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Material Culture and the Construction of Subjects

Marie-Pierre Julien and Céline Rosselin explore the issues at stake in the close physical relationship that people have with objects, proposing that this seemingly quotidian and frequently non-verbal process is a means of constructing human beings as subjects. What is at stake in material culture is not only the production of physical environments by actors but the effects of these environments in shaping people as specific kinds of social entities.


MLA Citation Format:
Marie-Pierre Julien and Céline Rosselin
“Material Culture and the Construction of Subjects”
Web blog post. Material Religions.20 August 2017. Web. [date of access]

(This excerpt was originally published in French as: Julien, Marie-Pierre and Céline Rosselin. 2005. “Culture matérielle et construction des sujets” In Marie-Pierre Julien and Céline Rosselin eds. La culture matérielle. Paris: La Découverte. pp. 65-90.)

Louis-Marie Morfaux [1980] defines the object as “a solid, visible and tangible material reality”. One of the characteristics of objects is therefore the immediate perception of their materiality. The expression “material culture” seems appropriate to us since it insists on the materiality of objects, and does not oppose it to a supposed world of ideas.

Objects have shapes, colors, dimensions, material(s). They have a “basic” function (a pen serves to write), to which different authors add secondary functions (social, aesthetic or symbolic). Objects also have meanings and are polysemic. In this way, these elements allow us to form an idea of what an object may be. But what else is lacking in order to make culture, material culture?

Schlereth (1993) defines material culture as “a process whereby we attempt to see through objects to the cultural meaning to which they relate or which they might mediate”. [1993, p. 240, translation of the authors]. This definition poses a problem with regards to the materiality of objects: this involves a close physical contact (akin to a love-making one might say) since human beings cannot literally pass through objects. The issues at stake are important because this physical relationship that people have to matter participates in the construction of human beings as subjects.

From Signification to Action on Matter 

The Object-Sign 
There is a consensus that objects mean. Like words, they constitute a language and, in this sense, participate in the construction of a message. Their function is perhaps not to signify, but they mean, that is to say, according to Roland Barthes (1985, p. 251-252], that “they are never pure instruments […], they are also something else: they convey meaning”.

The basic theoretical postulate of semiology posits the existence of meaning. Thus, an object means, because even if it means nothing, it means “nothing”. By “meaning” is meant a process: the object takes on a meaning for an individual when it relates it to his or her own experiences. Thus, the relation between the object and the subject (perception) is established by an infinite chain of interpreters.

The subject is not a passive receiver of the message communicated by the object, because it constructs meaning through an active process of perception. The object cannot therefore mean the same thing for everyone: it is polysemic. Thus Jerusalem artichoke had disappeared from the French fruit and vegetable displays because it reminded two generations of consumers who had lived through the 1939-1945 war of years of deprivation and the monotony of meals. After fifty years of absence, this vegetable has no significant sense, taste or smell for the young. In the 1990s, it reappeared in organic vegetable markets valued for its dietary qualities and in the name of dietary diversity. The meaning of objects is therefore not understood in the object: it is socially constructed because it is the result of social interactions [Semprini, 1995].

A study of the transformation of family eating practices near Paris, 2013. Photo courtesy of Marie-Pierre Julien.

However, objects are not just signs, and material culture is not just a system of signs, a book that one would have to “learn to read”, according to some researchers [Tilley, 1990; Gerbrands, 1990]. Thus, archaeologists Philippe Bruneau and Pierre-Yves Balut [1989] condemn “semiotism which consists in believing that everything is meaning, to refer everything to language and thus leads to mistakenly assimilate the universe of the sign to that of the tool “[P. 41]. The ethnologist Sydney Mintz [1999, p. 24] echoed: “Concrete physical, cultural objects … are not the same thing as language,” each with specific functions. According to him, “things” produce, while words describe. Warnier [1999a, p. 33] suggests a precise situation to support this reasoning: “If I have an idea, you have one and we exchange them we will each have two ideas. If, on the other hand, I have a pen, and you do the same, and we exchange them, each one, in the end, will have only one pen.”

The main criticisms made of a confusion between words and things concern the absence of taking into account the materiality of the objects, their frequent extraction from an active human context and the forgetting of the non-verbal part of human experience [Debray, 1994; Glassie, 1993; Julien and Warnier, 1999; Miller, 1987; Warnier, 1999a].

