As I write this short essay, Russia has invaded Ukraine – it is hard to predict the shape this thing will take and the bodies it will ultimately impact. Stakeholders and accidental allies from government officials to average Joes are profusely deploying tried-and-somewhat-true ideological apparatuses (like “diplomacy,” “democracy,” and “de-escalation”) to varying effect. These concepts are accompanied by press releases of politicians and priests at podiums, troops, and tanks, all images relayed via satellites alongside talking heads seen and heard through tactile devices…shapes and bodies…things. Indeed, this essay is another thing!
Interest in the concept “thing” has surged in religious studies and related disciplines in the past few decades. Just last year, David Morgan’s The Thing about Religion, Anthony B. Pinn’s Interplay of Things, and Byung-Chul Han’s No-Cosas (Non-Things) were published. Thing has been enriched well beyond its colloquial usage, imbued with complex theoretical purchase. Now more than ever, to be a thing is to be near, fungible, lasting, impactful; in the realm of the religious, to thing is to empower: enunciate, enthrall, and entangle understandings and meanings within and beyond the plural social networks humans have come to call religion.
Thing was studied long before this recent scholarly interest. Classical and early modern thinkers examined res. Christian polemics disputed the relationship between the material and the spiritual via the thingly difference between idols and icons from the patristic era to late medieval reformations (polemics that continue to this day). Commodities stand at the core of Marxist thought on political economy, a derivation of the fetish begotten by Early Modern colonialism. Fast forward to the twentieth century, and European philosophers and cultural theorists consider thing and thingness central to their thought (indeed, of thought in general, see Martin Heidegger’s “The Thing” and Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things). As evidenced by the three authors above, writers within the humanities and liberal arts are still theorizing thing at the start of the 21st century, including scholars of religion pursuing other thingly modalities such as objects, art, literature, music, practice, and other material culture. In Christian theology specifically, thing is theorized using familiar concepts such as sacrament, body, consumer/popular culture, artworks, space/place, and architecture.
The word thing has a rich and complex etymology. From Old Germanic, the word means “assembly, meeting, gathering.” The Spanish word for thing, cosa, from the Latin causa, is close to the English “case” in its legal sense, that is, to gather evidence and argue. One could say every case has thingness: thingly matter is what makes it a case. Indeed, since this gatheringness is difficult to ascertain or grasp, the gathering-thing is almost immediately materialized: the judicial case becomes the ritual, the paperwork, and the judge’s ruling. Yet it is also an immaterial “coming-together” of knowledges, beings, and actions. In other words, specificity dilutes this original meaning of thing – thing turns into object, practice, commodity, fetish, good, art/artifact, body, material culture, stuff – while also managing to retain some of its ambiguity. Thing remains that ineffable entity that is both all and nothing at all, “in-the-world” but outside of time. Perhaps reflection on “commodity” and “body” can help elucidate some of this dual specificity and ambiguity.
When writing about the thingly modality “commodity,” Arjun Appadurai arguably assumes that to be thingly is to be political (3). He compellingly argues that commodities have social lives, meaning that one can track sociality through things themselves and not only through their exchanges or the humans that exchange them (5). Said otherwise, the commodity is social by itself. But what supports this thingly sociality? For one: purpose. To thing is to gather together with a purpose. When one examines closely the intellectual and cultural history of thing and all its modalities, purpose becomes prominent, for what is a work of art without purpose? Or a perishable good? Indeed, an idea?
“Body” is another modality of thing and one whose plural materialities engender purposeful gathering. Social entities to the core, bodies reveal another important support of a thing’s sociality: shape. To thing is to gather together in some shape. The term “body politic,” for instance, refers both to the gathering of a specific group of people under a common principle and to the form it takes, that is, its shape. Hence, the purpose and the shape of the body-thing could be useful to further elucidate the importance of thing as keyword in religio-political discourse. I will explore body in the works cited above by Morgan, Pinn, and Han in an attempt to better grasp thing and thingness within the religious and the political.
