Abject Bodies and Psychic Enclosures: Constitution of the Biopolitical Subject in the European Witch Craze


(Given at the Goldsmiths Knowledge Exchange series, April 6th, 2017)


In the eleventh lecture of Society Must Be Defended, Michel Foucault described the emergence of a system by which the State can exert control over its subjects, without relying upon the constant threat of death. This system he called biopower. Instead of the earlier sovereign power, it is a “rational” mechanism that interweaves itself in the nuanced fabric of daily life, “with institutions to coordinate medical care, centralise power, and normalise knowledge.”[i] In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici details the brutal function the witch-craze played in the transition to capitalism. Of particular interest to her is the role this reign of terror played in deconstructing the female body as a site of production, in favour of maintaining its status as an externally-governed site of reproduction.[ii] Federici considers Foucault’s theory of biopower as a proposed alternative to the theory of primitive accumulation but challenges it, accusing him of shrouding its emergence in a “mystery” that would all but too easily have been solved had he accounted for the witch-craze in his analysis of this discursive shift in the regimes of power.[iii] Certainly, no matter how insidious we may find any means of state control, one would be hard-pressed not to consider Foucault’s account a rose-tinted if not blinkered perspective on the evolution of power, to describe a period of mass gynocide a move away from “the right of the sword.”[iv]

What Federici and Foucault may both be seen to agree upon is that, during the 16th and 17th century, there began a series of policies and events that marked a significant change in the relation of power between governance, subjects, and their bodies. That both theorists not only analyse this era, but do so out of a desire to move beyond Marx’s singular attention to the subject’s body as nought but a site of labour and alienation, and on towards conceptualising the ideological construction and constitution of that body, and its relation to the subject’s experience of such power-knowledge, suggests their work – though contradictory at times – may be put into a discursive exchange to establish a singular analytical framework. Such a framework should be able to chart the witch-hunts of the era as a process of bloody transition not only from the Feudal system to Capitalism via primitive accumulation, but also from singular sovereign power to a state of biopolitics. It is my desire, in this essay, to establish just such an exchange. In addition, I am in a certain agreement with Robin Briggs’ assertion that justifications for the witch-craze cannot simply be left at the door of a fully conscious external patriarchal force, but that investigation leads to “a range of intellectual and symbolic devices” at the helm.[v] Rather, we must understand the implementation of a violently misogynistic religiosity as another symptom of the root cause of the nature of power. Thus, I shall venture to risk a third dimension to this work, one that is routinely engaged in investigating symptoms for the nature of causes: a psychoanalytical perspective on the witch-hunt, as it related to early Capitalism. For, as we may with ease recognise that primitive accumulation was dependent on the establishment of physical borders through privatisation and enclosures – and by definition the expulsion of people from those borders – just so, analysis of the witch-hunts may recognise the establishment of psychic equivalents of these borders and, accordingly, psychic equivalents of expulsion from them. As such, what begins as an investigation of the relation between mass gynocide and primitive accumulation, shall result in what is effectively a Lacanian / Kristevan psychoanalysis of the biopolitical State.

What we are dealing with in this new technology of power is not exactly society (or at least not the social body, as defined by the jurists), nor is it the individual-as-body. It is a new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot necessarily be counted. Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem. And I think that biopolitics emerges at this time.[vi]

Although we must acknowledge Foucault’s deep-rooted suspicion of psychoanalysis, this essay is not engaging in a strictly Foucauldian framework. As such, Foucault’s above description of population as an infinitely-headed body – conjuring images of the monstrous beasts not only of Greek mythic origin but, interestingly enough considering this topic, Biblical renown – invites a certain comparison to the Lacanian Gestalt of the imago as introduced to the individual at the mirror stage, constituting the fragmented self into an idealised sense of I.[vii] Crucially, this not only constitutes a sense of I as separate from other beings, but that this process’ end is the catalysation of the existence of the subject as a social being and a member of a species, whose parameters of self / other allow for a set of relations to be established between them. Such a set of a relations whose genesis, by many psychoanalytical standards, lie in the Oedipal complex, must then be understood as a discourse of prohibition and power.[viii] Naturally, varied discourses of social prohibition result in different sets of relations, which would then effect the constitution of the subject’s sense of self. Thomas Robisheaux, detailing the investigation and eventual execution of Anna Schmieg, elucidates on this phenomenon:

In the villages of southwestern Germany [in the 17th century], people did not have an internalized sense of self as we would understand it. They saw an individual through a matrix of relationships established externally by lordship, public authorities, the family and community. No identity was fixed and immutable. Over time gossip could remake a person’s reputation. This may be the reason why, as time went on, Anna Schmieg would at times seem uncertain about herself and her activities.[ix]

Thus, as the era of the witch-craze may be understood as the transition from sovereignty to biopower and, as such, the transition from a sea of bodies with subjective, individual experiences to a “population” – a mass, governable through technologies of power no longer limited to discipline, we see a clear parallel emerging between the conglomeration of the social body into a singular hive-mind and the constitution of the fragmented body into the imago, whose fictive idealism necessarily generates in the human subject a condition of neurosis; even, in some cases, psychosis.[x] The parallels of the constitution of the subject and the constitution of the biopolitical State imply that, rather than conceiving of “The People” as the Lacanian “big Other,” we may in fact propose identifying this construct as a Lacanian “big Self.”