The Object-Matter in Action

Material objects are studied in a context. Also, a change of context modifies the very nature of the object. This affirmation is true on the scale of a society or a social group. For instance, a statuette of Fang reliquaries participates in the cult of the ancestors in Gabon, is an object of art to the Dapper Foundation (Paris) and an inalienable ethnographic object at the Musée de l’Homme (Paris). It is also true at the level of micro-sociology or that of the ethnography of action that is concerned with detail [Piette, 1996]: a chair placed on the sidewalk near a doorway or near garbage cans or in a waiting room differs in meaning from the same chair located around a table in an apartment. Above all it involves different actions and different attitudes towards it. Beyond the interrogation it provokes or the evidence of its presence, its position in time and space induces a real change of qualities (properties, for example).

19th c. Fang Reliquary from Cameroon, Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem. Paula Soler-Moya. CC BY 2.0, Image Credit.


The object’s context is defined by the physical location and the universe of meaning in which it is integrated, but also by the articulation between objects, spaces, temporalities and human beings who interact with it.

The attention given to action taken in a specific situation is mainly a fact of the cognitive sciences. Thus, the Revue Raisons pratiques regularly publishes issues devoted to the analysis of the workings of the action of a subject at a given time and place: the kitchen, the company, the laboratory, the room of a police station [Conein et al., 1993] are the spaces in which one can analyze the action taking place, its resources, the objects on which it is based, its temporality, and the people in interaction.

Cockpit of an Airbus A380. Roger Schultz. CC BY 2.0, Image Credit.

Edwin Hutchins [1994] shows, through his observations of aircraft cockpits, that cognition is distributed. In cognitive activities, pilots delegate some of their cognition to objects: one thinks of the DME (distance measurement equipment) which indicates the position of the aircraft with respect to a beacon on the ground, by the data entered previously in the computer, or of the autopilot which guides the aircraft by the data on-board and the anti-collision radar signaling the proximity of another aircraft. Subjects and objects are considered by Hutchins to be a functional system. This renewed vision of action and cognition describes a process of objectification (from subjects to objects), in which objects (and other subjects present) are considered resources for action or “cognitive mediators”, according to Bernard Blandin [2002, p. 155].

Among the resources of action, Lucy Suchman [1987] integrates representations: they are not a prerequisite for action, but are added to those offered by the environment and with which to improvise. A descent of rapids in canoe can be planned, but it is mainly made possible by the interactions, at the time of the action, between the canoeist with the incorporated skill and the constraints resulting from the environment. According to Benoît Grison (2004), Suchman’s work is in line with anthropologist Thomas Gladwin’s work on the Polynesian trukese sailors: navigators do not predict the actions to be taken to reach an atoll, but play, and as and when measure navigation, with the currents and islands encountered, the winds and the color of the sea. The action in context and the planned action cannot, however, be oppositional, but intervene differently according to the modes of navigation.

The cognitivistic conception of a human being who plans before acting, like a computer that programs a body to move, poses the anteriority of representation over action. This approach is shared by many researchers, all social sciences alike. Thus, in the case of sociology and anthropology, objects are referred to something other than themselves, to discourse, to structures of thought, to social stratification: they are reduced to the domain of social representations which then explain the action of human beings. It is not a question here of denying the existence of representations, whether individual or collective, but of questioning their supremacy which is prejudicial to the analysis of material culture. Thus, Jean-Pierre Warnier [1999a] takes again the famous painting of Magritte representing a pipe and bearing the title “This is not a pipe”. The painter does not try to deceive his world, for his painting represents a pipe, but is not a pipe: impossible to stuff it, to light it, to smoke, to feel its form, its texture, its warmth in the palm of the hand.

To observe the materiality of objects also leads to encountering their resistance. But what are they resisting? Human will? If your will wishes to leave the walls of this house to go outside, your body will have to pass through the door, provided that you open it beforehand. This evidence, often disdained, is anchored in a principle of reality: human beings, like objects, are matter.

Body to Body

Which Body?

Despite the large number of works published on the “body” issue since the 1990s, both in Anglo-Saxon countries and in France, the body is, like objects, relatively unimportant in its materiality. While the responsibility for this is undoubtedly the denial of the body in Western philosophy, social and cultural anthropology is also marked by a past that makes it timid.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, physical anthropology in France classified and then prioritized races through the strictly anatomical study of the physical characteristics of the human body. A step was taken from scientific intention to ideology, and from raciology to racism. The school of Durkheimian sociology and the emerging social and cultural anthropology opposed this ideology by asserting that there were no biological inequalities between races, but cultural differences between societies. They abandoned research on the body, except for Mauss, to preserve only the metaphor of the social body (Durkheim).

