What is Materiality?

What is materiality to you? How does the dictionary or wiki define materiality?

To me, “materiality” is a quality possessed by something that has a place in the physical world. All things around us have some degree of “materiality”, as the physical world is composed of matter. But what is matter? This is where the lines are blurred. Solid objects can be broken down in to molecules or crystal lattices, which can be further divided into individual atoms. In the last century, science has deconstructed the atom and discovered it to be made of the subatomic protons, neutrons, and electrons. These subatomic particles are built from quarks, some of the most elementary particles that the current Standard Model of physics permits. Lyotard brings up the point that matter and energy are essentially the same thing. In a way there really is no absolute “materiality” – I choose to define materiality at the scale where human beings matter. Materiality and Immateriality can be thought of as opposite ends of a spectrum. A more “material” object is viewed by people as being something tangible, whereas something towards the “immaterial” end of the spectrum is more aptly described in terms of physically intangible things like thoughts and feelings.

Materiality is defined as “the quality or character of being material or composed of matter”. Wikipedia separates different definitions of materiality, sorting them by the field they apply to. Materiality has different definitions for auditing, architecture, interior design, law, and “digital text”. Generally, materiality is described in those pages as a quality possessed by things that make some impact on the material world by existing.

How does Lyotard understand materiality and immateriality as it related to his exhibition in the mid 80s? How is the word used in philosophy, in finance, in art? Other areas of research?

Lyotard first understood materiality by returning to the original Indo-European word root. The root, méh₂tēr, traveled into Latin as “mater” (mother) before becoming “materia“, a noun that refers to matter, substance, or wood as a building material. This meaning was derived from the meaning of “mater” in the sense of “source”. He then linked it with the modern concepts of “matrices” and “matter”, ultimately giving the matter a “message” through his art.

In philosophy, as opposed to physics, there is a clear line between the worlds of “materiality” and “immateriality”. Materiality is a quality possessed by the physical world that you and I live in, but “immateriality” belongs to the metaphysical, the world that you and I think and dream in. In other fields, “materiality” simply refers to something that has some weight in the “real world”. In law, for example, materiality refers to anything that is “significant to the issue at hand”. Historians are concerned with the “materiality” of digital artifacts, often an important part of their history.

What series of objects did you choose to scan? Why did you choose these objects? Why did you choose these scans? Conceptually write a statement about what your choice may reflect.

I chose multiple diverse series of objects to scan. I wanted to have a diverse palette of digital images to choose from, as I believe I am best represented by many objects and ideas instead of just one. Overall, I preferred to fill the scanner bed with similar objects to create an overall picture that represents me. In many cases, the objects are not fully contained by the scanner bed and extend out of the frame of the image. I chose to do this because I am woven in to the continuous fabric of the universe, not built out of discrete blocks. In this sense, the edges of the image frame represent a transition between “materiality” and “immateriality”, where the objects escape the pixel array and embed themselves in the imagination of the viewer.

I chose mostly simple objects that represent what’s on my mind or what I’m doing. For example, I scanned the jumper wires that I use to prototype circuits. I selectively clustered certain areas of wires to create a sense of order out of the chaos of the short, tangled wires. I then applied some structure to the scene by scanning the wires with the electronics I use them with – my Arduino Uno, Raspberry Pi, and Launchpad. The spectrum of color visible in the wires and in the boards themselves disrupt the order of the precisely engineered devices. I scanned a collection of objects related to my cello – by themselves, someone familiar with string instruments might be able to identify them; to the untrained observer, however, they may be a mystery. I also scanned cello music. For a project based around composite images, the intricate details of the sheet music provide a good texture to complement other images. I created a mosaic of the coins I found in the drawer. The coins locked together to form an unbreakable lattice in the scanner bed, not entirely unlike the way carbon atoms lock each other together in a pattern to make a diamond. Finally, I scanned a number of my books – covers, spines, titles – whatever I could fit. These often extend over the edges of the images, leaving the viewer to imagine he or she is viewing an infinite tiling of similar books.

How important is materiality in the discipline that you study at Cornell?

Materiality extremely important to Mechanical Engineering – everything we do deals with material. How materials behave under certain conditions, how to modify materials to achieve a certain goal, and how to choose which materials are best for a certain task, for example. There is very little immateriality in what I study – everything learned in class is centered on describing the behavior of matter.

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2 Responses to What is Materiality?

  1. Renate Ferro says:

    Lyotard as a philosopher “playing” with the notions of the material and the immaterial conceived of an exhibition that put the observer in a liminal blurred state between the two. He was somewhat of a trickster in that sense.

    I found it fascinating that you response to the assignment intellectually as opposed to physically or emotionally. Experiences in our disciplines sometimes impact the way we react to things or the lens we see through. You seem to be very cognizant of that.

  2. Daniel Morgan LaChapelle says:

    When there is no clear answer to some questions, I apply the “First Principles” approach that lets me break apart complex issues into simple assertions that can be verified (or not) by applying axioms that are known to be true.

    If inconsistencies exist, these axioms may need to be revised. My physical and emotional responses to things constantly change and thus cannot be relied upon. An intellectual response, however, can be independently verified or falsified by another individual (including my future self).

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