Accordingly, this population-society engages in neurotic, psychotic processes to reconstitute and reaffirm the unifying Gestalt: Julia Kristeva’s detailed phenomenon of abjection. Kristeva defines the abject as that which threatens meaning typically established through dyadic differentiation – self / other, subject / object, nature / culture, etc – by the Symbolic. Such materials and concepts draw attention to the permeability of established borders (consider her first example, the skin that forms on the surface of milk).[xi] Thus, to assure the continued integrity of the I, this material must be jettisoned from consciousness. However, rather than to non-existence, it can only be jettisoned as far as the unconscious, where it lurks, consistently rising to the surface to challenge the I once again.[xii] Thus the process repeats, not merely ideologically but physically too – responses to abjection such as gagging, vomiting and lacrimation very much reveal the extent to which the self is implicated in abjection – there is indeed a violent, almost self-birthing process, involved in the reconstitution of the I.[xiii] Just as bile and other fluids within the body are considered expendable loss in the face of abject horror, so too does the State consider members of the population expelled and walled off for the sake of maintaining a constituent imago.

We see a similar pattern emerge in the 16th century introduction to capitalism, as achieved in part through the system of land privatisation and peasant expulsion known as Enclosure: “the abolition of the open-field system… [and] the fencing off of the commons and the pulling down of the shacks of poor cottagers who had no land but could survive because they had access to customary rights.”[xiv] By removing workers’ access to what had previously been a subsistent sharing economy of “primitive communism,” the Lords and rich farmers introduced a system of wage slavery.[xv] Reframing of spatial dynamics through the introduction of fences, hedges and other borderlines was a direct catalysation for the accumulation of capital and the alteration of both social relations and identity construction. Ideological justification of course established the psychic counterparts to the separation of workers from their homelands, means of production and means of revolt – not least of all doubling the work-year via “religious reform.”[xvi] Through the amplification of puritanical austerity, all forms of festivity, socialisation and collectivisation were abandoned:

As a result, the physical enclosure operated by land privatisation and the hedging of the commons was amplified by a process of social enclosure, the reproduction of workers shifting from the open field to the home, from the community to the family, from the public space (the common, the church) to the private.[xvii]

It goes without saying that such reframing of spatial dynamics was inherently violent. Naturally, the violence was meted out against those who defied and penetrated borderlines, be they physical or psychical. Those who represented the abject permeability of borderlines most of all were almost invariably women, and the Symbolic rendering of such positions as abject was, of course, the accusation of witchcraft. Such accusations relied heavily on the dynamics of towns and villages. Earlier days pre-Enclosure held multiple opportunities for social congregation other than church attendance, allowing for leisure activities and bonds of friendship that extended far beyond the necessities of capital or in the context of sermons on the concept of sin and repentance. These and other forms of ungoverned fraternisation (almost entirely the epicentre of female-dominated interaction) that were previously either encouraged or at the very least tolerated as necessary phenomena of human social relations were now considered heinous, and prevented or punished with extreme prejudice:

There is, in fact, an unmistakable continuity between the practices targeted by the witch-hunt and those banned by the new legislation that in the same years was introduced to regulate family life, gender and property relations. Across western Europe, as the witch-hunt was progressing, laws were passed that punished the adulteress with death…At the same time prostitution was outlawed and so was birth out of wedlock, while infanticide was made a capital crime. Simultaneously, female friendships became an object of suspicion, denounced from the pulpit as subversive of the alliance between husband and wife, just as women-to-women relations were demonised by the prosecutors of the witches who forced them to denounce each other as accomplices in crime. It was also in this period that the word “gossip,” which in the Middle Ages had meant “friend,” changed its meaning, acquiring a derogatory connotation, a further sign of the degree to which the powers of women and communal ties were undermined.[xviii]

The effects of this were two-fold: by relegating subjects to intensified degrees of confinement in their daily life a matter of course, people’s only interactions with their neighbour being one of business (encouraging duplicity and resentment), or one of church (where people’s moral character was instantly assessed by the regularity of their attendance) resulted in a somewhat panoptic relationship between subjects and both the State and each other. People’s insight into the lives of other was now removed from the sphere of communality and into the region of witness and rumour. Briggs remarks on the perilous territory of witch-accusation slander:

