First, I should admit that I was a little worried when I learned that this book panel would happen through the Construction of Christian Identities program unit, given that book is devoted to ways of making that very mode of analysis nearly defunct for the first two or three centuries, as Shayna has pointed out. But it’s also gratifying to hear that what was once a risky proposition -- that the texts I discuss are not Christian texts but rather diasporic archives – a proposition that I’ve received some pushback on in various ways over the last four years, feels viable or even obvious now.
This proposition, it turns out, seems to present a disciplinary crisis of sorts. “What do we study then if it’s not ‘early Christian literature’?” I’ve been asked. This question has been of more and deeper interest to me as of late, in that it suggests the way disciplines create and instantiate objects of attachment, and then provide a framework for elaborations of those objects. Ancient Christians (and so much of what comes with them) are disciplinary objects of attachment, even if the form that attachment takes is some moderate deconstruction. I’ll return to that.
I’d like to begin instead with nation and belonging. More particularly, I’d like to begin with the terrible belongings and the different disenfranchisements that constitute the U.S at current. That is, as Eric so beautifully puts it, the moon, silent and full, over so much of the contemporary intellectual landscape, if not often the landscape itself. This set of terrible belongings and disenfranchisements is what is moving the tides of so much intellectual culture right now, one way or another. Indeed it seems that the poignancy of some of the phrases and notions in this book has to do, at least partially, with some similar circulating sentiments around the U.S. The United States, it would seem (and to return to the phrase that so resonated here), is in shards at our feet.
So many people, including myself, register a chafing against this nation and its presumption about whose nation it is. The United States as it stands measures, and really has always measured, authenticity through the rubric of a particularly masculinized ethnoracial subject, one whose anger forms the very stage of US politics of the moment. The rage of a gunman, the rage of a judge, the rage of a president: their bodies coursing with rage at their imagined deprivations – the nation, the one they also believe to be losing, ever more palpably forming around, and as, their bodies. Around Eric’s body, he notices, even as he refuses it.
How do we make sense of ourselves now? How is it then, in this particular experience of the US broken or lost, that it is also so fully and operationally congealed? What is the relationship to this sense of loss, this sense of a nation so completely and irreparably fractured, to its arrogant hyper-articulation? As Donovan puts it, how do nations become “hard” if they live or even begin so seemingly diaphanously under the skin? If belonging and feeling are so frighteningly contingent?
To answer that first: It’s true that Deleuzian affect is utopian in its foundational changeability. Indeed, “affect” in cultural studies, really has been a placeholder for variability and evanescence, which, rather than being emotion, sometimes includes emotion. As Donovan notes in his citing of Callard and Papoulias, there has been a lot of cherrypicking from brain-mind science in cultural theory, in ways that don’t do justice to the breadth and depth of that scientific field. I have to say that actually this doesn’t bother me all that much. Cultural theory has long used concepts from the ‘hard sciences’ to theorize out of. That is, affect theory in cultural studies is not about a technical discourse. It is a phenomenology of felt experience, in which the use of the hard sciences came less out of an interest in science itself than out of an exhaustion with the so-called “soft stuff” of the linguistic turn. Cultural theorists, tired of words, wanted to touch or feel something real, something concrete and present – the opposite of the Derridean endless deferral -- all the while keeping the instability of poststructuralism intact. It is ironic to draw from science as a kind of biological bedrock, while being lopsided about how one draws from it. But I don’t know if that’s what cultural theory was (or are) doing. Cultural theories of affect were putting these concepts in conversation with interpersonal experiences and epistemological questions.
So in the book I do place the weight on affect as something that unsettles, but less because of any assumed ontology relative to affect than because it seemed to me that early Christian studies was at an impasse: the field wanted to think about the complexity of belonging, and the complexity of what we imagine is “Christian” social life. But the field also kept stubbornly holding on to notions that were undercutting those efforts, including the category of Christian, and to me so many of these notions were/are not historically viable. It’s the unsettling dimensions of affect that I leverage, because the messiness and specificity of felt experience – diasporic or otherwise – will always, I think, refuse easy categorization. We can deconstruct categories, but deconstruction is so much of the time only a different form of attachment to the same old thing. I wanted a new, constructive way to read that permitted contact with people and experiences through texts (since texts are so much of what we’ve got) and to touch what’s on the other sides of texts, so to speak. Discursive criticism, which funded “Christian identity” as an optic, repeatedly set a taboo on that referential “other side,” even while it was implicitly making its own referential assumptions about what was “behind” the text.
