I’ve been sort of obsessed with thinking about talking about our work outside academia since I first realized that this was going to be my life. A first-gen kid going home and talking about the ways Fox and the second Bush administration were distorting reality, I found myself simultaneously trying to argue politics and explain how I used LexisNexis to prove the points I was making. It was a real mix of ideas and epistemologies, because first I found myself interrupting heated debates by explaining (to equally skeptical but intrigued friends and family) how database searches worked and why an amalgamation of texts, keyword searches, and citations mattered when talking about whether or not members of Hezbollah were good guys or bad guys.
Later on, during my first bout in grad school, in a whiskey-hazed kitchen back home I slipped up and said “It’s like this story this guy Fredric Jameson writes about this fucked up hotel in LA” during a conversation about jobs and real estate in Michigan right before the 2008 debacle. I slurred something about “pretentious shit,” probably apologizing for dropping a citation into conversation with a friend, but had already derailed the night. My boy got it, better than I did really, but we never quite got back to the topic at hand, instead spending the rest of the night talking about why it mattered that somebody else had said something like I was saying and whether it was useful to make abstract connections like Jameson made between the Bonaventure Hotel and finance capital. I just sort of struggled with mashing together ideas and premises and methods and all the rest of it.
So when I sat down with Silvia Federici’s Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, I was primed to be excited on multiple levels. Her connection between the historical dispossession of women in the nascent moments of capitalist development with structures that continue to justify misogynistic practices today is stunning in its clarity and importance. But even more important was her note that this small book was intended as a more accessible presentation of her earlier Caliban and the Witch.
Obviously, she’s worlds ahead of me, but it seems like Federici is thinking about how to balance content and epistemologies too. So there’s a lot to learn from this masterful little piece. The early parts of the book introduce readers to atrocities committed on female bodies, fueled by the desire to disempower women during the enclosure of the commons in the first great wave of primitive accumulation of capital. But the structure itself is just as instructive. Federici frames the the first chapter in terms of a series of questions: Why speak of witch hunts again (particularly if new facts or cases are not being introduced)? What proof do we have that witch hunts developed out of the new logic of systematic capitalist expropriation of the commons? Isn’t this argument all a bit circumstantial?
All of these questions lead Federici to teach readers not just what happened, but also how we can understand the method of connecting historical trends that have been so deeply-entrenched in capitalist accumulation that no records exist proving them as such. Her critical reading of historical correlations asks readers to think about how two broad trends that exist at the same moment in the same social space could not be related, and it is that lesson that seems so important to talking to broader audiences about the ongoing historical problem of torturing and murdering women as a means of disciplining new zones of capitalist accumulation. So, when I read
There is undoubtedly a direct relation between many cases of witch-hunting and the process of the ‘enclosures,’ as demonstrated by the social composition of the accused, the charges made against them, and the common characterization of the witch as a poor old woman, living alone, dependent on donations from her neighbors, bitterly resenting her marginalization, and often threatening and cursing those who refused to help her
I find myself wondering not just what readers learn here, but what they learn how to do and how they learn to think about the world. This epistemological education is threaded through the text, as Federici encourages readers to see connections between concurrent phenomena like the violent clearing of lands for mining interests and the purportedly benevolent official development plans authored by the World Bank and IMF. In broad sweeping lists of violent acts perpetrated against women across the globe, Federici includes the violence of predatory “micro-credit” that often leads to catastrophes for those the neoliberal lenders claim to be most interested in helping. Putting atrocities side by side encourages readers to do the same – to think about the logical connections between violent attacks on women occupying the commons and the machinations of the global giants pushing for those commons to be expropriated. It is this rhetorical and epistemological inter-weaving that seems so important in Federici’s book. If I end up in a late night kitchen with any old friends over the holidays, I hope I can manage a bit of the same.