The years 1980-1990 are marked, in France, by a renewed interest in this object taken in its historical, anthropological, sociological or philosophical dimensions. The historicity of body practices (health and sickness, physical and sports activities, leisure, clothing, body marking), their inclusion in power stakes, their diversity according to social and cultural groups, show that the body is a material that works and is worked, that marks and is marked.

Scarification, tattooing, haircutting, piercing are not the only ones to leave their imprints on the bodies. As early as 1936, Mauss questioned the techniques of the body, that is to say “the ways in which men, society by society, in a traditional way, know how to use their bodies”, to understand the great diversity of ways of moving. The point is simple: ways to walk, swim, dig, wear, hold hands open or closed differ according to age, sex and society. To put it another way, age, gender and sociocultural belonging are inscribed in bodies in action. Also, the techniques of the body, far from being natural, even if they respond to physiological needs identical to every human being (to nourish, to urinate, to reproduce), are educated. According to Mauss, the physio-psycho-sociological arrangements that are the techniques of the body and which define “the total man” are all the more easily realized in individuals as they are constructed by and for “social authority”. The notion of habitus takes its place as a corporeal memory shared by the members of a society and inscribed in singular bodies. Mauss thus provided the basis for a reflection on the social incorporation that the sociologist Bourdieu appropriated.

Social Incorporation

For Bourdieu [1980], agents incorporate schemes of perception, thought and action through the inculcation of social values. This inculcation is anchored in the body and allows us to act without having to think (what we call “practical sense”) to the point that actions appear natural to those who realize them. The body in action is the place where objective, external structures (social norms objectified for instance in institutions) and subjective, internal motivations are articulated. The adoption of a sport is therefore explained by the adequacy between the social uses of this sport and the corporeal pattern “depositary of a social vision of the world, a whole philosophy of the person and the body proper” 1979, p. 240]. For instance, the practice of rugby by the bourgeoisie is possible only if “the feeling of high dignity of the person” is safeguarded.

Bernard Lahire [1998] criticizes Bourdieu’s posture, which, despite the desire to go beyond the dualism of objectivism/subjectivism, is essentially on the side of social structures, finally leaving little room for the actor (i.e., the one who acts rather than is acted upon). According to the author of L’Homme pluriel, actors (children, adolescents, adults) do not incorporate structures, but “internalize modes of action, interaction, reaction, appreciation, perception, categorization, etc., by gradually entering into social relations of interdependence with other actors or by maintaining, through the mediation of other actors, relations with multiple objects of which they learn the modes of use, the mode(s) of appropriation” (1998, p. 204].

Incorporation is a rare sociological notion that directly affects the body [Berthelot, 1988]. The body is too often a pretext evoked to defend a theoretical choice: the body, suffering, bruised, victim, is mobilized to show or denounce the weight of social structures on individuals without power (agents); The body, in its creative, innovative capacity, as a place of self-realization for the supporters of the autonomy of individuals (actors). The respective postures of Bourdieu and Lahire and the collective work A Body for Self [Bromberger et al., 2005] illustrate the differentiated treatment of the body according to the theoretical points of view of the authors.

An Incarnate Being

Jean-Michel Berthelot emphasizes, however, that the body is “a privileged place for the intelligibility of the social” [p. 83], in which the biological and the social are articulated, physical determinations and symbolic resonances, the collective and the individual, the structural and the actantial, the cause and the sense, the rationality and the imagination, the constraint and freedom. He then engaged sociologists to make a real sociology of the body in which the body would be an epistemological vector: the body as producer and being produced, a place of suffering and pleasure, alienation and reappropriation, and affects.

It is also against dualisms of all kinds that Anglo-Saxon authors have elaborated the notion of embodiment. Central to feminist studies, this notion aims to show that the subject is an incarnate being. The collective under the title Embodiment and Experience [Csordas, 1994] is inspired by phenomenology to renew the analysis of the body in anthropology: The body is not a passive object on which culture is inscribed; it is not reduced to representations or to being a biological organism or a center of individual consciousness. The authors show how the body expresses emotions, experience pain or political violence. However, in the absence of a consideration of bodies in action, this phenomenology falls into a “metaphor of being-in-the-world” [Warnier, 1999a].