Things in Political Theology
Morgan writes: “The body works in numerous categories as a plastic substance that takes the shape imposed on it and then hosts an agency that shapes the mind, feelings, and behavior, influencing both itself and others…Bodies are complex things” (78). In other words, the body performs its thingness through shaping and being shaped – in a word, through plasticity. This “shapely” ability to change form without affecting purpose (and function and identity) is clearly evident in the history of both religious and political ideas – one could think of the foundational religio-political concepts like “sovereignty” and “hierarchy” and how they have shaped (and keep re-shaping) both religion and politics. Stated otherwise, plastic shapingness evidences the ongoing agency of the religious and the political and their intersections.
Pinn examines “naming-things” (i.e., bodies) and their “interplay” (i.e., their interaction with other bodies and between bodies and other non-human things) “to give some attention to the manner in which bodied naming-things (i.e., humans) create and/or shape other things as well as how bodied naming-things are shaped and altered” (12). One manner in which this creating, shaping, and altering happens is through religion and art, both of which involve “openness between things” – an openness through which the social emerges as an “awareness” of how shaping happens via interplay (Pinn 14, 15). Said otherwise, Pinn examines sociopolitical differentials and their consequences by making us aware of the dynamic shaping power between and among bodies, religion, and art. Therefore, an awareness of this certainly purposeful intra/inter-shaping of things (both human and non-human) also helps in parsing the religious and the political, independently and together, in particular sociocultural situations.
In contrast to Morgan and Pinn, Han focuses on one part of the body: the hand. He writes: “The hand is a central feature of the Heideggerian analysis of Dasein. Dasein (the ontological term for the human) accesses the surrounding world through the hands” (Han 15, my translation). In other words, the hands engage and, by extension, shape the world for Dasein. Using Han’s word, the hand “stands-in-front,” between the self and everything not-self (Han 110). This ‘stand-in-frontness’ is one way to differentiate dinge from undinge (Han 79). Some things, many times those that truly matter, have become undinge (lit., ‘non-things’) and, at the same time, become even more powerful because of their furtive yet purposeful unthingness. For Han, selfies, smartphones, and information are non-things: they have neither longevity nor empathy and appear and disappear almost simultaneously. However, these non-things have a powerful hold on humans and have transformed our relationship with things. For instance, instead of valuing thingly stuff, humans now value non-thingly experiences; instead of valuing thingly books, humans now value non-thingly Google through the thingly screen – indeed, the finger has replaced the hand! In the pursuit of freedom from materialism in its crassest sense, humans have created an invidious and insidious immaterialism. Han’s political critique is stronger than Morgan’s and Pinn’s: non-things have diminished human freedom under the guise of augmenting it. The finger can touch yet the hand can also retain, signal, and, therefore, shape better. The hand makes the world (including the religio-political) a part of us; the finger just left-swipes it away.
Challenges of ‘thing’ when engaging religion
One specific yet ambiguous issue that emerges from the previous discussion, one that directly links things, religion, and politics, is control. Simply stated, control is a primary purpose of the thingly – things are not only used by humans but also use humans. Bodies are things, and the body is “a political medium of exercising and sustaining power” within and beyond religion (Morgan 83). Control, then, is one of those things that purposefully shapes bodies, be them human, religious, or political. Indeed, the disciplinary(!) boundary between religion and politics is rife with control-things; punishment, obedience, ritual, conversion, and orthopraxis all fall within this plastic, open, and restraining boundary. Here, and as evidenced in the latest Russia-Ukraine war, thing works against precision.
