Quick Reference

1. In everyday usage, a value system privileging wealth, possessions and/or bodily pleasures over ethical or philosophical values. This is the antithesis of aestheticism, spirituality, and idealism (in its everyday sense). Also, a typically pejorative reference to such values in individuals, groups, or society. Commonly associated with capitalism.

2. In its broadest philosophical sense, an assertion of the causal primacy of matter over mind (or consciousness); as opposed to philosophical idealism. Reductionist forms invoke an ontology in which all reality is material: such claims tend to reduce the explanatory value of the concept. Althusser argued that even ideology is material. Weaker forms grant a secondary ontological status to mental phenomena. Vulgar materialism is the kind represented by the British writer Samuel Johnson (1709–84) kicking a stone to prove its existence. Some forms emphasize the physical and biological basis of human social being. Materialism rejects Cartesian dualism and disembodied existence.

3. (Marxism) The anti-idealist position that the material conditions of existence determine human consciousness, and not vice versa (see dialectical materialism). More specifically, in historical materialism, the techno-economic basis of the historical evolution of social systems. Even in forms of social and cultural theory not explicitly indebted to Marxist approaches, an emphasis on historical and economic factors indicates this legacy.

4. (cultural theory) An emphasis on such things as the textual representation of the material conditions of social reality (such as poverty, sickness, and exploitation), the sociocultural and historical contingency of signifying practices, and the specificity and physical properties of media and signs (suppressed in the transparency of dominant codes of aesthetic realism). Texts themselves are part of the world (see also materiality). The materialist approach to culture is often distinguished by its practitioners from what they characterize as the reduction of substance to forms and relations in formalism. See also cultural materialism.

5. In the rhetoric of postmodernism, despite the fact that many regard it as a form of idealism, the term is sometimes used to refer to an opposition (as in Derrida) to transcendent explanation: see transcendent signified.

Subjects: Social Sciences — Media Studies.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »