House Plants and Huacas
In this contribution to Verso's Caliban and the Witch Roundtable, So Mayer celebrates the book's wild edges - its endless elicitations of new political and intellectual opportunities
This October, Verso is hosting a roundtable on Silvia Federici’s incantatory and incendiary Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (2004), inviting reflections from activists, writers, and scholars to discuss the provocations of Federici’s arguments on capitalism and colonialism, bodies and reproduction, race and slavery—and the powerful figure of the witch.
“I expect it’s hard for witches,” he went on, “now that most people work in shops and factories, and haven’t any crops to ruin. They must be terribly sad, those witches, to have to go from blighting wheat fields to blighting house plants.”
- Daniel Mallory Ortberg, "The Wedding Party," The Merry Spinster
Daniel Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of feminist satire website The Toast, offers this uncanny echo of Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch in his collection of fairytale retellings; specifically, of Federici’s pointed location of the witch in relation to capitalism: packed into the image of “blighting house plants” can be heard wage labour, enclosure, industrialisation, alienation from the natural world, and domestication.
“We’ll have our will in the woods,” quotes Federici, an assertion by serfs in a mid-twelfth-century English chronicle, from Rodney Hilton’s Bond Men Made Free. Her capacious delight in making free with quotations renders the book an invaluable “carrier bag” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s terms, a book with the generative intent to share all evidence, from songs to slights to statistics, so that readers can participate in re-encountering an occluded history. Thus, the book is a true grimoire that weaves its spell from a dizzying array of historical and theoretical sources in support of its persuasive argument: that the late medieval witch hunts were not aberrant social phenomena but state-mandated genocidal policies running parallel to, and in a feedback loop with, the transatlantic slave trade and the conquest of the Americas. This genocidal process, Federici argues, secured the logic of capital.
The central insight of Federici’s text explains how we’ve come to be blighted (or blighting) house plants. “It was,” she writes, “in the torture chambers and on the stakes on which the witches perished that the bourgeois ideals of womanhood and domesticity were forged.” These ideals, which continue to enclose the lived spectrum of culturally specific gender experience within aspirational norms of the binary, continue to value and validate the “house plant”: unpaid and unseen caring labour in the subjugated space of domesticity, rendered decorative as a false reward for being severed from the commons to which it belongs.
Yet Caliban and the Witch also suggests that a full investigation of such subjugated knowledge proposes that those who undertake domestic and caring labour, including sex work, are house plants, sleeper agents within the Marxist interpretation of history; that beneath the dissociative fetishisation of the natural/cultural into the ornamental/domesticated the plant remains. Central to Federici's introduction is a catalogue of feminist theory that brings together critical historiographies of Europe and the Americas with what would become ecofeminism, highlighting writers such as Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva. When Federici asserts that “the production of the ‘female pervert’ was a step in the transformation of the vis erotica into vis lavorativa – that is, a first step in the transformation of female sexuality into work,” it connects to an implicit thread throughout the book that figures the wild energy of the growing world – the vis erotica to which witchcraft could be called an attunement – as resistance to taxonomisation as intellectual enclosure.
Among Federici’s always-startling asides is her insight into the connection between the surveillant and confessional process of the witch-hunt, and “the beginning of demographic recording… of census-taking, and the formalization of demography itself as the first ‘state-science.’” What continues to fascinate me most about Federici’s text is its refusal of such formalization. It is unclassifiabile and interdisciplinary. In its generosity and comprehensive collecting (to share, rather than accumulate), the text cultivates the edges of its map where wild growths occur – often in footnotes: not its crops, but its undomesticated, thriving ideas that allow space for further scholarship and political/activist thinking in solidarity.
In light of intersecting contemporary political urgencies, I feel there is a connection between and across these edges: firstly, the place of Muslims and Jews in and beyond medieval Europe, that arise in a few scattered mentions of the Crusades and Inquisition as strategic political Othering that provides a forerunner of the witch-hunt, slavery and colonisation.
Wilder possibilities appear in footnotes: that Muslim rulers in the Iberian peninsula offered freedom to European slaves, and that there were Muslim women doctors in al-Andalus; in other words, that within the European continent, and brutally attacked by the Crusades and Reconquista, was a society that both enacted and theorised an alternative to feudal Christendom. Similarly scattered mentions of the parallels between beliefs about witches and Jews (including the idea, linked to devil worship, that both had horns) suggest that there is generative thinking to be done with a broader map of Europe in terms of beliefs, social structures and economics (considering the forced position of European Jews as money-lenders), particularly with the interconnections between the Crusades, Reconquista and the conquest of the Americas, to understand the configuration of Othering that continues to arise so dangerously in European populism.
