What You Need to Know About : Materiality of Discourse

The materiality of discourse hypothesis was put forward by Marxist rhetorical critic and theorist Dana L. Cloud in 1994 as a challenge to rhetorical theories that she believed overestimated the power of discourse to construct reality. Cloud defined the materiality of discourse as the idea that discourse itself is influenced by or even constitutes social and material reality. Cloud’s critique is part of a Marxist approach to development of critical rhetoric, which deals with the ways in which rhetoric and culture enable certain groups to exert power over other groups, as represented in the work of rhetorical scholars such as Michael McGee and Raymie McKerrow. This entry summarizes variations of the materiality of discourse, Cloud’s critique of the materiality of discourse, and responses to Cloud’s view.

Cloud initially explored the different positions in regard to the materiality debate by positing two continua: (1) a continuum between materialism and idealism and (2) a continuum between realism and relativism. Marxists understand idealism and materialism—the first pair—as opposing views of how social stability and transformation are achieved in capitalist society. According to Marxist thought, materialism is the notion that the way in which goods are made and distributed in society, which they call modes of production, determines in large part the social relations and forms of consciousness of any given epoch. In addition, materialism assumes that concrete, sensuous human activity is the ground of consciousness, identity,
and purpose. For example, the division of work in society between labor and corporate management creates a class system that defines an individual’s role, place, and purpose in society.

In contrast to materialism, idealism argues that the invention and communication of ideas determines in large part the social relations, structure, and hierarchies of power in a society. In its strongest versions, idealism argues for the discursive construction of reality, which means that reality is created in communication practices. For example, an advocate for discursive construction might argue that the labor-management division discussed above is created by the way people talk about their roles in society, not by any material conditions that exist outside of discourse.

The second continuum is that between realism and relativism. Realism is the position in which realities and truths are thought to exist independent of the individual perceiver of reality. The strongest version of a realist position states that there are universal truths across history. Relativism, on the other hand, is the idea that truth is relative to, or dependent on, human perception or construction of reality.

Littlejohn, Stephen W and Karen A.Floss. (2009). Encyclopedia of Communication Theory.USA:SAGE.

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Edwina Ayu Kustiawan