3 Brief Points on Mad Max: Fury Road

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Three brief points on Mad Max: Fury Road:

    • Joss Whedon, I understand, has something of a reputation as a feminist, but, never having watched Buffy or Firefly or Serenity, I know him primarily as one of several directors of superhero films: and whatever feminist reputation he has, he’s been coasting on itAvengers 2 has two major emotional beats to make the characters — gods, supergeniuses, and professional killers — “relatable” to an audience not comprising same – the perfect house in the country with the perfect kids and the perfect wife, waiting Dorigen-like, while her husband adventures, and, then, the grand reveal of Black Widow, which is that upon her graduation from Assassin U, she was sterilized (for other opinions, see here for starters; edit, and then see this for more readings that I don’t agree with). This Focus on the Family, on its preservation and its loss, would fit neatly into any “real man, real family, do it all for your children and your wife” story. It’s garbage.

      Mad Max, BY CONTRAST (just in case you didn’t see this coming), focuses on the particular violence that women face, namely, a violence focused on their bodies and on the control of the future. Immortal Joe is immortal — he thinks, he hopes — because he controls his genetic line, his property, his self; and when the Imperator Furiosa1 runs off with his brides, one of whom is visibly pregnant, Joe shouts something about RETURNING HIS PROPERTY. His wife; his child; his future; his property, “stolen” from him by an avenging woman. Here’s a film where the man who wants his kidnapped family back is the ENEMY. The great enemy of Mad Max is, then, the enemy of reproductive rights: now that, I’d say, is a feminist narrative.

      But also, as Nicole also observed last night, what about the Milk Maids? Why weren’t they rescued too?

    • Each of the male heads of each citadel has his own infernal branding: the head of Bullettown wears a judge’s wig constructed from a packed bandolier, while the head of Gastown wears a black business suit, and complains quantitatively, like a capitalist, about the waste of resources in the hunt for Joe’s brood and breeders. If the capitalist master in Snowpiercer is sleek, a gadget-head, well-fed, cosmopolitan, and the head of a conspiracy, with everything arranged well in advance, the capitalist in Mad Max is a properly horrifying figure of the erotic core of capitalism, and of the corporeal excesses of biopolitics rather than the neatness of the sovereign: his suit has been cut out to expose his nipples, which he rubs often as he grouses about the hunt. Like the Wife of Bath, he knows that the trade in money and the trade in bodies is also a trade in desire. There’s nothing attractive here; it’s just attraction itself.
    • Last point: on this (late) morning’s run, I suggested to Alison that Mad Max is a far superior film to Snowpiercer, and she pointed out the “I would have thought this was obvious” (her words) point, which is that Snowpiercer is at least organized around the rescue of a black child. Among the set of White Action Films, here we have one, at least, which argues that Black Lives Matter.

For further thoughts on feminism and Mad Max, see David Perry’s review here. And, edit, now also see Samuel Delany’s essential fb quick review.


1. (whose mixed-gender name may deserve its own unpacking [a point inspired by a comment on the need for Imperatrix Furiosa somewhere in this comment thread)

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

Tony Lewis from Whitney Biennial

by KARL STEEL

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

Day 2 – Before the Law, Melion, and Competing Biopolitical Models

First we thought about Azra Raza’s outcry against “Mouse Models” on The Edge, and Jeremy England’s Thermodynamic account of the origins of life. The first story complicates the supposed utility of animal testing: mice are not protected by animal cruelty laws (as Cary Wolfe reminds us), but the payoff is supposed to be the scientific benefits we might gain from their suffering. Raza argues, in essence, that studying cancer in mice is a good way to understand mice cancer, but not of much use at all if we want to understand human cancers. For that, we need to study human cells. So there’s no good reason to put mice through what we do. England’s account of the origins of life understands it as an inevitable process of energy dispersal: if life is understood as a spontaneous self-organization designed to organize and especially disperse energy, then “life” as a category is much, much wider than we thought it was otherwise.

