17 Mar

Annabel Wharton, “Relics, Protestants, Things,” (2014)

Annabel J. Wharton calls attention to Protestants’ “own particular materialities” by investigating their possession of Holy Land things in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Wharton argues that Protestants’ “long-felt anxieties about Others’ sacra contaminate their own embrace of a new set of things.”[1] Protestants who travelled to the Holy Land repossessed relics, or sacra, as powerful things. Protestants recognized that these things had agency, whereby they acted, on other things and people, without consciousness. These things’ gave their possessors ideological and financial advantage. Protestants commodified these things. According to Wharton, “Commoditization is a particularly modern, Protestant reaction to powerfully affective things.”[2] The need to collect and sell things from the Holy Land assured Protestants’ control over the disruptive sacra. Wharton argues that “the need to assert authority over the things in which the Holy Land manifested itself—things that acted like sacra—may imply a Protestant ambivalence about potentially powerfully things more generally.”[3] Protestants did not disavow the power of sacra altogether. Rather, they harnessed that power and put it to use in different ways.

Protestant Things and “Thing Theory”

Wharton turns to Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” to understand “obstreperous Protestant things.”[4] Thing theory has been “broadly and productively understood as a demand that attention be turned away from the human subject to the non-human object.”[5] Despite this common understanding, Wharton challenges Brown’s attention to and centralization of things. Wharton recognizes that “Brown’s things are not attended to because of their intrinsic interest but because of their annoyance.”[6]  Wharton also recognizes that Brown’s things are “oddly immaterial.”[7] Brown’s things are examples from literary texts and artworks; things that Brown himself does not consider things. Moreover, Brown’s “thing is controlled by textualizing it with theory.”[8] Thing theory reproduces Protestants’ anxiety about things. Thing theory restrains things like Protestants restrain things. Wharton calls for scholars to recognize the ways that thing theory carries Protestant anxieties. The examination of nineteenth-century Protestant things allows a reassessment of thing theory. It also allows scholars to identify the affective power and agency that Protestants recognized in things, particularly Others’ sacra.

[1] Annabel Jane Wharton, “Relics, Protestants, Things,” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief 10, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 414.

[2] Ibid., 420.

[3] Ibid., 425.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 426.

[8] Ibid.

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