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Call for Papers: Matter Thinks / La matière pense
36th CIHA World Congress – Lyon, 23.-28.06.2024

Organizers: Christian Berger (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz) & Larisa Dryansky (Sorbonne Université, Paris)

In his essay for the exhibition catalogue As Painting (2001), the art historian Stephen Melville introduced the notion of „a particular strand of materialism“ emerging in France in the postwar period. Fusing Marxism with other traditions of thought, namely structuralism and phenomenology, this model, according to Melville, revolved around the proposition that „matter thinks.“ This panel takes Melville’s phrase as a point of departure, arguing that it allows to undo established and problematic binaries between mind and matter, materiality and immateriality, without reducing one to the other.

What does it mean for matter to think? How is this expressed in the arts? In what way is this notion of thinking matter reactivated by the digital and can it be related to the contemporary trend towards „smart materials“ in science and industry? Conversely, what does it mean to consider thought as a material for artmaking, or to conceive of more traditional forms of artmaking, such as painting, as a „theoretical“ activity?

Over the past two decades, the so-called „new materialisms“ have familiarized the idea of matter as animated, „vibrant,“ and endowed with agency. While this panel embraces the new materialist championing of matter and materials as well as the ensuing relativization of the human subject’s preeminence over all other animate and inanimate entities, we argue that the concept of a „thinking“ matter could serve to reassert the importance of matter without fetishizing it and in such a way as to also allow for the ideal. In so doing, we draw inspiration from the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz’s study of the limits of materialism, The Incorporeal (2018), in which she envisions „a new new materialism in which ideality has a respected place.“

In fact, long before the advent of the new materialisms, artists started to reexamine and destabilize the dualism between mind and matter. Two prominent examples in modern and contemporary art would be the French artist Jean Dubuffet, whose Paysages du mental (1950–52) represent the inner workings of the painter’s mind by using the thickest materials, or the US-American artist Robert Smithson, who described his work as „a quiet catastrophe of mind and matter.“ Undoubtedly, there can be found several instances of how this discussion has played out in different cultural, geographic, and historical contexts.

In order to explore these issues in a wider transcultural and transhistorical framework, we welcome papers related to all periods and cultural settings, with a particular interest in approaches devoted to contexts other than North America and Western Europe. In particular, we seek papers that address the political and ethical consideration of these debates, for instance regarding the political ambiguity of privileging brute materiality over mind. While the emphasis recently, and rightly so, has been on reversing the traditional primacy of thought over matter, this panel is interested in how art seeks to explore and problematize the articulation of thought and matter.

Deadline for applications: September 15, 2023

Applicants should submit their proposal via this link.

More information (PDF)

Corresponding authors:
Larisa Dryansky,
Christian Berger,