The Lives of Objects

Material Culture, Experience, and the Real in the History of Early Christianity

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Maia Kotrosits
  • Chicago: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , September
     2020.
     232 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780226707587.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The intersection of material culture with multiple disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, critical race theory, and pedagogical studies is an innovative and exciting prospect offered by Maia Kotrosits in The Lives of Objects: Material Culture, Experience, and the Real in the History of Early Christianity. The premise that objects have a life beyond their mere description is an appealing concept for those working in material culture studies; however, this book does not quite handle what traditionally may be considered material culture, but rather critical literary theories and ancient and modern perceptions of objects. This unique perspective is part of the New Studies in Religion series published by The University of Chicago Press. Kotrosits’ monograph is an intensely complex yet refreshingly succinct book which confidently approaches critical questions such as how objects are perceived, what is reality, and how do colonial and other power struggles impact hermeneutics and the field at large. What ensues is a meticulous monologue crafted elegantly through seven chapters of exquisite prose which is not surprising as Kotrosits holds an undergraduate degree in creative writing. The tone of this book is provocative but equally engaging.

The book centres on a poignant illustration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story of Pygmalion who was an artist who sexually desires a sculpture of his own creation. The idyllic feminine form of the sculpture causes Pygmalion to become infatuated and kiss the otherwise inanimate object to life—turning fantasy into something that feels and becomes “real.” Kotrosits uses Freudian psychoanalysis as a method of interpretation to deconstruct the philosophical elements of this story as a key to opening other ancient texts and analyzing attitudes towards objects and “objectifying” in antiquity. Other fantasies explored in this work are memorialization, power, efficiency, and grandeur. These concepts are unwrapped and laid bare as the author demonstrates that modern understandings of historical events and texts are often steeped in these fantasies that seldom reflect the “real.” For example, Kotrosits explains that martyrdom in early Christianity was largely fictionalized and that the subsequent literature concerning the persecution of Christians for their faith is part of the production of Christian identity (85). This may appear to be a cynical tone for a somewhat complex historical issue, but space does not allow a thorough analysis of some of the propositions made in this book.

There are sections of this book that are helpful in understanding the developments and progression from the linguistic turn, moving from literary critics such as Jacques Derrida, to the materialist turn which will be helpful to students. Kotrosits is mainly critical of poststructuralism throughout this book, particularly the theoretical concept of language as Kotrosits argues there is inequality amongst the plurality of voices (40–41). A definitive example is taken from the crucifixion scene in the Gospel of Mark 13:9-13 where Jesus cries out in a transliterated Aramaic form the words of Psalm 22 in the midst of the presence of Roman soldiers and is misunderstood by those witnessing the event. Some of Kotrosits’ criticisms are valid, but this is not a wholesale evaluation of poststructuralism and even Kotrosits is wary of completely doing away with some of the developments by linguists (4–5).

There seem to be some assumptions made in this book, chiefly about criticism of Mark Goodacre’s scholarship on the Gospel of Peter, which is qualified by the use of the word “presumably” in brackets (29). Kotrosits takes exception to Goodacre’s interpretation of the apparent scene of a talking cross and uses his argument as a modernist bias with protected by theological commitments (29). Goodacre argues the anomaly of the talking cross is an eighth century scribal error and should read that person talking is “the crucified [one]” (27). The notion that scholars accept a reanimated Jesus risen back to life, but not a talking cross, is absurd to Kotrosits, and she believes Goodacre’s position to be based on an allegiance to the authenticity of canonical literature above apocryphal works (29). For anyone who knows Goodacre’s scholarship, they do not hold to those commitments and the presumption weakens the argument in this instance. 

Other than this slight presumption, Kotrosits is committed to precision and will often strip away preconceived terms, understandings, and bias within historical studies, famously questioning the use of terms “Christian” and “Christianity” for 1st and 2nd century in their first monograph Rethinking Early Christianity: Affect, Violence, and Belonging (Fortress Press: 2015). The pushback to these claims has caused Kotrisits to “double-down” on their original proposals as the question is asked “what are we studying then?” (19). This has caused the author to inquire further about the way certain objects dominate historical frameworks and analyze a series of considered fantasies. The conclusion of this book leaves the reader to wonder what one is studying when all is stripped away, especially as the author fails to circle back to the critical questions set out in the introductory part of the book. It seems as though Kotrosits is on a journey, but we have not quite reached the destination.

The Lives of Objects is certainly a fascinating interlocutor to the field and will provoke discussion about the wider philosophical contours of material studies moving beyond the physical object to the minds of those who are interacting with those ancient artefacts and texts. Therefore, psychoanalysis is a welcome discipline within what is already a multifaceted interdisciplinary experience of material studies. My own leaning has been more towards cognitive sciences in relation to Philology, but this book has made me think more about the mind of readers. Although I may disagree with some of Kotrisits’ positions and conclusions, I find some of the methodological propositions helpful and I look forward to future research in these areas. This book is accessible in price and length, scholarly, and a gateway for students into current trends in hermeneutics. It will be a popular addition to any library.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony P. Royle is a PhD candidate in Biblical Studies at the University of Glasgow.

Date of Review: 
June 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maia Kotrosits is assistant professor of religion at Denison University and author of Rethinking Early Christian Identity: Affect, Violence, and Belonging.

Keywords: 

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