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The Lives of Objects

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

The Lives of Objects

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

Our lives are filled with objects—ones that we carry with us, that define our homes, that serve practical purposes, and that hold sentimental value. When they are broken, lost, left behind, or removed from their context, they can feel alien, take on a different use, or become trash. The lives of objects change when our relationships to them change.

Maia Kotrosits offers a fresh perspective on objects, looking beyond physical material to consider how collective imagination shapes the formation of objects and the experience of reality. Bringing a psychoanalytic approach to the analysis of material culture, she examines objects of attachment—relationships, ideas, and beliefs that live on in the psyche—and illustrates how people across time have anchored value systems to the materiality of life. Engaging with classical studies, history, anthropology, and literary, gender, and queer studies, Kotrosits shows how these disciplines address historical knowledge and how an expanded definition of materiality can help us make connections between antiquity and the contemporary world.


"[T]he 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."

Caroline Bynum | Critical Inquiry

"Kotrosits addresses “the dynamic place of . . . objects, as considered through the history of what has been designated as early Christianity," citing late antique sources in light of numerous modern theorists. . . . Summing Up: Recommended."


"An incisive inquiry into the power of language to conjure up imaginative material worlds whose afterlives are ever dynamic and ongoing."

Material Religion

"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. . . . 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. . . . It will be a popular addition to any library."

Reading Religion

"An interweaving of history with psychoanalysis, Biblical studies with critical race theory, Classics with personal reflection. . . . This book covers a lot of ground, and I have no doubt it will appeal to a diverse readership from across disciplines. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking work that will hit home for many readers."

The Classical Review

“An elegantly written and carefully crafted object all its own, The Lives of Objects refuses a neat divide between the linguistic and the material. Kotrosits offers us textual space for making contacts across time, across a range of theories and fields, amid so many quests for the real and yearnings for home. Reading this book, we can open ourselves to questioning the objects of biblical studies, of teaching, and of our own scholarly fantasies.”

Jacqueline M. Hidalgo, Williams College

“Deeply reflective and compellingly poetic, The Lives of Objects attends to the too-easily ignored physical things that interact with and give shape to the cultural, social, and intellectual histories of early Christianity, inviting a major shift in our thinking toward an object-oriented way of being in community and in the world. Kotrosits’s remarkable combination of theoretical refinement, in-depth historical research, and literary-critical acumen invites creative and critical reflection. This is one of the most exciting works in early Christian studies that I have encountered in many years.”

Timothy Beal, Case Western Reserve University

"The Lives of Objects stages a necessary and important intervention in the fantasy life of not only biblical scholars, but humanists more broadly, and calls for some psychoanalytically inspired self-reflection on our investments with things."

Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"Kotrosits's critique does not demand an abandonment of material culture but a robust reorientation to it. She asks for humility toward the material object and for a more expansive scope in adjudicating what 'the real' is and where to find it."

Sarah F. Porter | Religious Studies Review

"Maia Kotrosits’ The Lives of Objects is a work of resonant prose that has both touched me personally and enriched my understanding of what a work of scholarship can do."

Bible and Critical Theory

Table of Contents


1  Objects Made Real: The Art of Description

2  Citizens of Fallen Cities: Ruins, Diaspora, and the Material Unconscious

3  Histories Unwritten in Stone: The Frustrations of Memorialization 67

4  Tertullian of Carthage and the Materiality of Power (with Carly Daniel-Hughes)

5  The Perils of Translation: Martyrs’ Last Words and the Cultural Materiality of Speech

6  Penetration and Its Discontents: Agency, Touch, and Objects of Desire

Darkening the Discipline: Fantasies of Efficacy and the Art of Redescription

Acknowledgments  Notes  Bibliography  Index

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