We then turned to with Obama’s on-screen killing of a fly during an interview in 2009. I suggested that the sovereign killing of the fly might be linked to the sovereign pardoning of the turkey. The President has the power to make die or let live. This fundamentally Agambenian idea was quickly modified by pointing out that the fly is also an annoyance. Obama’s trying to talk; he’s trying to be dignified; and along come a fly, gets into his space, and leaves him looking as ridiculous as any fly-killer. Medieval natural history (Sidrak and Bokkus and Gervase of Tilbury, for example) would divide animals into three categories: those that help us, those we eat, and those that keep our pride in check. The fly is one of these latter animals.

The medieval discussion proper began with the portrayal of Charlemagne in the //Alphabet of Tales//. There, Charlemagne is like a Paul Bunyan or Chuck Norris figure: he’s enormous, can virtually flay a man just by looking at him, can split a man in two with a single blow of a sword or lift a fully-armored man above his head. He also eats a lot of meat:

“And he ete bod littyl brede, bod at ans he wolde ete a quarter of a weddur, or ij hennys, or a guse, or a swyne shulder, or a pacok, or a crane, or a hale hare. And he wolde drynk bod esy wyne, bod if it war medlid̛ with watir”
[and he ate but little bread, but at once he would eat a quarter of a ram, or two hens, or a goose, or a swine’s shoulder, or a peacock, or a crane, or a whole hare. And he would drink wine but moderately, and only fi it were mixed with water.”

Why so much meat? It’s an obvious sign of sovereignty and also virility. There’s also a link between flesh and wine in the central sacrament of late medieval Christianity, so perhaps that’s being invoked in some way. There’s also the strange mixture of recognition and non recognition in the deaths of the animals: on the one hand, their lives can’t count (otherwise this would be monstrous); on the other hand, unless their lives count as lives, there’s no point to this great display of carnivorousness. No one praises Charlemagne for eating a whole onion in one bite, for example. In what sense do the lives of meat animals count? Charlemagne needs to commit a sovereign crime to be recognized as a sovereign. We could have linked this to Wolfe’s discussion of the resistance to “artificial” meat.

We also considered Charlemagne’s preference for water over wine. Why? Other warrior cultures — Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic, for example — praise warriors for their great feats of drinking and indeed require communal drunkenness to form community. Not here. We might have a reference here to the common portrayal of the drunk as a beast. Avoiding wine makes Charlemagne MORE rational, then. But perhaps his preference of water makes him more natural and thus something prerational. Wine comes in only with Noah (Genesis 9), or, as we see in Chaucer repeatedly — “The Former Age,” the widow in the Nun’s Priests’s Tale, Griselda — those who are most virtuous and closest to the natural state of humanity drink water rather than wine. Charlemagne’s water-drinking, in other words, is a precultural activity, without that extra something that would mark him as human, and certainly without the civilization that comes along with the invention of wine. Is Charlemagne, with his meat and water, man or beast?

The obviously Agambenian bent to this portrayal of the sovereign led us naturally into Cary Wolfe’s Before the Law. We dealt with only a few key points this week in this dense little book:

  1. I situated Wolfe in the context of the development of critical animal theory since the mid 90s and its explosion in 2002/2003 (and Wolfe’s work prior to that in animal rights activism) and led them through the Wolfe’s recent engagements with systems theory. Basic point: Derrida begins by troubling the assumption of the stability of things, whereas Niklas Luhmann begins by wondering how things can be stable. They arrive at similar conclusions about closure and openness, but for JD, change is a scandal and for NL stability is.
  2. The problem with the reciprocity model of rights. If we’re granting rights only to those that can reciprocate, then what do we do with infants, the severely disabled, or with the stateless? And if rights is just a quid pro quo, in what sense is rights the very opposite of ethics?
  3. The problem of animal rights “with the furry face” (the Great Apes Project) vs the “scandal of the cephalopods,” whose ways of thriving may be entirely different from ours and thus require a wholly different kind of “rights” (perhaps having to do with flourishing in general).
  4. And finally Wolfe’s contrast between Agamben and Foucault. Agamben’s Homo Sacer presents a model of a sovereign with supreme power and his subjects who are totally abject, exposed to the law entirely by being encompassed in it. The model of the community for Agamben, and by extension Esposito, is the camp, whether a labor camp or a death camp, in which every subject is fully exposed to the sovereign.
  5. Well, that’s just obnoxious. While, yes, the drone as a model of sovereignty does support, but in a classroom at CUNY, we are not in a death camp. Not even close.
  6. This is why the model of aleatory, resistant bodies (Foucault via Nietzsche) is far, far more interesting than the sovereignty models. What’s “before” the law in this sense? Bodies, not spatially, but rather temporally, resistant simply by virtue of their already existing inherent desire to persist in themselves. This resistance need not have anything to do with agency or consciousness, for all bodies, whatever they are, have affordances that let them do particular things in particular ways easily: I can type on my phone, but I can’t bend it, for example. Bodies will never be fully and entirely subject to the will of the sovereign. They will always go awry in some way because they are up to their own business, independent of the sovereign will.