Secondly, the glimpses of the changing laws and social customs under the sign of productivity and order concerning sex workers (assumed female and heterosexual) and queers (assumed male) suggests an expansion or rephrasing of the text’s argument about the domestication of womanhood to include a domestication of gender to the binary, the cis, the heteronormative. Recent LGBTQI+ historiography is both endebted to Federici’s insights, and offers a way to expand them to think about how the enforcement of the gender binary and attendant heterosexuality serves capitalism. The association of the witch with non-productive, non-normative configurations of gender and sexuality is most powerfully attested in her devastating, if unsourced, etymological observation that “‘Faggot’ reminds us that homosexuals were at times the kindling for the stakes upon which witches were burned, while the Italian finocchio (fennel) refers to the practice of scattering these aromatic vegetables on the stakes in order to mask the stench of burning flesh.”
In the final section, Indigenous womxn are the wild presences, albeit fleeting, heard via Federici’s quotations from historians of colonisation Irene Silverblatt and Eleanor Leacock. That Leacock has to locate her evidence for pre-conquest gender equity in the writings of a French Jesuit missionary to the Montagnais-Naskapi people (itself now recognised as a European designation of two related but different Innu peoples, one territorial and one nomadic), underlines the continuing colonial practices of enclosure and erasure. In her poetic political manifesto As We Have Always Done, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) makes very clear the connections between the imposition of primitive accumulation on Turtle Island and its peoples, and the insistence on what she calls “churched relationships” (heteronormative marriage and christenings) and hierarchized, binary gender as methods of enforcing the logic of production.
This third wild edge of the text is most suggestive in Federici’s question as to what would have happened had the witch Sycorax, rather than her son Caliban, been the primary figure of uprising in The Tempest. Leadership by Indigenous womxn and Two-Spirit people in resisting the turbo-capitalist ravaging of land, water, minerals and even Indigenous knowledge is now not a question but a necessity.
Witch-hunting did not destroy the resistance of the colonized. Due primarily to the struggle of women, the connection of the American Indians with the land, the local religions and nature survived beyond the persecution providing, for more that five hundred years, a source of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist resistance. This is extremely important for us, at a time when a renewed assault is being made on the resources and mode of existence of indigenous populations across the planet; for we need to rethink how the conquistadors strove to subdue those whom they colonized, and what enabled the latter to subvert this plan and against the destruction of their social and physical universe, create a new historical reality.
She gives as an example of resistance in the Taki Onqoy movement of the 1560s, when the Takionqos formulated a pan-Andean (Quechuan) alliance of huacas (or wak’as), or place-ancestor-spirit-ritual-worldmaking, an embodied and enworlded relation across generations, species, and spacetimes, and which led to a colonial huacacide against both the objects/places as perceived by the conquistadores, and a witch-hunt against those – mainly womxn – who attended to them.
Huacas persist on the land, and also in art such as that of Chilean polymath and world-worker Cecilia Vicuña. The reality of place-ancestor-spirit-ritual-worldmaking underlies the actions of water and land protectors across Turtle Island, such as the protestors in Ecuador who have just defeated the government’s implementation of an IMF-backed austerity package.
This is the contemporary political charge – in both senses, of energy and responsibility – in the figure of the witch: to be a part, respectfully, of the decolonial “new historical reality” – which is absolutely rooted in a continuous Indigenous reality – being enacted in dance, art, song, story, action and presence globally by Indigenous movements and communities.
Or in Simpson’s words, in her poem ‘under your always light’:
…i’m thinking of Her escaping
through these spruce, walking across these rocks, walking over this
moss. i’m thinking of her escaping past stolen, walking across lost,
walking over shame, holding fire in Her heart, like all her descend-
ants effortlessly do, under your always light.
So Mayer is the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (IB Tauris, 2015), and of several collections of poetry, most recently <jacked a kaddish> (Litmus, 2018) and, with Preti Taneja, Tender Questions (Peninsula, 2018). They contributed an introduction for Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry (eds. Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás) and an essay on Hampstead Heath’s queer history to At the Pond (Daunt Books, 2019).