The theories of social incorporation or embodiment forget that the body is matter, as objects are. The materiality of bodies is not the exclusive domain of the organic: moving, grasping, caressing, carrying, bumping, these daily renewed actions are possible because the body is matter and encounters other matter, other bodies and objects.

The Subject Against Objects…Very Close Against 

According to Dominique Desjeux et al. [1998, p. 193] there are four ways of looking at objects: as a sign (Semprini), as an analyzer of action (Desjeux, Kaufmann), as actant (Latour) as matter (Warnier and the research group Matière à Penser, MàP). If all these approaches theoretically integrate the relation between subjects and objects, they do not always raise the question of the effect, on the subject itself, of action on objects and on others. “What does this do to the subject?”, as Jean-Pierre Warnier put it, and “How does that work?” are questions that are far from being resolved.


Yet, as early as the nineteenth century, philosophy was traversed by the question of alienation. Marx (1867) explores the modalities of alienation in the creation and use (praxis) of objects, and introduces into the analysis, the political and social dimensions of this process. The workers who produce cannot reclaim the fruit of their labor because it does not belong to them. Objects thus become a means of power of the ruling class over the working class: through the management of scarcity of products, the rates imposed by machines, but also because of the possibility of replacing humans by machines in increasingly complex actions. In the capitalist framework, the process of alienation is reduced to its negative part, the appropriation of objects being impossible for the majority of the population which nevertheless produces them.

Marx’s contribution is to have introduced power into the relationship between individuals and objects by taking into account their materiality and that of their bodies: “It is first of all evident that a worker who, throughout his life, performs one and the same simple operation, transforms his whole body into the automatic and special organ of this operation, which he accomplishes in less time than the workman who alternately performs a whole series of operations.” [Marx, 1919].

Marx’s heirs often reduced the idea of alienation to a moral and political debate about the positive or negative aspects of the relation to the object. In the sciences of technology, this is considered by some to be binding on the bodies and by others to liberate the mind. Feminist studies, which rarely work directly on material culture, call upon it either to demonstrate the exercise of male power over women’s bodies (technology is directly suspected as a so-called masculine attribute), or to illustrate the capacity of creative women to appropriate it to build their own subjectivity [Davis, 1997]. Finally, consumer goods are reduced either to the expression of the power of international firms or to the tool of a creation of the self.

Are objects binding or liberating? Undoubtedly both, in their dialectical relations to subjects. According to Miller (1987), although Hegel, unlike Marx, is not interested in the materiality of objects, it allows us to understand consumption as a means “by which society reappropriates its external form [material culture] that is, assimilates its own culture and uses it to develop itself.” [1987, p. 16]. From the concepts of Hegel’s alienation and mediation, which he unites under the neologism of “objectification,” Miller explores the modalities of the mutual construction of society and its cultural forms through social subjects, individual or collective.

WSDOT Soccer. World Cup tournament held at Perrigo Park in Redmond. CC BY 2.0, Image Credit.

This analysis can be applied to areas other than consumption. In the case of sports practices, an individual cannot become a footballer before having touched a ball and played in a team. The ball pre-exists the footballer, but as long as it is not used, it is an inert thing that can have multiple roles, although it was originally designed for football practice. It is in the process of invention-appropriation, or alienation-mediation, that resides the reciprocal construction of the subject-footballer and the object-soccer ball. The first time the player touches the ball, he is awkward and is completely absorbed in sending this ball exactly where he wants it: he only thinks about his relationship to the ball. The mastery comes later, the control of the ball is gradually inscribed in the person, to the point that, if the player becomes a good dribbler, the others will be able to designate him by this quality. It is this total process, through which the subject and the object are constructed together and for each other, which Miller designates by the term of objectification.The analyses of the relations between objects and subjects in terms of constraint or freedom operates a rupture in the objectification described by Miller. The philosophers who define the technique as escaping the control of humans are called discontinuists [Goffi, 1988]. But subject-object relations are not static and cannot be reduced to the two terms that compose it: they are dynamic and continuous processes allow both the construction of individuals and of societies. The question then is to understand how this objectification is made possible. One of the answers given by continuists in philosophy, but also by anthropologists and paleontologists, is to re-evaluate the limits of the body, what is specific to it (subject) and what is external to it (ob-ject). It is on the basis of this questioning that the relationship between objects and subjects is conceived.

