The material substance of things; in semiotics, that of the sign vehicle. While nowadays the signifier is commonly interpreted as the material (or physical) form of the sign (something which can be seen, heard, touched, smelt, or tasted), this is more materialistic than in the Saussurean model. For Saussure, both the signifier and the signified were ‘form’ rather than substance. However, the material form of the sign can itself be a signifier—the same written text might be interpreted somewhat differently depending on whether it was hand-written or word-processed, and it might even generate different connotations if it were in one typeface rather than another. So too, whether the text was an ‘original’ or a ‘copy’ might affect the sense made of the text (see token)—not everyone would appreciate a photocopied love-letter! The basic material properties of the text may be shaped by the affordances of the medium employed, which may also generate connotations. Some reflexive aesthetic practices foreground their textuality—the signs of their production (the materials and techniques used—thus reducing the transparency of their style (see also reflexivity). For instance, ‘painterly’ painters draw our attention to the form and texture of their brushstrokes and to the qualities of the paint. When our prime purpose is instrumental (i.e. when we use the sign, text, or medium as a means to an end) we are seldom conscious of the materiality of the sign, which retreats to transparency as we foreground content rather than the substance of expression. Within cultural studies, cultural materialism emphasizes the materiality of cultural phenomena. References to the materiality of language allude to its social and conventional character as well as to its manifestation in physical forms (see also media-centricity).
Subjects: Media Studies.