Sovereignty, Biopolitics, the Forest, and the King’s Jews: Sketch for a Research Program

Tony Lewis from Whitney Biennial


What the title says. Over the past couple days, I’ve been reading David Nirenberg’s forthcoming Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, whose fourth chapter makes an old point with atypical neatness:

Medieval kings had expanded their sovereignty (in part) by assigning the Jews to a status outside normative law and claiming exceptional power to decide their fate. Sovereign power was thus (in part) performed through the protection of those who had denied God’s sovereignty, his ‘enemies’ and ‘killers.’

Nirenberg argues that kings would later demonstrate their sovereign power not by protecting but by murdering and expelling Jews: the sovereign exception, as we know, can go both ways, towards “mercy” or towards the full, arbitrary exercise of the Law, nothing at its core but the king’s whimsy. If not in practice, at least in sovereign fantasy.

Nirenberg brilliantly connects this medieval sovereignty to famous passages in Schmitt and Benjamin (“Sovereign is he who decides the exception” and “The Prince, upon whom the decision over the exception rests, discovers in the best of situations that a decision is impossible for him”) and from thence to the “miracle” in Schmitt and Benjamin, and, as expected, to the redemptive rereading of the political miracle in Agamben, Žižek, and Santner. Almost needless to say, Nirenberg isn’t on board with the miracle in any form, neither in Schmitt’s sovereign version nor the post-Sovereign versions of B, A, Ž, and S.

More about that much later (like, later this year). What strikes me now is the relation of Nirenberg’s point to one I’m making in an article, “Biopolitics in the Forest,” that will appear in Randy Schiff and Joey Taylor’s Politics of Ecology anthology. You’ve had the chance, often, to see preliminary bits: here, here, here, and here (and even this post from 2006). The article’s key argument is that the sovereign exception and biopolitics each sprang up simultaneously in the 12th-century English forest. Biopolitics is not a paradigmatic modern form of governmentality that follows long after sovereignity, but rather coincides with sovereign claims; also coincident with those claims is the way that bodies “naturally” resist biopolitics, a point I’m developing from Cary Wolfe. As Wolfe argues, and me with him, agency and objecthood, the problem of the possibility of “conscious resistance,” and other humanist, rationalist concerns start to fall away once we start to think about bodily forces in biopolitics. Thinking like that makes way for thinking about animals in the political community, Wolfe’s main point, but it also makes room for thinking more fluidly about dominated humans. Like, for example, the Jews of thirteenth-century England.

Here’s how it goes in the article itself:

Husbandry is the scandalous foundation of a biopolitical analysis that has tended to be committed, more or less explicitly, to defending human particularity by trying to keep humans from being treated “like animals.” Foucault observes that “Unlike discipline, which is addressed to bodies, the new nondisciplinary power [of biopolitics] is applied not to man-as-body but to the living man, to man-as-living-being; ultimately, if you like, to man-as-species” and that in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we witness the “development of a medicine whose main function will not be public hygiene, with institutions to coordinate medical care, centralize power, and normalize knowledge.” Esposito writes that in modern biopolitics “life enters into power relations not only on the side of its critical thresholds or its pathological exceptions, but in all its extension, articulation, and duration,” and calls this a “new rationality centered on the question of life.” The obvious modernist and humanist biases of these observations ought to be contested. When Foucault states that “man is to population what the subject of right was to the sovereign,” or Esposito explains that biopolitics aims not only at “obedience but also at the welfare of the governed,” their analysis might have gone even further had they said that biopolitics treats humans like livestock, or, more particularly, like the sovereign’s livestock, which is to say, like venison.

I stand by that argument. But Nirenberg reminds me of something that I missed, which is another 12th/13th-century English (for example) development of both sovereignty and biopolitics. The king called the Jews his Jews, and (so?) they were the victims when the King’s subjects rebelled (for example, in the 1260s, against Henry III, and also especially in York in 1190, committed when Richard I was–as was his habit–overseas). Also note this antisemitic 13th-century cartoon, where Isaac of Norwich is represented wearing Henry III’s crown (and read the post itself, while avoiding its comments). That’s sovereignty, and a set of standard resistances to sovereignty.1

But there’s also biopolitics. Strikingly, a lot of regulation about the Jews in England, first from the church and then from the crown, tries to manage what might be called biological relations between Christians and Jews. The 1219 statutes of William of Blois, Bishop of Worchester, for example, forbid Christians from serving Jews as nurses (see also here). Other statutes, echoing Lateran IV.68, explain that Jews should wear a badge to prevent sexual mixing between Christians and Jews [the same statutes, better edited here, 121, have “quoniam in partibus istis sic inter christianos et iudeos confusio inolevit ut fere nulla differentia discernatur, propter quod nonunquam continigit quod christiani iudeis mulieribus commiscentur”]. That’s the church. But then January 1253 Statute of the Jews gives a secular reaffirmation of these and other points. In regards to the Jews, English sovereignty and biopower had now combined.2

Putting aside the question of whether the conciliar decrees were enforced, and the related point of whether the laws were simply mechanical repetitions of older laws (like these or these), we might observe that the laws themselves witness to the fact that bodies are a place for sovereignty to expand its area of concern. Bodies must be managed, not just by violence, but also by nurturing, to maintain the health of populations and to prevent contagion. Bland points like these of course take on a sinister aspect when we remember that we’re talking about relations between a dominant Christian majority and a dependent Jewish minority. We know that concern for the health of the body politic or the corpus christianorum could just as well be murderous to those marked as not belonging. It might even turn against members of the community, accused, for example, of “judaizing.” That’s the model of biopolitics as the extension of sovereignty, and it’s what we find especially in Roberto Esposito.

