Toward a theory of language materiality: An introduction

Shalini Shankar, Jillian R. Cavanaugh

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

13 Scopus citations


“The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life.” What is “the language of real life”? Reading this quote through Raymond Williams’s (1977: 38) suggestion that language is “a distinctive material process,” we see the language of everyday life as material practice: embedded within structures of history and power, including class relations and markets, but also having physical presence. The language of everyday life is what people do with and through language as they work and play, making meaning and creating value in the process. In this volume, we seek to draw out the importance of considering these practices to be “distinctive material processes.” Putting language and materiality together at the center of analysis in this way can illuminate both how a linguistic approach to materiality can shed light on processes of meaning-making and value production and how incorporating materiality into linguistic analysis can ground such processes within social, cultural, political, and economic structures of power (Cavanaugh and Shankar 2014; Shankar and Cavanaugh 2012). To theorize language materially is an ontological move - to view it as a material presence with physical and metaphysical properties and as embedded within political economic structures. Rather than viewlanguage and materiality in tandem by conceptualizing materiality alongside but distinct from language, we focus instead on themateriality of language, or what we call language materiality. In developing this concept, we have interrogated definitions and uses of materiality in ways that attend to how materiality relates to language and have also reconsidered the nature of language itself.We programmatically offer language materiality as an analytic for studying ethnographic contexts in which an explicit focus on materiality furthers understandings of language in use, and vice versa. Our goal in this volume is to develop a theory and methodology for examining language materially. This undertaking is ethnographically driven, premised on a rethinking of the forms and presences that language takes in contemporary capitalism and the concomitant ethnographic contingencies needing further attention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationLanguage and Materiality
Subtitle of host publicationEthnographic and Theoretical Explorations
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic)9781316848418
ISBN (Print)9781107180949
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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