I occasionally teach seminars in critical theory. This one (Fall 2016) traced notions of media and materiality from Marx to Barad. Each week, we paired theorists to see what sort of conversations would emerge. As an alternative to the seminar research paper, I asked students to write focused responses to these conversations. They then revised the responses and reflected on them to produce a portfolio by the term’s end.

The official description of “Media and Materiality: A Survey from Marx to Barad” is below, along with links to the course website, syllabus, and notes.

Screen grab of the course website, Media and Materiality, A Survey from Marx to Barad

Media and Materiality: A Survey from Marx to Barad
Fall 2016 | UVic CSPT 500 | Grad seminar for 12 students

Links: course website (HTML); syllabus (PDF); notes (HTML)

In recent years, artists as well as theorists have engaged in a form of “new materialism,” where agency is understood as an entanglement of matter, media, and meaning. One effect is a refusal to reduce matter or media to a static state. Like language, materiality is dynamic, even if it is rarely perceived or described as such. Another effect is to rethink where we locate intent or how we think about causality in the first place.

Informed by new materialism, this seminar surveys critical theory from Karl Marx to Karen Barad to identify historical stress points in the articulation of media and materiality since the 1850s. Our survey will account for how these two terms have been situated in various theories of agency, from historical materialism, semiotics, and symptomatic reading to media archaeology and agential realism.

With Karen Barad’s “Posthumanist Performativity” and selections from Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, we will read excerpts (10-45 pages each) of work by Arjun Appadurai, Hannah Arendt, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Bill Brown, Judith Butler, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Hélène Cixous, Régis Debray, Mary Ann Doane, Michel Foucault, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Rosalind E. Krauss, Julia Kristeva, Audre Lorde, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Fred Moten, Viktor Shklovsky, Georg Simmel, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Raymond Williams. I will not assume you have read or written about any of these authors.

Our approach to this seminar will also not assume consensus about what exactly “media” and “materiality” are. We will instead start with a conversation about the relevance of the two terms today. What are their settings and politics? How are they intertwined with creative and critical practice? How do they operate in relation to other terms, such as ephemerality, pleasure, object, subject, interaction, justice, art, and agency? To what effects on our lived, social realities? Following this conversation, we will survey numerous publications (from Marx forward) to give the present some texture. Each week, we will discuss work by pairs of authors articulated with keywords. This approach will not follow a strict chronology (e.g., reading the oldest works first); however, history will matter. We will not treat the readings as ideas somehow detached from the particulars of situation or experience. Instead, we will interpret the texts at hand with attention to the conditions in which they were written. When time permits, we may also ground our studies in examples from areas such as experimental media, art, and design (i.e., areas where approaches to media and materiality do not manifest as essays or monographs). To this end, each week of the schedule includes a “case study” for consideration.

As we proceed, you will write (and revise) seven response papers, which will comprise a portfolio at the term’s end. By that end, you should have a granular sense of how media and materiality have changed over time (especially with respect to questions of agency), and along the way you should gain experience with writing and talking about critical theory. I also hope that seminar discussions will translate across a spectrum of scholarly work, from writing, teaching, and archival research to policy, ethnography, and media production (depending on your own methodologies and motivations).

Extensive experience with critical theory is not required for this seminar. I encourage you to ask for context, definitions, or explanations whenever the seminar feels as if it’s moving too quickly (or too slowly). Such gestures are especially important in courses, such as this one, that are anchored in interdisciplinary methods and conversations. We should be honest and open about what we don’t know, and we should learn from the knowledge others bring to the seminar. We should also account for what we assume or take for granted, including our biases and privileges. If you’re curious about additional material corresponding with the seminar, then feel free to contact me with requests for related reading and the like. I’m happy to chat more and point you in directions of potential interest. I’m also happy to hear recommendations, so please send them my way.

For more information, please visit the website for the course.

Featured image of laser-cut wood by Danielle Morgan, Katherine Goertz, and me. Used with permission. The second image is a screen of the course website. This page was created on 24 June 2019 and last updated on 20 May 2021.