Human Objects and Mechanical Bodies

Many philosophers and anthropologists are inspired by Aristotle to understand the quasi-organic links that would unite human beings with objects: the hand of man is polyfunctional, that is to say that it contains a multitude of tools and, at the same time, unlike animals, humans possess tools that are external to the body. Tortoises have a carapace to sleep or protect themselves, but they cannot remove them to swim. To Aristotle, the organism is thus associated with a machine.

The idea of an analogy between the human body and tools or machines goes through the history of philosophy and medicine (for example, in Descartes or Borelli), and has been fueling for three hundred years the imagination of engineers and artisans wanting to explore the boundaries between the animate and the inanimate [Morus, 2002]. This analogy has strong implications, for example in the teaching of gymnastics in the nineteenth century: fatigue is seen as a residue of combustion, heat as a generator of movement. Mauss, for instance, learns to swim like a steamboat.

Ernst Kapp (1808-1896), one of the founders of the philosophy of techniques and a disciple of Hegel, considers tools as the prolongation of human organs in motion: the closed hand gives birth to the hammer by an analogy not only of forms, but also functions in the structure of body movements. This organic projection or “exudation” is not the result of a rational activity, but of an unconscious impulse. He envisages “technical inventions as material realizations of the imagination and technical activity as the projection of our organs” [Goffi, 1988, p. 77].

The majority of his successors of the twentieth century retain the idea that tools are a material translation of an immaterial datum: material culture is a sign and symbol of ideas [Pitt-Rivers, in Schlereth, 1993], technique is psychic expression [Mumford, 1950], the concretization of the object is “the physical translation of an intellectual system” [Simondon, 1958, p. 46].

The analogy between objects and subjects is surpassed by Leroi-Gourhan who proposes that we think of technique as an integral part of the human being, as exteriorization, and the object as a prosthesis. As a continuation of his work, researchers at Compiègne University of Technology show that if the tool is an external memory of society, it has two modes of operation: “seized” and “deposited”. Seized, the tool is practically part of the body; when it is deposited, human beings release their imagination to invent and make new objects [Lenay et al., 2002]. “What characterizes the tool is the to-and-fro between these two modes.” (p. 216]. According to the authors, the distinction between the inventor, the manufacturer and the user makes the tool a profoundly social object. The idea of objects as an extension of the body, as prostheses, is also found in certain Anglo-Saxon feminists, in the same desire to break with a logic of opposition. Thus, the cyborg [Haraway, 1991] is a hybrid of human and machine: the body extends to cyberspace through the computer that allows the body to communicate and feel, to the point where the boundaries between the computer network, self, body and environment disappear. If Leroi-Gourhan’s approach biologizes the tools, Donna Haraway reduces the body, despite the initial ambition, to technological artefacts that can be transformed (into a raw material), transcended or even erased. It seems that, between subjects and material objects, there can be only a competitive relationship from which a victor must emerge: the human is mechanized or the object becomes human.

Cyborg from the Teen Titans. New York Comicon, 2014. CC BY 2.0, Image Credit.

For Bruno Latour [1991, 1996], this pitfall is inherited from modern philosophy: it separates not only the body from the spirit, but also objects from humans, the social representations of material constraints, only to try to understand their dynamic relations, or to synthesize them, in a second phase. This separation is specific to so-called “modern” societies. Latour refuses this “purification / conjunction”, as we saw in his discussion with Pierre Lemonnier on the technical question, and proposes “not to regard objects as objects but as partners associated with humans, evidently as much the old material world as the old human world”. He considers the actor and the object as two elements of a “hybrid,” two elements whose importance and role are equal within this hybrid. Latour’s approach is epistemologically interesting, but it can raise ethical questions if reasoning, pushed to its completion, makes object and subject equal.

The relationship between objects and subjects is not just a conflictual relationship, but it can be. It is not a relationship of analogy or reduction from one of the components to the other. We maintain, with the great majority of the objects that surround us, a close and implicit relationship which participates in our construction as a subject.