Failure to respond to such provocation was routinely cited in court as evidence for the suspect’s guilt when the trial finally began, in fact it was far from easy for those concerned to know how to react. The best outcome was a formal sentence from a local court awarding damages, but such proceedings could go badly wrong if the other party decided to fight; in such circumstances they could turn into a trial for witchcraft.[xix]

So, on the first hand, the restructuring of spatial relations between subjects seemingly inverted the personal relations: in place of commons and community, there were fences and neighbours; in place of collectivisation and even regular conversation, there was dispute and eavesdropping, which routinely led to accusations of witchcraft. On the other hand, female-specific pursuits were labelled as abject indicators of witchcraft on the basis of their quite literal transgression (from the Latin transgredi “to step across”) of established physical, psychical and social boundaries. The banishment of sexuality to place of the marriage bed and the purpose of only procreation rendered both sexually active aged women and sex workers as one and the same as witches (“a prostitute when young, a witch when old”)[xx]  and would elicit stories of non-ejaculatory demon copulation to further castigate non-procreative coitus.[xxi]

Discussing the demonization of feminine sexuality during the European witchhunts, Federici counters angrily Foucault’s “ungendered” – and therefore inherently male – framework of analysis of the 16th and 17th century’s attitude towards sex and the confession:

The “discursive explosion” on sex, that Foucault detected in this time, was in no place more powerfully exhibited than in the torture chambers of the witch-hunt. But it had nothing in common with the mutual titillation that Foucault imagines flowing between the woman and her confessor…The questions were asked between applications of the strappado, to women driven mad by pain, and by no stretch of imagination can we presume that the orgy of words the women thus tortured were forced to utter incited their pleasure or re-oriented, by linguistic sublimation, their desire. In the case of the witch-hunt – which Foucault surprisingly ignores in his History of Sexuality (Vol. 1, 1978) – the “interminable discourse on sex” was not deployed as an alternative to, but in the service of repression, censorship, denial. Certainly we can say that the language of the witch-hunt “produced” the Woman as a different species, a being suis generis, more carnal and perverted by nature. We can also say that the production of the “female pervert” was a step in the transformation of the female vis erotica into vis lavorativa…But we should appreciate the destructive character of this process, which also demonstrates the limits of a general “history of sexuality” of the type Foucault has proposed, which treats sexuality from the perspective of an undifferentiated, gender-neutral subject, and as an activity presumably carrying the same consequences for men and women.[xxii]

Thus, Federici holds, while one might very well suggest that there was in this period a sharp increase in discussion about sexual activity and even desire, it was for no purpose other than the de-legitimisation of feminine sexuality and autonomy. Indeed, amongst various bizarre reflections on demons’ tongues and ejaculations or lack thereof, the Malleus Maleficarum notes reported male sightings of women having intercourse with “invisible incubi,” whose descriptions to the modern reader sound almost identical to that of female masturbation.[xxiii] Considering both the routinely sexualised narratives of accusation, in addition to the extreme sexual violence to which so many of the accused were afflicted – as Anne L. Barstow says amidst a wealth of graphic detailing of such events, “the policy of forcing a witch’s confession may have been a cover for making a socially approved assault on her body”[xxiv] driving the women to veritable distraction – we may consider the resultant disclosures not confession but introjection; not fantasy but phantasy. Just as the enclosures of land separated the male workers from their means of production, we recognise enclosures of body seeking to separate sex workers from their means of production. By violently revealing sexual fantasy/phantasy and demonising even masturbation, using such accounts as indictment against the accused, the State sought to establish a separation between mind and body themselves. Contesting Foucault’s impression of biopower again, Federici attributes its emergence in particular to the State’s tactics to promote population growth by removing female control over their own bodies as sites of labour-power reproduction, via the persecution of accused witches.[xxv] Although the evidence of the vast increase in number of executions of women for infanticide and indeed any form of birth control in 16th-17th century Europe would support Federici’s theory, Barstow indicates the lack of concern for foetuses and children shown by the State as its negation. Accused witch Alison Legrand miscarried her foetus due to the “ducking” interrogation, whilst toddlers and small children were jailed and even executed as witches themselves.[xxvi] Indeed, it seems there were a great many instances of women being tried as witches for practices that included increasing fertility.[xxvii] Clearly, the State held an ambivalent position with regard to childbirth such that, again, I must question the conscious deliberacy of its actions, unless we consider the analytically unhelpful possibility of pure, undiluted misogyny. Thus, we return to Kristeva.

