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Materiality and the Rhizome


Ivana Vranic, University of British Columbia



The concepts of materiality and the rhizome both have been in academic vogue for decades appearing in diverse disciplines, from economy to cosmology, sociology, and art history, nonetheless they continue to be fruitful venues of theoretical and historical studies of people, places, and things. While the rhizome helps account for the multiplicities of ways that these three are gathered into many often unpredictable connections, similarly materiality provides a way to understand what it is that binds them together, ontologically, experientially, and socially.  

In contrast to Karl Marx’s historical materialism, as a theoretical concept materiality developed from nineteenth-century phenomenology established by G.W.F. Hegel and E.G.A. Husserl. Of particular importance and influence, the philosophical writing on the ontology of being by Martin Heidegger, on time and memory by Henri Bergson, on embodiment by Jean-Paul Sartre, and on perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to name a few, have shaped the development of materiality as a theoretical framework. As such, it has helped to open up new ways of thinking and writing about things, as well as their thingness and thinghood to borrow from Heidegger. To understand how things—variously conceived—partake in and of this world, materiality has played a major role in shifting agency from people as sole actors. The concept, in its most fundamental form, proposes we question critically how material, physical, and formal qualities of things—manmade or natural, visible or textual, representational or non-linguistic—solicit, organize, and participate in our historical, cultural, and existential realities. Building on and moving away from the basic philosophical question, “What is…?,” scholars introduced materiality as a way of reconceiving things in their respective disciplines, for example words and texts in literature; artworks, buildings, and objects of visual culture in art history; cultures and artefacts in anthropology; etc.

Anthropology, literature, and sociology were among the first disciplines to seriously acknowledge the importance of materiality, albeit one that is closer to Marx’s materialism than phenomenology, with theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu (1977) taking up a structuralist approach to examine the place of things within prehistoric and modern societies. Focusing on base materiality, material or visual culture studies in anthropology sought to account for how cultural objects, often preserved as decontextualized artefacts in museums, were entangled in complex social relations. Expounded by Marxism and semiotics, this understanding of materiality further develops the idea that materials (especially as gifts, according to Marcel Mauss) could symbolically speak to and about the non-material—biographical, conceptual, and ideological—things. It did so by suggesting that the material evidenced and participated in the connections and relations between people. Made, used, collected, gifted, inherited and inventoried, everyday objects, artworks, documents, jewellery, even buildings have an agential role, as Alfred Gell (1988) has argued, which is related to but different from the roles their makers, patrons, collectors, and users ascribed to them in the form of monetary, artistic, and cultural value. In fact, things could and did create meanings and exchanges that produced, strengthened, and affirmed local, national, and international relations. How these relations are accounted for, however, depends less on which explanation of materiality one ascribes to and more on the structure they are given: a network or a rhizome being the prime examples.

Borrowing from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s theoretical concept of the rhizome (1976; 1983; 1986), Bruno Latour in his explanation of the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) further complicates the phenomenological and anthropological understanding of materiality (1999). Taking up a semiotic approach to things, especially those of scientific and technological nature, Latour reconceives them as hybrids of objects and subjects. However, the overtly biological, anti-hierarchical and horizontally skewed metaphor of the rhizome is only partially activated in Latour’s “quasi-objects” and “quasi subjects.” Most simply put, in botany a rhizome (which stems from rhízōma in Greek) is a mass of subterranean roots that grows horizontally across, alongside, and as part of other organic matter. Transferred into philosophical thinking by Deleuze and Guattari, it provides a way of decentralizing knowledge and its many dichotomies through a less structured and necessarily more liberal, to say the least, understanding of things and subjects as a multiplicity of becomings (becoming human, animal, thing, etc.) which morphologically come together to constitute organismic assemblages. Gathered through symbiotic fluidity, these assemblages can be thought of as unexpected connections that lacking origin or end can be endlessly produced and reproduced. Things, according to Deleuze and Guattari, are part of assemblages much like their human subjects. They both coexist in perpetual states of in-between-ness, multiplying, merging, and becoming—becoming being an ontological state that refuses to be made sense of using traditional categories imposed by Western philosophy. This is precisely why Deleuze and Guattari’s deconstructive materiality is ultimately productive if understood theoretically—as noted by exponents of Latourian ANT-project. The rhizome is a material ontology and an ontology of materiality. Belonging to this ontology, things (words, images, objects, and subjects) are rhizomatic: able to gather people and places across vast historical, linguistic, religious, and geographical boundaries. In contrast to Platonic, Cartesian, and Kantian thought, things understood via materiality are more than the sum of their perceptible, physical, formal, and material qualities—which has been a significant point of interest for the study of visual culture, media, and traditional art forms.

Most interestingly, materiality, ushered in by modernity, urbanization, and industrialization, can be found in nineteenth-century artistic practices perhaps even before it appears in philosophical, critical, theoretical, and academic writing. Indeed, modern artists incessantly pushed the limits of what art was by, on the one hand, working against historical and academic a priori notions of medium, material, and subject, and on the other hand, by redefining the roles and meanings accorded to their artworks by the institutions and the spectators who exhibited, viewed, critiqued, and collected them (some notable examples range from French Impressionism to Soviet Suprematism, and Pop Art). It is perhaps no incident that art history emerged as an academic discipline precisely at a time when artists where remaking what art was as practice. In seeking to establish and define itself as a scientific and categorical study, akin to those of the sciences, art history took on a formal approach (developed by Heinrich Wölfflin) to categorizing and historicizing art made across all cultures and times. The fact that at its core, art is material and overtly palpable made such an approach both difficult and necessarily systematic, giving rise to opposing systems in which form as material became devoid of historical content, but value in and of itself (as in connoisseurship ushered in by Bernard Berenson).


