It has been almost fifteen years since Bill Brown noted triumphantly, “These days, history can unabashedly begin with things and with the senses by which we apprehend them.”1 In 2015, one hardly needs to argue for the theoretical significance of objects, things, or stuff.2 In its “new” iteration, materialism has achieved the ascent of the object, such that it now seems unorthodox (or, better yet, unfashionable) to read objects aesthetically, culturally, or generally in relation to the human subject. New materialists, object-oriented ontologists, and media archaeologists urge us to repudiate such anthropocentrism and think beyond the human. “Thinking beyond the human” often means ignoring the political life of objects, though, and turning away from the roles that objects play in human historical, social, and economic history. This epistemological shift is particularly problematic for feminist scholarship, which retains an historic investment in human systems of oppression, even (perhaps especially) as such systems encounter and involve nonhuman objects. Historically and philosophically, feminist analysis concerns human systems of sexual difference and the power hierarchies they create. Those hierarchies are often enacted and expressed through objects—especially media objects—so to read said objects in isolation from the hierarchies they participate in sacrifices the original impetus for feminist inquiry. Such sacrifices are neither necessary nor advisable. Object-oriented scholarship does not need to be apolitical, nor should it be. In “Feminist Matters: The Politics of New Materialism,” a recent special issue of Women: A Cultural Review, Peta Hinton and Iris van der Tuin observe that “the question of the political in the context of new materialism has been asked in such a way that, while new materialist ways of conceptualizing positive difference/differing have been devised … the question of the political has not yet been answered with specific regard to feminist politics.”3 I proposed this special issue of Feminist Media Histories in solidarity with their call for politically committed materialist scholarship and in pursuit of feminist appraisals of the roles that objects have played in media history. The articles collected here demonstrate how feminist media historians are incorporating materialism into their research in new inter- and contradisciplinary ways.
Objects change how we see other objects, including people, and how we treat people, including how we treat them as objects. The personal is political—this much we know. So, too, is the material political. To explore that concept, this collection of articles expands conventional definitions of object and material, challenging received notions about what counts as a media object in order to explore how objects affect gendered media cultures and feminist media practices. The scholars whose writings are collected herein focus on material experiences and expressions of feminism and, in so doing, ask new questions about the political life of objects. Amelie Hastie considers how magazines and journals generate physical spaces and ideological boundaries for criticism, opening up the first decade of Ms. magazine to consider how its media criticism engaged with—and was simultaneously excluded from—contemporaneous academic feminist film theory. Her research reveals the materiality of feminist identity in the 1970s through a reading of that iconic publication. Beth Corzo-Duchardt explores a different kind of paper: her essay analyzes the role that posters and litter from posters played in women's representation in and engagement with late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century urban culture. Along with cinema and other media, paper posters gave women material for appearances in and new, politically salient forays into the public sphere. Amy Herzog queries “material” in a slightly different way, focusing on intersections of costume, environment, and women's bodies in performance-art pieces by Yoko Ono and VALIE EXPORT. Linking Ono and EXPORT's performances of surrender to changes in sexualized public spaces in Kyoto, New York, and Paris during the 1960s and 1970s, Herzog, like Corzo-Duchardt, makes the city a site for material—rather than sociological—inquiry. Pooja Rangan asks readers to focus on the voice as a material force mediating “a more capacious understanding of the human.” Using Leslie Thornton's videos of the 1980s and 1990s and their experiments with acousmatic and upsetting voice-overs, she challenges readers to reexamine easy metaphoric equations of voice and power. Like Hastie, Rangan uses the material to upset foundational myths of feminist film criticism. Finally, my essay investigates how DVD and Blu-ray reissues direct popular and scholarly attributions of a film's historical value. Using Richard Brooks's Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) as a case study, I argue that the disintegration of feminist film history is a real material process we must acknowledge, sit with, and learn from.
Rather than exploiting objects to launch polemics or support manifestos, authors in this issue put themselves in touch with the historical resonances of things to show how those things shape our media cultures and how we might yet reimagine and change those cultures. Following examples from avant-garde and popular writers, as well as from feminist theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Claire Johnston, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Lisa Gitelman, the authors connect scholarly politics with material experiences of gender, highlighting encounters between subjects and objects. Such encounters have unique resonances for women and women's roles in moving-image cultures, as each author makes clear through her distinct approach to writing history.
It is by design that no common doctrine, no one approach to history or materialist analysis, unites the feminist media historians included in this issue. The “materialisms” they explore suggest varied ways to understand gender through artifacts and embodied practice. As you read through their articles, I encourage you to consider how these authors recall the methodologies and concerns of materialist feminism and simultaneously point beyond them. During the 1970s and 1980s, materialist feminists argued that the object forces of capitalism contributed to gender hierarchies and other axes of political oppression. They called for material investigations of women's lived situations in order to see how objects enforced patriarchal power dynamics. In the intervening decades, women of color feminism, subaltern and postcolonial theory, and queer theory have all complicated the universalizing concept of Woman and the gender binary system that undergirded materialist feminism in its original conception. Benefitting from such intercessions, the essays collected here open up the possibility of new materialisms and new materialist feminisms to inspire renewed interest in the gendered and political lives of objects.