09.04.06, Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty

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Kathleen Biddick

The Medieval Review baj9928.0904.006


Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. 208. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4083-2.

Reviewed by:
Kathleen Biddick
Temple University

In Periodization and Sovereignty, Kathleen Davis, a skilled scholar of Anglo-Saxon and medieval English literature, and a courageously committed dialogist of medieval and postcolonial studies, has crafted a critical analysis of the political-theology of periodization. Her study is as dynamically precise as the structure of a protein. Composed in two parts, it intentionally folds in on itself in order to mark performatively the double bind of periodization--a mimesis of temporality and a Western juridical concept of sovereignty. Her aim is to explicate how the time of periodization is the time of sovereignty, or, put another way, sovereignty is a mode of temporality. Davis is at her most insightful when she shows the violent imbrications of periodization, sovereignty, and colonial enslavement. Does periodization ever let go? This review will mesh most closely with this larger question. Meanwhile, the compelling structure of sovereign temporalization, unfolded by Davis, requires brief summary.

Davis expounds on the temporal construction of the juridical in Part One of the volume, entitled Feudalism. There she excavates the power-charged ways in which continental and English jurists of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries turned the adjective, feudal, into the noun, feudalism, in order to excise Christian sovereignty from an internal genealogy of servitude and slavery, at the very same time that such servitude and slavery under Christian banners was proliferating in off-shore colonies. Methodologically, her analysis can take pride of place on the bookshelf beside innovative titles authored by Michel de Certeau and Lucette Valensi, who have ingeniously studied the contemporaneous (and related) operations of nominalization of other key adjectives mystical to mysticism and despotic to despotism. [1]

Davis traces how jurists of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries scrutinized the legal tract, Liber Feudorum, a concoction of twelfth-century northern Italian jurists, interpolated into the late-antique Roman law book, Corpus Iuris Civilis. The Liber Feudorum remains, according to the lucid appraisal of Peter Landau, one of the most under-studied and yet pivotal treatises of the medieval jurists. [2] To give a sense of the explosive nature of this tract, note that it occupies only 84 pages of the printed edition of the Institutiones Divi Caesaris Iustiniani published in Venice in 1574, yet according to Davis, the exegesis by the jurists was the lever for European colonial expansion and transatlantic slave systems. [3] The jurists used their critique of this medieval interpolation as a means of fabricating a temporal-juridical concept of feudalism as a narrative of servitude. According to their fictions, feudalism inhered in a medieval European past (the precise where and when in the Middle Ages was contingent upon specific ideological conflicts of their narrative vis a vis sovereignty). Thus the jurists fabricated a that was then of medieval feudalism and dependent relations to be sharply distinguished from a this is now of contemporary (read, modern) European sovereignty unencumbered by such embarrassing servile contingencies within the European geographical imaginary. This becoming feudal of the Middle Ages, at the hands of these jurists, Davis asserts, is a powerful juridical writing of colony and slavery.

Davis then proceeds to discuss the radical implications of this narrative of supersession of modern sovereignty and property-rights over medieval feudal relations, a story which became so naturalized, that it has insinuated itself into the dominant Marxist and liberal paradigms of development. Feudalism, then, becomes a premodern stage to be overcome to arrive at modernity. She analyzes how this fabrication of feudalism by the jurists has haunted even the most perceptive postcolonial studies of the Indian Sub-Altern school (for example, her readings of Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty).

The hinge between Part One and Part Two, entitled Sovereignty, is an insight shared by the jurists and contemporary theorists of sovereignty, most notably Carl Schmitt, that there is no ground for sovereignty--it is unlocatable. The sovereign is sovereign by virtue of the decision. As Schmitt famously observed, the form of the decision follows the form of the miracle. Theology transfers itself to the political. Schmitt's claims about political theology have caused a theoretical fire-storm over the question of secularization, the supposed sign of the modern. The logic of her argument requires that Davis investigate some of the major secularization theses, most notably that advanced by Hans Blumenberg in argument with Carl Schmitt, in order to demonstrate how these theorists use periodization, like sovereigns, to decide the that was then of the non-secular and the this is now of the secular. Her subtle analysis shows how vertiginously folded is the narrative of feudalism with that of secularism.

Is it possible to take exception to the decision (a question once perspicaciously posed by Walter Benjamin)? Davis's study shows how urgent these questions are right now for medievalists. By way of a meditative conclusion, Davis interlaces two readings, one of Bede's De temporum ratione and of In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh to explore these aporia and to raise the question of neighbor-love as way of undeadening the dead-time of sovereignty. Important for her is the moment in Ghosh's account when he recalls his childhood memories of the 1964 riots in Pakistan at which time Hindus came to the garden of his house to seek protection from an angry Muslim crowd milling beyond the garden wall. Muslim neighbors alerted the police who arrived just in time to avoid violence. This moment is like a small miracle.

