Book Review | Beyond the Periphery of the Skin

Silvia Federici shows how capitalism has captured our bodies and proposes possibilities for reclaiming and recreating them to resist the present and prefigure the future.

In a time of ecological crisis, it is unsurprising that questions of the body have become a focal point within contemporary radical politics. One of the great strengths of Silvia Federici’s peerless work in this regard is to remind us that the body – or bodies, in all their difference – have multiple histories. 

There are the histories of techniques of capturing and disciplining the powers of the body, turning it into a machine, often along racialised and sexualised lines, for the reproduction of capitalism. There are histories, too, of the body as a site of resistance, a locus of networked powers to transform itself and others, powers that do not end at the periphery of the skin. And then there are the hidden histories of more subterranean bodies: the countless animal lives who are, as Federici observes, turned simultaneously into living factories and fungible commodities, as well as the body of the Earth itself, a body collapsing under multiple environmental traumas wrought by hierarchical social relations.

In this new work, which expands on the analyses of the groundbreaking Caliban and the Witch, Federici diagrams these intersecting histories to pose two key questions. First, how are bodies enclosed and constituted by contemporary capitalism? Second, how could we constitute bodies otherwise? What would a collective re-commoning of the body look like?

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In typical fashion, these questions are expressed along a wide range of registers with little in the way of easy answers. With the effortless transdisciplinarity, groundedness and lack of dogma that comes from a lifetime of struggle and reflection, Federici traces the repression and resistance of bodies through lenses that include feminism, Marxist political economy and Foucault, and offers pithy critiques of liberal identity politics, neoliberalism, psychological normativity, plastic surgery, selfish gene theory and the disembodied Silicon Valley narcissism of space colonisation and artificial intelligence.

Against the multiple modes of subjugation of bodies, Federici proposes a communist body of confrontation with capital and state, a dancing body that is in “magical continuity with the other living organisms that populate the Earth: the bodies of humans and the not-humans, the trees, the rivers, the sea, the stars. This is the image of a body that reunites what capitalism has divided, a body no longer constituted as a Leibnizian monad, without windows and without doors, but moving instead in harmony with cosmos, in a world where diversity is a wealth for all and a ground of commoning rather than a source of divisions and antagonisms.”

Beyond sadness

Woven through the text is a constructive critique of much of the Left. Using the Nietzschean figure of the camel as the prototype of the sad Stakhanovite militant, burdened by the serious work of “real” politics, Federici says we have not paid enough attention to the reproductive side of struggle and reminds us that conviviality is a vital part of any effective political project, fomenting the deep collective bonds and affective relations that shift comradeship into revolutionary friendship and felt solidarity. 

Invoking Spinoza, she invites us to move beyond sadness and create the joyous passions that in turn expand our possibilities for individual and collective liberation. This is a liberation not just of human bodies but, as Federici acknowledges in a surprising recognition of the importance of animal liberation for revolutionary politics, the bodies of our fellow beings of fur, feather and scale, too, as well as the geophysical body that grounds and sustains all these.

What passes for life under contemporary capitalism is a symptom of deep alienation: from our desires, our bodies, our relations to others and the Earth, and our capacities to create joy. The project Federici proposes in the face of this is a communism of experimentation, a pedagogy with no curriculum to guide us but instead a tentative diagramming of possibility that we can begin to practise when we come together to explore our bodies in new ways. Through this, we remind ourselves, always, that the powers these bodies hold are ours first, before they are captured and set to work to reproduce the economy, and that they are powers that overflow the periphery of the skin and the borders of capital.

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Or, as Federici writes in In Praise of the Dancing Body, the penultimate chapter of her book: “Our bodies have reasons that we need to learn, rediscover, reinvent. We need to listen to their language as the path to our health and healing, as we need to listen to the language and rhythms of the natural world as the path to the health and healing of the Earth. Since the power to be affected and to effect, to be moved and to move, a capacity that is indestructible, exhausted only with death, is constitutive of the body, there is an immanent politics residing in it: the capacity to transform itself, others, and change the world.”

Beyond the Periphery of the Skin is published by PM Press and available in South Africa at The Commune in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

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