That is both to affirm Donovan’s question and to reframe it just a bit: How do we talk about the evanescent and the intractable, the concrete and the ephemeral as two sides of the same coin? In order to play this out further, I’ll draw from Teresa’s description of Acts, Eric’s material illustrations, and Shayna’s interest in temporal geographies. Acts, material culture, and geography give us instances in which the ephemeral and the concrete are not just two sides of the same coin, but perhaps more of a Moebius strip.
I want to ruminate on Teresa’s elegant description of Acts as an “attempt to preserve a viewpoint that is dying away,” or as “a site of memory, being written in the guise of history in a conscious effort to reproduce what is at risk of being lost….” Teresa is of course right to ask me to rethink Acts not as the second organic half of Luke-Acts, but as its own, potentially mid-second century, production. Indeed, thinking of Acts in the mid second century, I would say that while Acts an archive of imperial and diasporic romances and disappointments, it is also part of an intensified culture-wide investment in fantasizing about Roman juridical scenes, a fascination that develops largely because of the ad hoc inconsistency of Roman law, and the opacity of Roman juridical procedures. Acts belongs to a cluster of literature that reflects this preoccupation with juridical scenes (and, as Teresa aptly notes, with casual violence). Saundra Schwartz’ work on the Greek novels, for instance, gives an account of the many stock confrontations with authorities and the law in the novel. These stock scenes had a realism about them, a verisimilitude, so that they could stage fears, desires, contradictions, and idealizations around Roman power. Christian martyrdom literature, as Judith Perkins’ has observed, also shows this interest in juridical scenes. Likeiwse Ari Bryen has shown how the Acta Alexandrinorum, -narratives that recount scenes of arrest, trial, and noble deaths of Alexandrian citizens who confront Roman emperors—reflect the concerns of provincial subjects with a legal system that operated most arbitrarily. What’s interesting about these preoccupations not just with juridical scenes but with Roman authorities is that most provincial subjects never came into contact with Roman officials -- except, of course, through their images and other forms of proxy (military forces, for example, who were often not even “Roman” technically, but Romanized locals), and through these ramshackle bureaucratic procedures. This left a lot of room for speculation about how Roman authority really looked and about what Roman power could do or offer.
That is to say that I’m not sure Acts is being written in the guise of a history at all. The text is certainly haunted by the failures of Judean belonging to materialize, at least along any idealized lines, and the story line obviously suggests some kind of attachment to Paul. But the text also circles back repeatedly to the arbitrariness, aesthetic composition, and opacity of Roman juridical procedures, as well as the somewhat mysterious claims made by Romans about Roman power. Thus the author places Paul in relationship to diasporic mess, and in relationship to the opacity of Roman law, justice, and power. In other words, I think any verisimilitude in Acts is really a vehicle for working out the anxieties and desires produced by Roman power and justice.
And yet, in a way, although Acts isn’t trying to write a history, it does offer us history. Ironically perhaps, it gives us a very concrete picture of the psycho-social experiences of some people in antiquity. It doesn’t tell us anything about Christians as such as a supposed phenomenon or social group. It doesn’t even tell us much about how Roman power truly operated in a functional sense. It only tells us how Roman power lived on in the imaginations of (some of) its subjects. That is to say that the most palpable, real thing Acts provides is access to a set of feelings. I should underscore here the social dimension of these feelings (in order to address Teresa’s concern): reading texts as archives of feeling always means reading them as a temperature-takers of a time, or as symptoms of social forces. The individuality of felt experiences, as I hope is clear in the book, is constantly being diffused into the larger frame.