Concurrently, modern artists worked to dismantle academic categories of art, especially as a form of protest in times of war and social unrest, while art critics capitalized on the visual vocabularies such deconstructions produced by identifying them as new aesthetics (no one more successfully than Clement Greenberg). Neither approach could effectively account for the rise of capitalism, popular culture, or new technologies of cinema and television, as was foreshadowed by Walter Benjamin and variously theorized by Marshall McLuhan, Jean Baudrillard, and Guy Debord. Keeping up with continuous interventions into art as form and concept in the twentieth century, the discipline of art history adapted materiality as both a philosophical concept and an interdisciplinary approach. Appearing as only a spectre or a fully immersive concept, materiality was paired with semiotic (Ernst Gombrich), iconographic (Erwin Panofsky), psychoanalytic (Sigmund Freud), sociological (Michael Baxandall), Marxist (T. J. Clark), feminist (Linda Nochlin, Laura Mulvey, and Griselda Pollock), formalist (Rosalind Krauss), and postmodern (including postcolonial and poststructuralist) approaches to the study of medieval, early modern, and modern art, as well as visual culture, film, and digital media. Pushing against the idea that art is only form, or conversely, that material is form, these approaches despite their significant differences and often overlapping theoretical frameworks share a common conviction in that things (most broadly conceived) qua matter produce meaning.

In art history, as in anthropology and literature, materiality has been used not only as a theoretical but also as a methodological tool. Albeit fervently critiqued and practiced by scholars ascribing to Marxist thought, materiality also functions as an interpretive method that contributes to the descriptive process of writing and reading images by looking closely at their formal, material, and surface details (Jas Elsner). As a tool then materiality can account for the ways that textured and varied forms and subjects made visible on carved, painted, printed, photographed, and even cinematic and digital surfaces, produce meaning that is intricately tied to the (phenomenologically, temporally, and socially) embodied viewers. Invigorating the experience of visual, textual, and even spatial things (as Michel de Certeau has shown), materiality as an interpretive method has helped emphasize the ways that form is intricately tied to content, which when taken together can speak to or be read—as: a surface, a structure, an experience, an image, or a text— alongside larger symbolic, social, political, economic, artistic, and cultural contexts.

How the relationship between form and content is gathered into an interpretive history of any single thing depends on how the relations between things, people, and places are conceived (as networks, rhizomes, plateaus, even maps and objects of exchange). Tracing, things, people, and places alongside historically, geographically, and theoretically complex sets of relations is particularly important for how the world has been and continues to be imagined, lived, and represented. Significantly, however, things fail to make meaning on their own as critics of materiality have argued by emphasizing humanness over thingness. Nonetheless, materiality of things continuously resurfaces, speaks, pricks, and is remade to make visible old and new connections, networks, assemblages, horizons, and geographies. That materiality remains significant for interpreting the present state of geo- and bio- political relations (first theorized by Michel Foucault and later expounded by Giorgio Agamben) and even everyday technological and biological existence is suggested by what is described as New Materialism(s) of the twenty-first century.

The idea that things can speak, solicit, engage, or even demand attention has been an insightful addition to how we think about visual and textual representations as significant, if not central modes of world making, which is equally true of the early modern period as it is of the present moment. 


© Ivana Vranic, last modified 26 April 2017



Selected Bibliography:

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. D. Heller-Roazen. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” In Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. 166-184. 

Baxandall, Michael. Paintings and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. 217-252.

Berenson, Bernard. The Study and Criticism of Italian Art, Second Series. London: George Bell, 1902.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” In Things, ed. Bill Brown. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 1-22.

Clark, T.J. Image of the People: Gustav Courbet and the Second French Republic, 1848-1851. London: Thames & Hudson, 1973.

Coole, H. Diana, and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. 

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life: 1. Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2008.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. “Introduction: Rhizome.” In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 3-25.

Elsner, Jas. “On Some Limits of Materiality in Art History,” 31: Das Magazin des Instituts für Theorie [Zürich] ,12 (2008), 25-30.

Foucault, Michel. “Governmentality.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality with Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault. Graham Bell et al. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1991. 87-105.

Freud, Sigmund. Leonardo da Vinci: A psychosexual study of an infantile reminiscence. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1932.

Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency: An anthropological theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1998.

Gombrich, Ernst. The Sense of Order. London: Phaidon Press, 1979.

Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford Uni. Press, 1977.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Thing.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper, 1971. 165-186.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Trans. W. R. Boyce Gibson. New York: Collier Books, 1963.

Keane, Webb. “Semiotics and the social analysis of material things”. Language & Communication 23 (2003), 409-425. 

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, n. 2 (Winter, 2004), 225-248.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

Marx, Karl. Capital, ed. David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift. London: Cohen and West, 1954.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2002.

Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Donald A. Landes. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.


Miller, Daniel, ed. Materiality. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” In Screen 16, 3 (Autumn, 1975), 6-18.

Nochlin, Linda. "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In Art News 69 (January 1971), 22-39.

Panofsky, Erwin.  “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art.” In Meaning in the Visual Arts, New York, 1955, pp. 26-54.

Pollock,  Griselda. Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art. New York: Rutledge, 1988.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. London: Methuen, 1957.

Wölfflin, Heinrich. Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in later art. Trans. M. D. Hottinger. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.






Fig. 1. Albrecht Dürer, Woodblock with engraved scene of Samson Rending the Lion, c. 1497-8. Pear wood, 39.1 x 27.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Junius Spencer Morgan, 1919. Image in public domain.

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