Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Caroline Bynum reviews The Lives of Objects

Maia KotrositsThe Lives of Objects: Material Culture, Experience and the Real in the History of Early Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 243 pp.

Review by Caroline Bynum

6 January 2021

After the “linguistic turn” of the 1980s and 90s came the “material turn” that has dominated much of both theoretical work and on-the-ground research in the period from 2000–2020. Several recent books in history, art history, archaeology, anthropology, and the study of literature as well as in new fields such as “object-oriented ontology” and “thing theory” have titles close to Maia Kotrosits’s The Lives of Objects. The dominant figures of this “new materialism” seem to be Alfred Gell and Bruno Latour, with David Freedberg and Hans Belting providing support from art history. This is not, however, Kotrosits’s “new materialism.” Gell and Latour do not appear in her bibliography at all, and in several of her chapters the only objects considered are texts, such as Herodotus, the Gospel of Mark, and the Acts of Perpetua the Martyr or of Paul and Thecla. For example, when she mentions a “joint” in a discussion of votive objects (pp. 64–65), it means a place in the social body where things connect, the opposite of “disjoint,” not a model (wax or wooden or plaster) of bones that might be offered to a god in thanksgiving for healing, although this will be the referent that occurs first to many anthropologists and students of religion. Her treatment of “material culture” (which means something close to what others might call “experience”) seems still to be fueled in part by theorists—for example, feminist and queer—of the linguistic turn. It also expands “materialism” with smart and clear use of several new approaches, such as critical race theory, and with older approaches such as psychoanalysis (her primary theoretical support) and Winnicott’s theory of transitional objects.  Although, for the most part, not based on primary sources in their original languages, Kotrosits reads texts shrewdly and with insight, and persuasively argues that the way she studies experience, both past and present, “makes objects real.” Indeed, as she asserts on pp. 14–15: “material objects are not real by virtue of their materiality. They can however, create encounters with the real.”

Despite that fact that the title misleads somewhat and that the conclusion does not so much return to the sophisticated theorizing of the introduction as discuss current popular trends, the individual interpretations in Kotrosits’s book are elegant and persuasive. The writing is some of the clearest discussion of often opaque theory that I have seen. The warnings to scholars—for example, her position (also argued in her earlier work) that is wrong to use “Christian” in a discussion of many second century texts—are convincing and apposite. And anyone aspiring to be a “public intellectual” should be forewarned by the powerful exploration in her final chapter of the dangers of such aspiration. In short, this will be a challenging, even moving, book for scholars in several different fields of the humanities. It could well be used with undergraduates as a model of how to think with theory.