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. Continue reading