At multiple points in Powers of Horror, Kristeva refers to childbirth as the “ultimate of abjection” and “flayed identity” as the moment of greatest permeability of the human body and thus the human subject: “between inside and outside, ego and other, life and death.”[xxviii] As with all scenes of abjection, its power of horror lies in its defiance of the psychic barrier’s system of differentiation and thus its quantum existence in “the place where meaning collapses.”[xxix] Women, both as the sites of such destructions of Symbolic meaning, and as the 16th century physicians, gynaecologists, midwives and other unrecognised, shadow economy professionals who dealt in this occult (from Latin occulere “to conceal”) practice, threatened the bodily and psychic enclosures that contributed to the constitution of the biopolitical self. This emerging biopolitical State, relying on “centralise[d] power and normalise[d] knowledge,”[xxx] had two options with regard this decentralised, occult knowledge. The first was to introduce male practitioners, who would uphold the law of enclosure, separating female production from female and proletarian bodies: “the rise of professional medicine, which erected in front of the ‘lower classes’ a wall of unchallengeable scientific knowledge, unaffordable and alien, despite its curative pretences.”[xxxi] The second was to demonise and spurn from existence those who indicated the dehiscence present in the Gestalt social body – the biopolitical imago – the capitalist State requires for its continued existence.

The system of relations of capital as understood by this framework of intertwined primitive accumulation and biopower should, despite (if not, perversely, because of) the horror and barbarism of the witch-craze, be misunderstood as holding any particular ideology. Indeed, if this system should be typified by anything, it should be its aforementioned ambivalence. Whilst Federici was by no means incorrect when she cited the torturous interrogations of the witch-trials as a counter-point to Foucault’s description of the confessional process, this does not deny the later increased “tolerance” towards varieties of sexual orientation or gender expression. Rather, it reveals the fundamentally neurotic condition of the capitalist State in relation to the Lacanian I, and the nigh-infinite levels of violence it is willing to retain the integrity of its systems of power-knowledge within carefully established parameters. Thus, for any meaningful resistance to the State to occur, a radical deconstruction of our constituted subjectivity may be a compulsory first step.

[i] Michel Foucault, “Lecture Eleven: 17 March, 1976,” “Society Must Be Defended:” Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, ed. Arnold I. Davidson, trans. David Macey, (New York: Picador, 2003): 244.

[ii] Silvia Federici, “Introduction,” Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation, (New York: Autonomedia, 2009): 14.

[iii] Federici, “Introduction,” 16.

[iv] Foucault, “Lecture Eleven,” 240.

[v] Robin Briggs, “Men Against Women: The Gendering of Witchcraft,” Witches & Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft, (Oxford and Malden: Blackwell, 2002): 227.

[vi] Foucault, “Lecture Eleven,” 245.

[vii] Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan, (London: Tavistock, 1977): 2.

[viii] Lacan, “Mirror Stage,” 4.

[ix] Thomas Robisheaux, The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village, (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009): 100.

[x] Lacan, “Mirror Stage,” 5.

[xi] Julia Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection,” Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press,1982): 2-3.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection,” 3.

[xiv] Silvia Federici, “The Accumulation of Labour and the Degradation of Women: Constructing ‘Difference’ in the Transition to Capitalism,” Caliban and the Witch Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation, (New York: Autonomedia, 2009) 69-70.

[xv] Federici, “Transition to Capitalism,” 72.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Federici, “Transition to Capitalism,” 83-84.

[xviii] Silvia Federici, “The Great Witch-Hunt in Europe,” Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation, (New York: Autonomedia, 2009): 186.

[xix] Robin Briggs, “Love and Hatred: Spouses and Kin,” Witches & Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft, (Oxford and Malden: Blackwell, 2002): 196.

[xx] Federici, “The Great Witch-Hunt in Europe,” 197.

[xxi] Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, “Here follows the Way whereby Witches copulate with those Devils known as Incubi,” The Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Rev. Montague Summers, (New York: Dover Publications,1971): 112-113.

[xxii] Federici, “The Great Witch-Hunt in Europe,”191-192.

[xxiii] Kramer and Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, 114.

[xxiv] Anne Llewellyn Barstow, “Controlling Women’s Bodies,” Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts, (San Francisco: Pandora, 1994): 132.

[xxv] Federici, “Transition to Capitalism,” 86.

[xxvi] Barstow, “Controlling Women’s Bodies,” 134-135.

[xxvii] Anne Llewellyn Barstow, “From Healers to Witches,” Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts, (San Francisco: Pandora,1994): 114-115.

[xxviii] Julia Kristeva, “Suffering and Horror,” Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press,1982): 155.

[xxix] Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection,” 2.

[xxx] Foucault, “Lecture Eleven,” 244.

[xxxi] Federici, “The Great Witch-Hunt in Europe,” 201.

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