A thingly hermeneutical lens also recognizes the implications of context in the purposeful shape of things. To be a thing is to shape and be shaped with a lasting purpose, for instance, via agency, presence, and/or transcendence; a non-thing has an ephemeral purpose, if any. But things can rarely be categorized as polar opposites. For instance, the political thing emerges between democracy and autocracy; the religious thing exhibits characteristics of both orthodoxy and heresy. And the difference is a matter of life and death. The nature of any thing oscillates between thingness and not-thingness, and context determines its location within that spectrum. The challenge then becomes adjudicating truth-value for the thing in such a fluid space. For example, when one’s saint/freedom fighter is another’s sinner/terrorist, we might ask if these polarities are even helpful. Stakeholders on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia conflict display a similar struggle.
Another challenge that the thingly presents for the interplay of religion and politics is the ‘non-thingification’, in Han’s sense, of that which is considered sacred. There are untouchable things in both: for one, the Eucharist in Christianity. The Communion is the manifestation of God amongst creation – unchanging, always one of the best of things. It is as accessible as it is ineffable. But this thingness remains entangled in polemics of divine presence that separate the thing itself from the world, polemics both religious and political that threaten to increase the Eucharist’s non-thingness. Theological work has recently been done to resist this challenge; for some thinkers, the materiality of things is helpful in keeping God near and impactful in human life without erasing divine mystery. In light of such ambiguity, bravery is required: untouchable things in religion (e.g., God) and in politics (i.e., the U.S. Constitution) are Things among things, but they are still things because they gather and shape in/for other things and for the world they inhabit. The moment they lose that power, they become non-things, idols in the worst sense. Similarly, today the overwhelming majority of the world’s population is thingifying shalom while non-thingifying war. At the moment, Ukraine and Ukrainians are exemplifying the best of any resistance-thing.
The end, however, remains thingly.
Bill Brown, ed. Things (University of Chicago, 2004)
This book is an attempt at synthesizing thing theory interdisciplinarily and objectually. Said otherwise, this edited volume thinks things-by-themselves through objects in conversation with subjects and their scholarly disciplines. In essence, it pursues what differentiates thing from object and what it means to be a subject in their relationship.
__________. Other Things (University of Chicago Press, 2015)
Building upon the theoretical work in his edited volume Things, Brown continues his pursuit of the elision between thingness and objecthood through an interdisciplinary conversation around specific object-things. However, the goal remains the same: to explore what it means to be human, social, material – things all.
Lorraine Daston, ed. Things that Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science (Zone Books 2004)
Daston and others explore things’ “loquaciousness”, how humans talk about and because of them and how things talk back – the nature of thing standing somewhere between subject and object. Or perhaps beyond such categorization, being both “material and meaningful”. Indeed, the perfection of thing might be “speechlessness”.
Roberto Esposito. Persons and Things: From the Body’s Point of View (Polity Press 2015)
Through a conceptual and historical analysis of person and thing and the exigencies one places on the other, the author proposes body as corrective. For instance, the toxicity of body as a site of dominance can demand a conversion of the person-thing toward mutuality and dignity for both. Useful for political, philosophical, and material analyses.
Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell, eds. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically
At the intersection between anthropological theory and method, this edited volume assumes things not only carry meaning but also are meaning. The authors deal with the issues of context, reflexivity, local epistemologies and methodologies, inductive reasoning, and other more artefact-oriented concerns.
Dick Houtman and Birgit Meyer, eds. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality (Fordham University Press, 2012)
This collection of essays problematizes Euromodern dichotomies between material and spiritual, ‘inward’ and ‘outward’, indeed even religious and non-religious, by paying close analytical attention to objects and practices as media and spaces of theoretical and methodological value in varied cultural contexts.
Gordon Lathrop. Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Fortress Press, 1998)
Lathrop presents the symbols and order of liturgy as primary in the formation and transmission of meaning (in contrast to doctrine, for example), an important revaluation of the material (thingly) within the Church.
Bjornar Olsen. In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects (Altamira Press 2010)
Part of the recent ‘turn toward things’ in archaeological theory, Olsen’s monograph critiques the strong subordination of things to society or culture, as if things were absolutely socially constructed and never ‘things-in-themselves’. For Olsen, things are not an effect but a constitutive part of human sociality.