Keane, “Rotting Bodies”

Keane, Webb. 2014. Rotting Bodies: The Clash of Stances toward Materiality and Its Ethical Affordances. Current Anthropology DOI:10.1086/678290

Abstract: Any community supposedly identified with a “single” kind of Christianity is likely to contain conflicts and divisions due to the different logics and temporalities associated, respectively, with ecclesiastical institutions, popular practices, and scriptural texts. These conflicts may extend even to basic ontological assumptions. This article looks at clashes concerning popular practices surrounding relics and icons in Eastern Orthodoxy. It asks what are the ethical stakes when people insist on the powers of material things even in the face of withering criticism and contempt from inside and outside their church. That criticism, which can have both theological and atheistic bases, often focuses on the allegedly instrumental reasoning and selfish motives of people who expect to receive divine intervention from objects such as relics and icons. I argue that popular practices that focus on the agency of objects may above all be responding to material properties as ethical affordances. These affordances provide ways of treating the world as ethically saturated. In the Eastern Orthodox context, this may be one way for ordinary villagers to take lofty theological claims about the divine nature of humans in concrete terms.

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