- Make and Let Die: Untimely Sovereignties by Kathleen Biddick
Kathleen Biddick's new collection of essays (some previously published) summarizes its main concerns, for those who know their Foucault, in the title and subtitle. 'Untimely' in the subtitle refers to one of the central points to which the essays keep returning: whereas Foucault and some of those who have followed him in discussing modern biopower tend to emphasize the disjunction between pre-eighteenth-century and modern sovereignty, Biddick claims that they can do so only by erasing the medieval. Biddick rejects this disjunctive chronology and, by focusing on the medieval and early modern periods, finds greater historical continuity in ways of thinking about sovereign power.
The main title, 'Make and Let Die,' thus reimagines these supposedly discontinuous modes of sovereignty. In a formula simplified—indeed perhaps oversimplified—from Foucault, traditional sovereign power was the power of death: the sovereign could 'make die and let live.' Modern sovereign power, on the other hand, diffused as it is through numerous disciplinary social institutions rather than located in a singular personage, 'makes live' that is, strictly determines how populations will live, and 'lets die,' abandoning those who do not conform. Foucault himself, in Society Must Be Defended, acknowledges that these two modes of sovereign power are imbricated in modernity, but he is clearly more interested in their differences and in attaching those differences to a pre-eighteenth century/modernity divide, so Biddick can be forgiven this simplification, especially since readers of this volume are assumed to be familiar with Foucault et al. already.
Biddick's is a nimble mind playing over the fields of quantum theory, object-oriented ontologies, performance and performativity, theories of incarceration, visual arts, zombies, metallurgy, epidemiology, philology, cinema, the archive, and more. This playfulness—a hallmark of the publisher Punctum Books (which gives as its place of publication 'earth, milky way')—is not to be understood as a lack of scholarly seriousness, but actually enables a complex and convincing, progressive ethical stance toward politics and political philosophy.
Rather than 'political philosophy,' in fact, one might more properly refer to 'political theology' as Biddick's topic: a touchstone is Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies and its afterlife in modern political thought. This ongoing presence of the 'make die' of medieval sovereignty, hidden in modern sovereignty, helps account for apparent anomalies such as the 'make die' of modern genocide. Biddick finds the [End Page 71] past of such 'necropolitics,' to use Achille Mbembe's term, particularly in the 'living death' of medieval Jews and Muslims.
Readers of Arthuriana will be particularly interested in Chapter Three, 'Arthur's Two Bodies and the Bare Life of the Archives,' which argues that Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, read in light of contemporary archival practices, 'recounts what the neatly ruled membranes of the Pipe Rolls foreclosed and what the fictions of legal continuity the [Leges Edwardi Confessoris] suppresses—the violence of founding this sovereignty in and through archival continuity, and thus, the violence of founding the king's second body, the body that cannot die' (p. 71). Biddick concludes by demonstrating the ways in which this archival violence was directed specifically against the Jews.
Other chapters take up related investigations: the relationship between the theology of the Real Presence and political realities in chapters on Lanfranc and on Shakespeare's Richard II; the relationship of Christian semiotics to the Hebrew scriptures; and sovereign 'undeadness' as represented in the Ruthwell and Cloisters Crosses.
One might offer a few quibbles. It is surprising to find no mention of Mbembe's 'necropolitics,' especially as discussed in his essay of that name, which seems particularly relevant to Biddick's concerns. And the structure of this volume as a collection of essays rather than as a sustained argument makes for a certain repetitiousness: the chapter on Richard II, for example, rehashes much of what has already been discussed in the chapter on the afterlife of the doctrine of the Real Presence. But these are minor matters; Make and...