Body without masters

Silvia Federici’s feminism is rooted in the body. Tracing the political history of the exploitation of the female body, her new work also outlines the path to a reappropriation and liberation of this body, through interrelation with the living, and through dance.

How to take back body? This question serves as a starting point for Silvia Federici, American academic and feminist activist, in her new book bringing together essays and articles written throughout her life. Already, in her famous Caliban and the witchshe had shown how the transition between the feudal and capitalist systems in Europe XVIe And XVIIe century, was carried out at the cost of an aggressive mechanization of female bodies. The institutionalization of the witch hunt was at the origin, she asserted, of a transformation of women’s bodies into machines: laborious bodies used as tools, but also reproductive machines, serving the perpetual renewal of the hand of work. And if they were systematically attacked, it was because their sexuality, their primordial role in reproduction and their ability to care constituted collective goods and powers, making them obstacles to the extension of the capitalist economic system, to the accumulation and polarization of wealth, to the privatization of the means of production. Contrary to the Marxist analysis according to which the oppression of women under capitalism is accidental, the autonomous feminism to which S. Federici claims suggests that the separation of production and reproduction that he initiates is, in fact, at the very principle of the division of labor and sexual differentiation.

It is in the continuity of Caliban and the witch that this new work should be read, in which S. Federici returns to the political history of the female body. But what she undertakes in Beyond the boundaries of the body goes beyond the mere historical investigation: “I decided to write instead about the body and its powers – the power to act, to transform oneself, the body as a limit to exploitation” (p. 131) she explains. It is about proposing a political theory that allows us to take back our bodies, that is to say, to “claim our capacity to make decisions about the realities that affect it” (p. 27). This bodily reappropriation is at the foundation of self-determination, the nodal point of S. Federici’s autonomous feminism.

But her theory of the body also draws on ecofeminism, calling for a reaffirmation of women’s power through the revaluation of the link between the body and nature. Because we were living bodies before becoming machines, we enter into “magical continuity with the other living beings that populate the earth” (p. 28). The very structure of the book reflects this continuum – this original and organic link that would unite all living things. Based on her experience, as an academic but also as an activist, she traces the path taken by feminist movements in the struggle for self-determination. A path that she herself took, which leads her to engage in her story and makes us experience the continuity of a theory of the body that is still in the process of being made. The texts are organized into four thematic parts, corresponding to the major stages of the reappropriation of the female body by women. And the last part, which gives way to her “Praise of the Dancing Body”, stands out as a convincing counter-discourse. The theory of the body in movement that S. Federici develops there results in the singular proposition of a bodily emancipation through dance.

Understanding the body as a political terrain

The author first reiterates the deconstruction of the processes of mechanization of female bodies. This is an opportunity for her to recall the contributions and limitations of feminist discourses of the 1970s: the fight for control of procreation has not been sufficiently linked, she deplores, to the struggles aimed at transforming the material conditions of existence of women. However, women’s autonomy cannot be fully realized in economic precariousness. For S. Federici, it is above all a question of understanding the body as a political terrain to be reconquered. A postulate inherited from community feminism, which has its roots in Latin America. For the Bolivian activists of “Women Creando Comunidad” as for the European autonomists, the issue is that of the political autonomy of women. But self-determination also requires recognition of a specific political identity, that of the indigenous communities to which they belong. What S. Federici retains from the community discourse is above all the effectiveness of the concepts of body-territory and territory-land, describing a necessary link between the body, the land and the territory.

Theorizing the body in this way would also imply a certain practice. Body language can no longer legitimately be excluded from political discussions. One might believe that praising the dancing body implies a withdrawal into oneself, a flight from politics into aesthetics. But on the contrary, dance must be understood, specifies the author, as an “exploration and invention of the possibilities of the body: its faculties, its language, its articulation with the aspirations of our being” (p. 136). Dance, as a free and spontaneous movement of which the body has always been capable, takes on a political value from the moment it is understood as “a capacity for transformation of our body, of others and of the world” (p. 137) . The path that the author outlines allows us to go beyond the alternative at the heart of the current controversies surrounding the body, opposing biological determinism to the “performative or textual representation of the body” (p. 31). The body is no longer thought of as something dictating its identity to the subject; it is no longer suffered, but becomes active, a principle of transformation.

Self-transformation as bodily reappropriation?

S. Federici also questions the relationship between the body and gender and performance. The transformation of our bodies according to our desires, which new technologies allow, is seen as a potential individualist drift. The current popularity of cosmetic surgery, for example, would be a sign of an individualistic society where care for others disappears in favor of heightened self-control. The individualized care of certain bodies would go hand in hand with the abandonment of sick bodies: “bodies and worlds separate” (p. 80). The gap is widening between the richest, who have access to increasingly effective technologies for self-improvement, and the poorest, who do not have the means to conform to demanding body standards.

Hence the new “body politics” advocated by S. Federici: a non-selfish bodily transformation, requiring a revaluation of care rather than a glorification of self-improvement. Concretely, this policy requires organizing collectively and redistributing knowledge so that everyone has equal access to it, the challenge being to guarantee self-determination in medical practice. This proposal is part of the relational perspective of the ethics of care, which revalorizes the work of care, mainly carried out by women, and advocates reciprocity of care provided to others. For S. Federici, care allows us to consider altruism as a dual vector of individual and collective transformation. By caring for others, we would regain our bodies collectively and participate in the construction of a new society.

Federician “politics of the body” ultimately leads to a critique of surrogacy as the ultimate form of bodily mechanization. Following on from D. Roberts, an American lawyer and academic specializing in issues of race and gender in law, who showed that new reproductive technologies “reinforce the racist norms that weigh on procreation”, S. Federici recalls that in the United States, it is mainly white and wealthy families who resort to GPA. There GPA would participate in an externalization of procreation, determined by racist and classist logics. Making this observation implies redefining motherhood as a social power, a political decision that carries values.

The body as a natural limit

If the self-transformation that new technologies allow seems at first glance to be a way of reappropriating one’s body, it would in fact constitute one more tool in the normative control of it. The fight for self-determination should therefore go hand in hand with a humanist and ecological awareness: no territory, whether corporeal or natural, should be enslaved. This is the subject of the third part of her work, in which a historical shift is identified: scientific discourse, after having sought to control the body, would now like to abandon it. In an article written with the philosopher George Caffentzis, she thus brings together the cult of the conquest of space and the cult of God, for their shared dream of a beyond the body. Thinking of the body as a “natural limit”, that is to say as a boundary set against the intensification of the processes of domination that capitalism exercises over all living things, would make it possible to go beyond political boundaries. To thwart the effects of the globalized capitalist system, the feminist struggle must also be organized on an international scale by forging links between its different currents.

After having revalorized the figure of the powerful and feared woman who is the witch, S. Federici reaffirms the magical character of the living in its entirety: “the world is magical when it is understood as creativity and as transformation” (p. 62) . Restoring our relationship with others and with nature, through the free use of our body in dance, would also be a promise to rediscover joy. In her “Afterword on joyful activism”, the author returns to the feeling of sadness which often invades those who engage in a political fight. “Political sadness often comes from an excessive sense of individual responsibility, which gives us the habit of overloading ourselves” (p. 138) she explains. But another activism is possible, a joyful activism whose policies are liberating, transformative. The entire work provides the principles: deconstructing the mechanisms of domination, understanding the power of transformation of our bodies, grasping the importance of our belonging to a natural totality, and using this power with a view to emancipation. collective of all. Thus, by following the voice of S. Federici, we make ourselves the promise of a rediscovered joy.