Construction of Subjects

Symbolization in Action

Many psychologists have stressed the importance of the process of introjection and projection in objects and in others, from birth, for the construction of subjects (Piaget, 1937; Klein, 1952; Winnicott, 1971; Dolto, 1984]. In particular, we will explore the research of the psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron who wanted to integrate the dimensions of the biological, psychological and sociological in his analysis. Subjects are constructed through three types of symbolization: sensori-affectivo-motor, visual and verbal [1999]. Symbolization leads “sensations, emotions and body states experienced in certain intense experiences to the creation of representations which, at the same time, testify to these states, allowing them to be recalled and entered into a relational dynamic. […] Some objects contribute, others oppose it”[p. 21].

To understand how material culture affects the subject, let us take an example of sensorial-affective-motor symbolism given by Tisseron in an oral communication at the University of Paris-V. Behind a window, he observed a woman walking in the street accompanied by three little girls. She seems hurried and is walking fast. The sidewalk is congested and she stumbles on a sheet metal. She loses her balance but re-establishes it. She turns, looks at the sheet, curses it and goes on. Presumably, the incident disrupted the girls. The first goes to the metal plate and imitates the woman: she strikes the sheet, pretends to fall and regains balance, turns, pronounces a few words and joins the woman. The second performs the same sequence of actions. The third, smaller, pretends to hit the sheet with her foot and catches up with the others. Thus, the small girls reproduced the incident, but immediately gave it a meaning: that of the gestures and words made by the woman with regard to the sheet. This attitude was dictated both by the pain (dorsal or foot), which caused a strong emotion (redness in the face, feeling of shame), and was able to express itself verbally because of a socio-cultural context in which this sheet metal in the middle of the pavement is interpreted as not being in its place, even dangerous. Through the sharing of this experience, the woman transmitted to her little girls a meaning to the meeting of her foot with the sheet metal and to the emotion felt. Symbolization has transformed an action that is at once physical, psychological and social into representation. Now, the little girls have learned a form of reaction to this kind of situation that is a priori socially acceptable since it comes from an adult.

The other two forms of symbolization are also regularly mobilized whenever possible. Since movement is by nature ephemeral, the advantage of image symbolization is to add a permanent trace to what can be looked at, touched or felt. On the other hand, speech and words provide abstract means of recalling events, facts, images, ideas, at will, and make it possible to communicate them. Moreover, this third means of symbolization makes it possible to elaborate a critical point of view on its own experience and its symbolization, particularly by discussing it with others. The mastery of these three modes of symbolization follows the evolution of the child, but once the language has been mastered, all three modes are used throughout life. Tisseron’s work shows that these three types of symbolization can be contradictory to each other, thus highlighting the non-uniqueness of the subject, which can lead to madness in extreme cases.

The woman’s foot hitting the sheet metal is a troubling experience in the sense that it engenders a disorder that is especially emotional, but also because it disturbs the implicit nature of a daily walk on a Parisian sidewalk.

Incorporating Objects

The ease with which everyday objects are forgotten is disconcerting. There are two ways of understanding it: either the object has been stored in a cabinet and escapes the senses, or the object is integrated into daily actions and no longer attracts any special attention. Be that as it may, the forgetting of the matter of objects, even the objects themselves, is partly related to our corporeal commitment, i.e., our actions or non-actions on objects.

How is it that when we wear new shoes they make us suffer the first few days, but are now forgotten to the point where we could doubt, at least corporeally, their very existence? We incorporated them into our feet. This does not mean that they merge with our foot or that the foot has become a shoe, but they have become prostheses.

A biological conception of the body does not make it possible to assert the prosthetic character of the boot in the same way as an artificial hand: it does not replace a failing member. Yet, like the rider and his mount [Jousse, 1974], the pilot and his plane [Berthoz, 1997], we are one with the objects that we have incorporated. To admit that objects can be real prostheses forces us to consider Man, following Mauss, as a physio-psycho-sociological whole.

Jousting game, Spain. Dan Brickley. CC BY 2.0, Image Credit.

The body schema, or body image, can be an analytical tool that allows us to think about this incorporation. Paul Schilder [1935] has given this concept its present form: it is a dynamic system integrating all the perceptions of the organism, which allows the subject to have a three-dimensional representation conscientized or conscientisable of himself.

The body schema can incorporate elements of the outer world and “spread in space” [1935, p. 229]: it is plastic. I incorporate my shoes in this double movement. Moreover, sensations do not occur at the point of contact between the body and an object, but at the end of the object. The foot does not feel the leather of the shoe, but the ground it treads. Finally, the perceptual body, whose senses are informed by affects and culture, incorporates objects into action. Footwear is incorporated by walking.