We then had an interlude with Augustine and Aquinas. Aquinas says NO animals are not proper, direct objects of charity, as they are not ends in themselves. Indeed, it would be, per Aquinas’s logic, charitable to a pig to make it into bacon, since this is a pig’s proper end. Augustine (City of God1.20) says we can kill any plant or animal and indeed (1.21) that we can kill many humans, if it’s legal to do so; the one thing we can’t kill is ourselves, as our life doesn’t belong to us.

Augustine also gave us a way to rethink the Phallus. Here’s Wolfe using some Derrida:
“The phallus is then both the very figure of sovereignty, ipseity, and at the same time ‘automatic, independent of will and even of desire’ ‘mechanical, already in itself prosthetic.’ ‘It it proper to man,’ he asks, ‘or else, already cut from man, is it a ‘something’, a thing, an a-human, inhuman what, which is, moreover scarcely more masculine than feminine? Neither animal nor human?” (98)

And here’s Augustine //City of God// 1.24, who asserts that in paradise man would have moved his penis at will rather than by lust. His evidence? Some people can wiggle their ears or their scalp. Also:

“Some, by lightly pressing their stomach, bring up an incredible quantity and variety of things they have swallowed, and produce whatever they please, quite whole, as if out of a bag. Some so accurately mimic the voices of birds and beasts and other men, that, unless they are seen, the difference cannot be told. Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing. I myself have known a man who was accustomed to sweat whenever he wished. It is well known that some weep when they please, and shed a flood of tears. But far more incredible is that which some of our brethren saw quite recently. There was a presbyter called Restitutus, in the parish of the Calamensian Church, who, as often as he pleased (and he was asked to do this by those who desired to witness so remarkable a phenomenon), on some one imitating the wailings of mourners, became so insensible, and lay in a state so like death, that not only had he no feeling when they pinched and pricked him, but even when fire was applied to him, and he was burned by it, he had no sense of pain except afterwards from the wound. And that his body remained motionless, not by reason of his self-command, but because he was insensible, was proved by the fact that he breathed no more than a dead man; and yet he said that, when any one spoke with more than ordinary distinctness, he heard the voice, but as if it were a long way off. Seeing, then, that even in this mortal and miserable life the body serves some men by many remarkable movements and moods beyond the ordinary course of nature, what reason is there for doubting that, before man was involved by his sin in this weak and corruptible condition, his members might have served his will for the propagation of offspring without lust?”

Notably, I just realized, his example ends up with someone who ends up insensate, like a corpse, as if THIS is evidence of the supreme potential of human will. This definitely deserves much more unpacking!

Penultimately, we talked about the Lay of Melion. What does it mean to flatter a wolf into joining you (and why does the text use precisely the same language to describe how Melion’s estranged wife was convinced to turn him back into a human?). What does Melion and his band eat when they’re committing outrages against first beasts and then humans? Is it unnatural for wolves to go to war, as the text says? We have a kind of Agamben model of sovereignty when Melion joins with Arthur, but we also notice that the wolves and their bodies have an innate resistance to authority that frustrates the pretensions of sovereignty (Foucault). And is a wolf that’s domesticated “desnaturé” (denatured), and in what sense?

Finally, we considered how the wolf, unable to talk, uses Arthur to achieve his vengeance and salvation. As in last week’s discussion, we have an animal turning a human into a tool or prosthesis for it. The wolf’s lack of human language is no problem so long as it can get a human to do its work for it.

Finally, we talked about the English Forest law, where the king had the pretension to be a sovereign (Agamben model), but finds himself stymied by the independent forces of deer and their bodies and desires (Foucault model).