Of course, Acts has become the historical narrative of Christianity par excellence. It eventually fortifies a sense of “Christian identity,” pointing to the ironies of the way something as seemingly ephemeral as feelings might concretize and gel. This brings me to another way to keep the evanescent and unsettled in tension with that which is or becomes resolved or entrenched. Eric’s illustration of the ways images and objects change with context and constituencies over time is a reminder that the “concrete” is always both more and less than what it purports to be. Likewise land as territory – as Shayna has pointed out – has occupied a central place in the ancient imaginary, even and especially as it is lost and gets projected into a different realm, be it temporal or spatial. This is possible because geography and the markers, monuments, and borders that characterize it, is always the concretization of collective sentiments (among other things). Borders and boundaries, even when they remain relatively stable, take on myriad felt experiences and relationships. (If academic study of the Bible tells us anything, in fact, it tells us about the elaborate and highly variable feelings that can coalesce around single thing, even as that thing takes on an uncanny stability about it.)
On the other hand, the “hardening” of feelings, or the ability of feelings to seem to encode themselves firmly in our systems, is a bit undone by the fact that the context for those those felt experiences, and the ways those felt experiences are narrated, are constantly changing. Take, for instance, the anger I referenced earlier. Anger might remain, but the source of one’s anger is often a moving target. What are we angry about, exactly? Do we always know? Even as culture shapes and produces ready targets for our feelings, “sticky objects,” as Sara Ahmed has described them (The Cultural Politics of Emotion), there are a multitude of microfactors behind the scenes. Again, time and context mean that those feelings, even if they register the same way physiologically, even if their response is wired on some level, are not the same in their valence and implication over time.
As Joan Scott has argued in The Fantasy of Feminist History, identity is nothing if not an imagination of continuity: continuity between ourselves and others, between past and present, between the various versions of ourselves. It is evidence of the way the ephemeral becomes, under our noses, the bridge between disparate things, a bridge that appears then as landscape.
For as much critical heat as I gave “identity” as an analytic, I still underestimated the stakes of our identifications between past and present, which are the ways our felt connections often materialize. Even as I hear the words “the nation in shards” I recognize my own sense of American national brokenness reverberating, echoed in the way those words are evoked here by others. There, too, Donovan is right about drawing our attention to stabilization. This felt sense of national brokenness risks eerily stabilizing the association of a modern geo-political power with a tiny, colonized population in antiquity, and the exceptionalism therein. The contemporary politics of Israel/Palestine do the same, though through only slightly different operations. Israel’s brokenness itself is a node of attachment, a point of affiliation, enacted transhistorically, no less than Christian identity.
So on the one hand I feel an emphatic “yes” to Shayna’s question about whether this analysis can and should scale out beyond those texts I’ve discussed in the book. It was always my hope and design that we test this analytic framework to see just how far it will take us. But I think we can only do this if we take just as seriously the central analytical conundrums that I pose: if historical work is inevitably crafted out of the felt connections and subtexts of a given moment, how do we keep ourselves attentive to the sly, subliminal identifications that perpetually come with it? Can we maintain that attentiveness while preserving a legitimate desire to be in touch with the real experiences of historical others? These questions might even be a cautionary tale for attaching too strongly to the specific historical picture I offered. After all, their moon is not our moon. And anyway, who is this “we” of which I speak? And whose moon is the one hanging over us all now?
Maia Kotrosits is assistant professor of religion at Denison University.
 This analysis of Acts is a reflection and expansion of research I’ve recently done with Carly Daniel-Hughes on Tertullian of Carthage (“Terullian of Carthage and the Fantasy Life of Power: On Martyrs, Christians, and Other Attachments to Juridical Scenes”) forthcoming in the Journal of Early Christian Studies 28.1 (Spring 2020).
 See for instance Saundra Schwartz, “Chronotypes of Justice in the Greek Novel: Trials in Narrative Spaces,” in Spaces of Justice in the Roman World, ed. Francesco de Angelis (Leiden: Brill, 2010).
 See for instance Judith Perkins, Roman Imperial Identities in the Early Christian Era (New York: Routledge, 2008), chapter 4.
 Ari Bryen, “Martyrdom, Rhetoric, and the Politics of Procedure,” Classical Antiquity 33.2 (2014)