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Toward Dematerialization: Light, Medium, Environment

Often presented as a new form of materialism, theories of media have been repeatedly fascinated by the idea of dematerialization—more precisely, by a vision of the history of technical media as a process teleologically oriented toward a future characterized by the overcoming of the weight, the opaqueness, and the resistance of materiality and by the advent of new, pervasive forms of instantaneous communication. Light, be it natural or artificial, has often played a key role in this historical narrative. With its diffused presence, limitless plasticity, ultimate speed, ambiguous status between infinitely small particles and electromagnetic waves, and crucial role in the transmission of images and signals, light has often raised the question of the materiality of media itself, pointing to the possibility of immediacy—of an immediate, instantaneous, immaterial transmission. In this article I analyze the presence of this idea of dematerialization as the end point of media history in the writings of László Moholy-Nagy and Marshall McLuhan, whose thinking about media is centered on the assumption that light is the most fundamental medium, one that leads the entire range of technical media to gradually dematerialize and merge within the environment or even dissolve into the atmosphere.