Rotting Bodies: On the Clash of Semiotic Ideologies

Webb Keane's Image
Webb Keane
Date and Time: 
Monday, February 11, 2013 - 3:15pm

Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 51A (Colloquium Room)


After the Russian revolution, Bolshevik committees exhumed scores of saints’ bodies in order to discredit their standing as relics. Thus commenced a long campaign to demonstrate scientific materialism and disprove religion which, in various permutations, would run throughout the Soviet era. The exhumations focused on the materiality of decomposing bodies. Bolsheviks expected that once the ordinary materiality of saintly flesh was exposed, the simple believers would come to their senses and become disillusioned with the Orthodox church, and, by extension, religion altogether. But Russians never settled into a single cohesive stance toward relics and religion. This talk follows the threads of three contending stances toward the materiality of religious things: those of the atheists, the clergy, and the peasantry. Drawing on these debates and more recent ethnographies, the talk challenges some current ways in which the language of “ontology” has been taken up in anthropology and proposes an alternative approach, emphasizing the ethical stakes in conflicts among apparent truth claims.


Webb Keane grew up in New York City and studied at Yale College and the University of Chicago. After several years on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, he joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, where he is now professor, associated with both the Social-Cultural and the Linguistic Anthropology subfields. His other affiliations include the Program in Anthropology and History and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. His first book, Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society (California 1997) is based on 2 years of fieldwork on the island of Sumba in Indonesia. He is also the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (California 2007), which concerns the impact of Protestantism from colonial mission to postcolonial church, and a co-editor of The Handbook of Material Culture (Sage 2006). His articles and occasional contributions to blogs such as The Immanent Frame cover a range of topics in social and cultural theory and the philosophical foundations of social thought and the human sciences. At present he is involved in two major projects. The first is a book about morality, ethics, and virtue as special, even constitutive, problems for social science. The second centers on religious piety, language, and media in Indonesia.

Professor Keane has received fellowships from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, CA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He has been a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, Cambridge University, and National Taitung University (Taiwan), and has taught at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University. He has been a Senior Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows, and has delivered the Edward Westermarck Memorial Lecture in Helsinki, the D. R. Sharpe Keynote Lecture on Social Ethics at the University of Chicago, and the Annette B. Weiner Memorial Lecture at New York University.

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