Because the stakes raised by Davis's argument are so high for medievalists, I wish to raise two concerns as we ponder her learned and thoughtful book. The first: what would happen if we take exception to decision and question the received orthodoxy of Schmitt and echoed by Giorgio Agamben--who distorts Walter Benjamin on this point--that sovereignty is ungroundable and unlocatable. [4] Such orthodoxy leaves unaddressed, I think, the indigestible remainder of Western Christian sovereignty. By indigestible remainder, I mean, those symbolic processes of sovereignty which can neither be historicized nor naturalized, but, nevertheless, are available to us as untimely temporal openings on sovereignty. Such indigestible remainders would hinge upon writing the history of the enemy in order to rewrite Carl Schmitt who uncharacteristically hesitated at the theological and political continuity of naming the enemy, the becoming enemy of the neighbor.

What interests me here is the convergence of radical forms of servitude invented for medieval Jews during the twelfth-century and the semiotic act of war declared at the same time against medieval Muslims who were deemed incapable of miracle-making, a semiotic foreclosure which persisted into the twentieth century in theological discussion, for example in Franz Rosenzweig. Gavin Langmuir intimated this history of the enemy as early as 1963 and Dominique Iogna-Prat has more recently explored the semiotic warfare over miracle-making waged at Cluny. [5] If Western sovereignty grounded itself in declaring political-theological enemies in Jews and Muslims and foreclosed them from the semiotics of miracle-making, then the theoretical fascination with miracles today and the desire for messianic time (as a cure?) seem to perform some drive against traversing the indigestible remainder of Western sovereignty, against writing a history of the becoming enemy of neighboring Jews and Muslims.

My second concern is about another unwritten history that crucially bears on sovereignty and periodization--a history of submission. My reading of Jean Bodin differs from Davis. Bodin studied and admired the Ottoman Sultans and valued the profound submission he fantasized they could elicit from their subjects by refusing any hereditary status to submission. [6] Bodin's political thought on Western sovereignty is mimetic and constitutive of an Orientalist fantasy of despotism. This facet requires our further attention because it relates to an astute observation made by Gil Anidjar regarding the connection of the outbreak of re-readings of Pauline Epistles among contemporary theorists of sovereignty and messianic time to the absence of a history of submission. Anidjar remarks:

Is there a history of absolute subjection, an account of absolute submission? In what follows, I want to argue that a reflection on submission and on absolute subjection--a constellation that includes, in ways yet to be clarified, subjectivity and subjection, passivity and submission--constitute an essential, if insufficiently acknowledged moment of the renewed reception of Paul.[7]
When in 1651, Thomas Hobbes imagined his famous monstrous image of the sovereign leviathan, the renowned frontispiece of his treatise by that name (and remember that in chapter 37 on Miracles and their Uses, Hobbes theorized that the sovereign is the one who decides miracles) he had in mind an anaphoric image that he had seen in Paris. The optical contraption had been designed by the Minim friar, Jean-François Niceron. Niceron's optical apparatus coalesced twelve busts of Ottoman sultans into a montage image portraying King Louis XIII. [8]

As this book by Kathleen Davis most thoughtfully asks of our disciplinary work, who decides?

-------- Notes:

1. Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable. Translated by Michael B. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Lucette Valensi, The Birth of the Despot: Venice and the Sublime Port, translated by Arthur Denner (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993). Barbara Fuchs, Mimesis and Empire: The New World, Islam, and European Identities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

2. Peter Landau, "Development of the Law" in The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 4, part I, 1024-1198, edited by David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 113-147.

3. Mario Montorzi, Diritto Feudale nel basso Medioevo: Materiali di lavoro e strumenti critici per l'esegesi della glossa ordinaria ai Libri Feudorum (Torino: G. Giappichelli Editore, 1991).

4. Adam Kotsko, "On Agamben's use of Benjamin's 'Critique of Violence,'" Telos 145 (Winter 2008): 119-129.

5. Gavin Langmuir, "The Jews and the Archives of Angevin England: Reflections on Medieval Anti-Semitism," Traditio 19 (1963): 182-224, especially, p. 200; and Dominique Iogna-Prat, Order and Exclusion: Cluny and Christendom Face Heresy, Judaism, and Islam (1000-1150), translated by Graham Robert Edwards (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).

6. Guy Le Thiec, "L'Empire ottoman, modèle de monarchie seigneuriale dans l'oeuvre de Jean Bodin," in ,L'Oeuvre de Jean Bodin, Actes du colloque tenu à Lyon à l'occasion du quatrième centenaire de sa mort, edited by Gabriel-André Pérouse, Nicole Dockés-Lallement, Jean-Michel Servet (Paris: Honoré Champion Éditeur, 2004), pp. 55-76; Alain Grosrichard, The Sultan's Court: European Fantasies of the East, translated by Liz Heron with an introduction by Mladen Dolar (London: Verso, 1998).

7. Gil Anidjar, The Jew, The Arab: A History of The Enemy (Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 11.

8. For a detailed study of optical devices known by Hobbes and their influence on the design of his frontispiece, see the following review essay: "The Title Page of Leviathan, seen in Curious Perspective," in Noel Malcolm, Aspect of Hobbes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), pp. 200-233. The engraving of the "Ottoman sultans" can be found on table 49 of J.-F. Niceron's La Perspective curieuse (1638) and is illustrated by Malcolm, figure 4. A version of the image can be accessed on GALLICA (http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k105514z.image.f194P) (accessed March 23, 2009).

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Author Biography

Kathleen Biddick

Temple University