On the basis of identical observations, Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1945] uses the term “body synthesis” to place perception at the center of “being in the world”. Learning new movements presupposes the power we have to expand our body as a being in the world or to change its mode of existence by appending new instruments to it.

These ideas are supported by research on the ghost limb in neurology: persistent sensations in the amputated limb, such as pain, also include the sensation of the ring around the finger [Ramachandran and Hirstein, 1998].

On the psychological level, the unconscious image of the body sometimes supplants the body schema [Dolto, 1984], reducing the latter to its strictly physiological dimension. However, from 1935 onwards, Schilder integrates the three dimensions of biology, psychology and anthropology. In the development of the child, the construction of the image of the body is revealed by specular recognition or the possibility of recognizing oneself in a mirror. It turns out that the animals capable of this recognition are also those who use tools, excluding for example, dogs..

The corporeal schema is educated and also socially constructed: Hans Joas [1999] shows the primary role of intersubjective structures, of the interactions of bodies, in the relation to his own body of the acting subject. The relation to the other (incarnate) is implied in the constitution of the social subject. These interactions transform it into its cognitive, emotional, psychophysiological, psychological and social dimensions, because they can also lead to a genuine incorporation of the body of others: in co-operative relations in work, in sports and in children’s education.

The incorporation is not so much that of objects as that of enacted objects: the tennis player does not incorporate his racket, but his racquet in reverse or in a forehand, with a given power and ball effects, A position on the ground, a particular moment in the sequence of gestures.

Incorporation is therefore the transition from a relation of externality to the “self-evident”, a relation of evidence, making the synthesis between time (learning and its actualization in a given situation), space, The acting subject, other humans and the object. Disturbance of any of these factors may lead to permanent or temporary excorporation of the objects.

The incorporation of objects is not determined once and for all, even if traces left after the excorporation can be identified: a change of shoes always requires adaptation to the new pair, certainly because they are new but also because they are different from those which have been incorporated into the step previously.

The incorporation of objects is part of a set of mechanisms which reveals the indispensability of material culture to every action and demonstrates the reciprocal construction of the acting objects and the bodies in action or, to put it differently, objects and subjects. The distinction that Mauss makes between technique of instrument and technique of the body rests on a very reductive conception of technique, of matter, of gesture and therefore of their relations. Marie-Pierre Julien [Julien and Warnier, 1999] shows that he cannot describe the techniques of the body without himself mobilizing the objects on which they are based: the high heels of women, the spades of the French and English soldiers. The rupture is what does not allow him to understand why he cannot walk with slippers when he can do so with shoes.

Subject of the King, Subject of the Verb 

The use of the term “subject” is shared by many fields: medicine, experimental psychology, law, philosophy, linguistics, political science, psychoanalysis, sociology, history. The 1950s and 1960s, however, were marked by the “death certificate” of the subject, who, it was said, had died under the redoubled blows of the sciences of man and society, especially structuralism. We received the announcement, but if we do not go to his funeral, it is because this notion still has something to say to us on condition that we take cognizance of the subject that was buried. The subject as a pure consciousness, as understood by the French philosophy of consciousness, from “Descartes to Sartre”, called for moral responsibility, political commitment, freedom and especially unity. A coherent subject, full of his achievements, is apparently dead.

Michel Foucault [1994] is interested in the two meanings of the word “subject” – which Arnaud Arendt [1961] defined both as an actor and a patient: “subject as subjected to the other by control and dependence, attached to one’s own identity through consciousness or self-knowledge. In both cases, this word suggests a form of power that subjugates and subjugates “[p. 227]. Sylvie Fainzang (2001) uses the definition of an anthropologist in the study of the patient, the doctor and the prescription: “The use made here of the word” subject “…is to refer to the individual’s acting and acting character, that is to say to the partly chosen and partly imposed role that the individual is called upon to play. The individual is a subject, as is the subject of the verb, that is, the author and sometimes the master of his acts, but he is also subject as the subject of the king, that is to say, partly subject to, or subservient to, a force that surpasses it, in this case social determinants, the political context and cultural influences, in other words, other laws and rules than its own.”

