a summary; the transitions between chapters are clearly marked–the choice of its subtitle, “An Introduction”, is misleading because far too modest. Materialist Media Theory is much more than just an introduction. Instead, Bollmer’s book is an attempt, and a very successful one, to reshape the domain of media studies by defending a special take on the major issues and stakes of the field as well as by critically rereading a large number of its foundational and contemporary thinkers.

In the opening pages of Materialist Media Theory Grant Bollmer explicitly criticizes the theories that study media in terms of meaning –a big bag in which he puts all forms of “textual” and “semiotic” analyses, which reduce the study of a medium to the interpretation of the representations it channels. In such an approach, media are addressed as texts, which have to be decoded by users. Unlike these still very present and in certain contexts even dominating approaches, Bollmer puts forward a “materialist” analysis, that is an analysis that considers that the materiality of a medium –of any medium whatsoever, be it or body or the internet–matters. The pun is intended, of course, but also truly revealing, since medium materiality matters for at least two reasons. First of all, it helps nuance, reframe and correct the textual-semiotic analysis, which Bollmer does not condemn or reject, as demonstrated by this discussion of the Lara Croft figure. Even today, after more than two decades of heated debates, still nobody knows whether Lara Croft symbolizes female empowerment or the persistence of the male gaze. Yet the endless and nowadays intolerably boring discussions on the “meaning” of Lara Croft have played a vital role in the progressive reshaping of the character: the recent 2018 avatar of Lara Croft is definitely more empowered and less objectified than the original version, her new bodily features being much less determined by sexist expectations of the male audience. Second, materiality also matters for social and political reasons, not unrelated to the ideological issues debated in textual and semiotic readings, but in ways that go much further. The analysis of materiality  reveals the crucial but often overlooked links between media structures and inequality, links that a purely textual or semiotic is incapable of disclosing with the same perceptiveness. In that sense, a materialist analysis is not a mere complement or an enrichment of textual and semiotic analysis, but a sharp critique of its frequent blindness to questions of gender and race (among other elements, although most of Bollmer’s attention goes to these kinds of inequalities).

Bollmer’s work strongly relies upon the work of Marshall McLuhan as a pioneer as well as a continuing source of inspiration for medium theorists. More specifically, Bollmer repeatedly stresses the fundamental rightness of McLuhan’s key ideas on media as performative powers that organize and reshape the relationships between all types of agents and structures involved, from our brain and body to the globalized networks of the Anthropocene. Yet Materialist Media Theory also contextualizes and critically challenges McLuhan. His pioneering role was far from being absolute and Bollmer makes room for a thorough discussion of Harold Innis, the founder of the Toronto school, whose ideas on media as staples (localized resources) and the power relationships between center and margin built by the control and distribution of media should be taken into account in our interpretation of McLuhan. The latter’s medium theory wipes out some of the inherent tension of the networks –in the broad economic sense of the word as well as in the more specifically medium-centered meaning of the term– that Innis was actually the first to describe, and not always in the utopian spirit of McLuhan. In a similar vein, Bollmer also stresses the limits of McLuhan’s work for contemporary readers: his technodeterminism, teleology, primitivism and orientalism are often blatant, as is his neglect of thinking the feedback loop between medium on the one hand and body and mind on the other hand. Media are not just extensions of body and mind, they also radically alter that body and mind –a mechanism that McLuhan never really problematizes. Nevertheless, and despite his simplifying continuation of Innis and the multiple ideological limitations of his own medium theory, McLuhan has been the very first to open media studies to virtually all aspects and dimensions that are at the heart of materialist media theory today. In other words, Bolter (admiratively) admits: without the sometimes highly idealistically thinking McLuhan, materialist media theory would simply not exist.

Bollmer’s book first briefly makes a strong argument in favor of materiality as the general horizon of media studies as “performative” structures. Media are not only material because of their material infrastructure, but also and most importantly  because of what they “do” –and what they do is eminently material: they change the world as well as those who use the media. Second, Bollmer elaborates a new take on materiality by theorizing media as inscription devices (here the influence of German medium theory –Kittler, Ernst, Siegert– and Stiegler, as representative of post-phenomenology, is very strong). Third, he then unpacks this theory along two major axes: a) spatiotemporal materiality, a framework in which he studies the specific relationships between media and time as well as space, and b) neurocognitive materiality, a framework that gathers his ideas on the relationships between media and body, mind, emotions, and affects (in the last chapter of the book, this neurocognitive approach is connected with the notion of “vital” materiality –but this chapter is clearly more speculative than the previous ones, as Bollmer himself honestly admits).

As already stated, Materialist Media Theory is a very ambitious publication, whose impact exceeds the sum of the theories and theorists it presents. The book adopts a clear theoretical line, starting from Innis and McLuhan to modern thinking on object and affect theory. This line is definitely much broader than what one generally finds in media theoretical studies. Bollmer’s book is also remarkable for its attempt to avoid any form of theoretical “purity.” Bollmer does not deny or dismiss the value of the authors he considers less convincing or more one-dimensional (a critique that he applies to “older” theorists such as McLuhan but also to “newer” ones such as Dennett). He is always looking for constructive compromises, yet without concessions as far as the key issue of materiality are concerned, and his examples demonstrate a very open spirit, taken as they are form very different periods, cultural and backgrounds, yet always with the same clear political agenda in mind. In short, this “introduction” deserves to be added to the fortunately fast-growing list of medium-theoretical studies, a field that is evidently entering a new interdisciplinary phase.