Simple points like these will reshape my considerations of sovereignty and biopolitics in 12th and 13th-century England. The baronial killing of Jews is analogous, mutatis mutandis (!), to poaching the king’s deer: that’s resistance to sovereignty. The insistence that Christians not eat food rejected by Jews, and that Jews not nurse Christian children and vice versa may be analogous to the necessity of royal management of cervid populations in hunting preserves. That’s biopolitics.

And, as with the cervids, we’ll probably find that bodies, even under sovereign control, act independently. Here’s Cary Wolfe, from Before the Law:

the power of Foucault’s analysis is to demonsrate just how unstable and mobile the lines are between political subject and political object–indeed to demonstrate how that entire vocabulary must give way to a new, more nuanced reconceptualization of political effectivity. And equally important is that Foucault’s introduction of “life into history”–of the body in the broadest sense of the political equation–does not lead directly and always already to an abjection for which the most predictable tropes of animalization become the vehicle.

Bodies will do what they have to do. This isn’t a matter of agency, nor a matter of complete exposure, nor a matter simply of suffering or of being “reduced” to animal, bare life. This isn’t the lachrymose biopolitics of Agamben and Esposito, whose only escape is some kind of messianic break. Rather, this is an array of forces, in which subjects do suffer but in which they also inevitably resist, regardless of whether they want to or not.

We know Jews and Christians mixed in medieval England (for example). They probably did eat and drink together from time to time, again, just because a body, infant or adult, has to eat. Since that bodily need can’t be stopped, since it will find its own solutions, independent of biopolitical control, things will inevitably go awry. Note this: thirteenth-century English laws that compelled Christians to refuse meat that the Jews had themselves rejected ended up requiring Christians, in effect, to keep kosher, and this during some of the worst persecutions of Jews in England’s history. The imperative, then, is to follow up on points like these to find moments where bodily control in an antisemitic biopolitical regime behaved, well, oddly, to trouble our sedimented, humanist notions of agency, political control, and “active” rebellion.

One last irony, as a repulsive epilogue: the ritual murder charge — dating from the mid 12th century and probably originating with an English monk — often accused Jews of anthropophagy. The Jews, supposed to want to kidnap and torment Christian children to enact their contempt for Christ, were often supposed to want to eat them too. See especially the “Adam of Bristol” story, where Samuel, the murder’s chief architect, promises, “I will rotate him” so that “this body of the God of the Christians will be roasted by the fire just like a fat chicken” [“ego regirabo”; “assabitur corpus dei christianorum, iuxta ignem sicut gallina crassa”].3

Now, of course, this charge could not be a more obvious example of psychoanalytic projection, since the Christians were the “real” anthropophages; they, not the Jews, ate their god.

And sometimes Christians ate their own martyrs. In the late eighteenth century, Dean Kaye and Sir Joseph Banks opened the tomb of young Hugh of Lincoln, murdered by Jews, as the (false!) story goes, stuffed in a well, and then retrieved to be buried as a martyr. Inside the tomb, they found a child’s body wrapped “in a leaden cere cloth, in a kind of pickle (which Sir Joseph is said to have tasted), but whether so perfect as to show the marks of crucifixion we are not told.”

Which Sir Joseph is said to have tasted. Bodies go awry.

Meanwhile, during the period of Hugh’s supposed murder, the English Christians were, in fact, dumping the bodies of Jews, including children, in wells, no doubt poisoning their own drinking water. And so the rebellion against sovereignty leads us, also, to biopolitical failure.

1 Robert C. Stacey “Anti-Semitism and the Medieval English State,” in J. R. Maddicott and D. M. Palliser, eds, The Medieval State: Essays Presented to James Campbell (London, 2000): 171-72 [163-77]

2 John Edwards, “The Church and the Jews in Medieval England,” in The Jews in Medieval Britain, ed. Patricia Skinner (Boydell & Brewer, 2003), 91 [85-96]; See also J. A. Watt, “The English Episcopate, the State and the Jews: the Evidence of the Thirteenth-Century Conciliar Decrees,” in Thirteenth Century England II. ed. P. R. Coss and S. D. Lloyd. Proceedings of the Newcastle Upon Tyne Conference 1987. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell P, 1988, 137-147

3 Christoph Cluse, “‘Fabula Ineptissima’: Die Ritualmordlegende um Adam von Bristol nach der Handschrift London, British Library, Harley 957” Aschkenas 5 (1995): 293-330