This subject is not far from the man of Rousseau, born free and everywhere in chains, except the chronology of the states (at first free, then in chains). Human beings are subjects because they are caught in networks of actions on the actions of others (Foucault) involving other humans and subjects. These networks are described by Elias through the notions of systems of interdependence and configurations. In court society, Elias (1969) shows how it is impossible to understand the government of France under the monarchy of the Sun King without inscribing Louis XIV among the courtiers. To attend the rising of the king is an honor. Absolute monarch, the king exercises his power by accepting or refusing this or that in his room. However, as soon as he wakes up, his actions are subject to the eyes of the courtiers. In Versailles, all the gestures of one are subject to the gaze of the others. Valets and nobles thus exercise supervision and control of the actions of each one. This explains why courtiers never stay there for very long. The Sun King, his courtiers and all the servants cannot exist without the others: “There is a fabric of interdependencies within which the individual finds a margin of individual choice and which at the same time imposes limits to his freedom of choice.” [1969, p. LXXI].

The subject in question is hence a social subject both actor and acted upon, a concrete part of networks of actions and interdependencies.

According to Maurice Godelier [1984, p. 9], “unlike other social animals, men are not satisfied with living in society, they produce society to live; in the course of their existence, they invent new ways of thinking and acting on themselves as well as on nature that surrounds them. They therefore produce culture, and make history, History.” Culture is constructed in actions on matter.

Objects become material culture when they are integrated into shared actions, that is to say, a source of union and disunion, as Joël Candau defines it: “By this ambiguous character, the word “sharing” refers perfectly to the two modes of sharing which constitute the object of anthropology: the moment when the ties between individuals are formed or, when these ties preexist, the moment when they unravel. In short, we must try to understand this particular, singular moment when the social, the cultural is born, gives itself form or sometimes dies or is annihilated. Thus, anthropology “has the vocation of explaining at the outset the always mysterious circumstances which make it possible that material or ideal ties are tied (or untied) between individuals, thus allowing the emergence of a modality of the social that is ‘culture’ or ‘society’ or, more modestly, to be considered as a social or cultural phenomenon. This is the time of sharing.” (Candau, 2000, p. 113].

The pen, the amphitheater, the mobile phone and the lodging of a room are shared by students and constitute in this sense elements of student material culture. But that is not enough. The reflections of the French research group MàP invite us to take into account what is at stake in action on matter, which is the encounter between embedded knowledge and reflexivity, matter and ideas, humans and objects, in given time-spaces. And what is at stake is not only the production of physical environments by actors: pens, laptops, housing, etc. constitute the material culture of students because these subjects, by incorporating them, are constructed as students.

The Unspeakable

Objects belong to a universe of the unspeakable: they do not speak and it is not always obvious that one should speak about them. Caught up in everyday actions, they often tell us more about what to do than what to say. The “practical sense” provides, according to Bourdieu [1980, p. 115], a “mute experience of the world as self-evident”. Many researchers have thus shown that the action is not always embarrassed by explanation or even comment. Marie-Noëlle Chamoux [1996], in support of the data collection work prior to the Diderot’s Encyclopaedia, highlights the difficulty of putting into words the action and in particular the technical action: “The action and the discourse on action are not to be confused “(1996, p. 3].

How then can we understand what is not of the order of saying, but of the order of doing? Labor psychologists and ergonomists are confronted with these methodological problems, which seek to understand or improve the working conditions of operators. The know-how of those whom they consider to be experts is little or not explicable, so it is rather an implicit knowledge emerging from their in situ experience. Knowledge often exceeds what we are able to say. It is because “man is an animal that thinks with his fingers,” according to Maurice Halbwachs [Warnier, 1999a].

Even if the subject does not speak, bodily practices, especially during learning, are accompanied by language practices [Faure, 2000]. In the transmission of know-how, there is certainly knowledge of the body [Chevallier, 1991] based on material culture, but there are also words whose sole purpose is to explain action as something to do or not to do: in physical practices, the counting of danced gestures, the professor’s phrase that rhythms the activity at the beginning of each exercise, also participate in a “learning by body” [Faure, 2000].

“Boxing Evening”, Lorenzo Bittini. CC BY 2.0, Image Credit.

In order to understand action, the relationship to objects, and language interactions in the context of work, sports or everyday life, some researchers choose a method of ethnography that pushes the point of participant observation, to the verge of making themselves as others: Diderot enters the workshops and then becomes an apprentice, Hutchins becomes a jetliner pilot and Loïc Wacquant [2000] is initiated into the practice of the boxing. All three thus engage their bodies in material cultures specific to social groups.


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