As Sylvia Federici points out in her landmark work. Caliban And The Witch one of the features of the emergence of capitalism was the production of a new kind of subject. The growing mercantile bourgeoisie required labour power to work for them and thus, society and the idea of the subject had to be reshaped. This reshaping is done by the church and the state, through legislative, social, cultural and violent disciplining. It is these disciplinary forces which, in part at least, explains the violence inflicted upon the figure of the witch – the figure of the uncontrollable women, full of power to gain her desires and satisfy her material needs (and the needs of those who come to her) without the drudgery and exploitation of wage labor.
A classic of feminist Marxism, Federici’s book also provides some interesting intersections with Gothic studies and the ways in which the Gothic and horror respond to the past. The figure of the witch is not just dangerous for the power that she holds – she’s also frightening for the possibility embodied within her – the possibility that the world as constituted by capitalism is neither natural nor invulnerable. The witch represented a different old world and so was a threat – but is also a source of terror. The body of the witch was made into a monster so that those who saw it would fear and obey. The figure at the stake becomes a totem of sorts, a visual symbol of the disciplining violence of capital as it seeks to enshrine itself as not just economic system, but as a kind of natural law. Yet, despite the best efforts of capital and it’s remorseless logic, there is within culture a seemingly indelible trace of the monster, a stubbornly persistent echo of the numinous that haunts our collective cultural imagination.
The definition of the Gothic is a notoriously contested field, but a widely accepted version argues that the Gothic is defined by it’s relationship to both space and time – often in an inverse sense to something like science fiction – where sci-fi goes forward in time and outward in space, the Gothic does the reverse, going back in time and into a tight, enclosed space. The haunted house, the decrepit castle, the abandoned summer camp – all tight spaces full of the echoes of the past, full of the terrifying whisper that the world could be different, that it once was different -fraught with magic, with violence and with death. We drawn to the Gothic and horror for its monsters – we recognize ourselves within them (as I argued previously) but we fear them too, for the monster shows us a glimpse of what is beyond the limits of the world, and perhaps more worryingly, the monster reveals just how arbitrary those limits might be.
Here then, culture collides with economics – capitalism generally speaking has little use for the past beyond what can be subsumed into itself and what can be sold – it’s happy enough to sell us nostalgia after all. What’s striking is the ways in which the Gothic draws us back to the sites abandoned by capitalism, by commodity exchange – it’s the condemned house, the ruin and the locked door where we find the warnings and signs of a different world. Speaking generally for a moment, the supernatural horror depicts a past that refuses to die, a world order and economic totality that capitalism, try as it might, cannot completely eradicate. In the supernatural Gothic subjects become monstrous – werewolves, zombies, vampires or simply forced into a more animistic, violent state of existence. These figures, as well as many others, are easily enough read as hearkening back to, and commenting on, an early mode of production. They are, without doubt, a threat, but within the figure of the monster, standing there, on the edge, we may see gestures back towards a different world.
It’s easy enough to be seduced by the figure of the monster – witches or not, they still have a huge degree of power, yet it would be a mistake to fall into a kind of nostalgic Gothic Marxism, one that sought to find a way back to the Edenic state – such a possibility is long gone, if it ever existed. Perhaps what’s necessary then is not to go back, but to go forward with our monstrous figures and to realize that the changes in the mode of production, in how the economic and social totality is arranged will produce new figures who are treated as the witches of the past were. As Gothic Marxists then it would seem to be necessary to find those made into monsters and stand not in awe, or fear of them, but in solidarity.