The Material Subject : Rethinking Bodies and Objects in Motion book cover
1st Edition

The Material Subject
Rethinking Bodies and Objects in Motion

ISBN 9780367610531
Published May 30, 2022 by Routledge
246 Pages 31 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

The Material Subject emphasises how bodily and material cultures combine to make and transform subjects dynamically. The book is based on the French Matière à Penser (MaP) school of thought, which draws upon the ideas of Mauss, Schilder, Foucault and Bourdieu, among others, to enhance the anthropological study of embodiment, practices, techniques, materiality and power.

Through theoretical sophistication and empirical field research, case studies from Europe, Africa and Asia bring MaP’s ideas into dialogue with other strands of material culture studies in the English-speaking world. These studies mediate different scales of engagement through a sensori-motor, affective and cognitive focus on practices of making and doing. Examples range from the precarity of professional divers in French public works to the gendered subjectivity of female carpet weavers in Morocco, from the ways Swiss watchmakers transmit craft knowledge to how Hindu devotees in India make efficacious use of altars, and from the enskilment of Paiwan indigenous people in Taiwan to the prestige of women’s wild silk wrappers in Burkina Faso. The chapters are organised according to domains of practice, defined as 'matter of' work and technology, heritage, politics, religion and knowledge.

Scholars and students with an interest in material culture will gain valuable access to global research, rooted in a specific intellectual tradition.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Jean-Pierre Warnier


1. Subjects, their bodies and their objects

    Laurence Douny and Urmila Mohan

    Matter of work and technology

2. Making do and wanting: The professional diver's predicament

    Céline Rosselin-Bareille

3. 'Management’ and its refuse

    Agnès Jeanjean

4. Clothing choices and questioning the incorporation of habitus

    Marie-Pierre Julien

    Matter of heritage

5. Museum objects in motion: Colonial leftovers and French cultural politics

    Mélanie Roustan

6. The material shaping of women’s subjectivities. Wild-silk textiles of the Marka-Dafing as a cultural heritage

    Laurence Douny

Matter of politics

7. Politics matters: Matière à Politique

    Jean-Pierre Warnier

8. Chronicles of a moral war: Ascetic subjectivation and formation of the Javanese state

    Romain Bertrand

9. Opening and closing gestures: Weaving rituals that give and sustain life

    Myriem Naji

    10. Devotion on the home altar as ‘efficacious intimacy’ in a Hindu group

    Urmila Mohan

Matter of knowledge

11. Anthropology of knowledge transmission beyond dichotomies. Learning and subjectivation among watchmakers in Switzerland

    Hervé Munz

12. The enskilled subject: Two paths to becoming a skilled person among the Paiwan indigenous people of Taiwan

         Geoffrey Gowlland

13. Afterword: Matter(s) of material culture

         Nathan Schlanger


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Urmila Mohan is an anthropologist and curator of material culture and religion who researches textiles, practices and aesthetics in India and Indonesia. She is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, University College London, UK.

Laurence Douny specialises in the anthropology and history of materials, techniques and design with a focus on West African wild silks. She is a Research Associate at the cluster ‘Matters of Activity. Image Space Materials’ at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.


'This important book brings French and Anglo anthropological traditions of studying the body in practice, material culture and subjectivity into fruitful dialogue with one another. Informed by Mauss, Foucault and seminal ideas of key Matière à Penser scholars, the editors and contributing authors offer fresh and inspiring perspectives on the ways that bodies and objects ‘move together in the material world.’

~Trevor Marchand, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, SOAS

'A landmark contribution to the cross-disciplinary study of material culture. The Material Subject delivers a timely and original introduction to the influential French Matière à Penser School for anglophone readers. Urmila Mohan and Laurence Douny have crafted an essential addition to the bookshelves of every scholar of material culture.'  

~Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology, University of Oxford

'Urmila Mohan and Laurence Douny have assembled a remarkable collection of essays that present to anglophone audiences the important legacy of the work of the Matière à Penser group, insightfully exploring subjectivation as a material process. This impressive book promises to enrich the study of material culture in a host of fields.'

~David Morgan, Professor of Religious Studies, Duke University