Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

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Despite all recent challenges to stage-oriented histories, the idea of a division between a "medieval" and a "modern" period has survived, even flourished, in academia. Periodization and Sovereignty demonstrates that this survival is no innocent affair. By examining periodization together with the two controversial categories of feudalism and secularization, Kathleen Davis exposes the relationship between the constitution of "the Middle Ages" and the history of sovereignty, slavery, and colonialism.

This book's groundbreaking investigation of feudal historiography finds that the historical formation of "feudalism" mediated the theorization of sovereignty and a social contract, even as it provided a rationale for colonialism and facilitated the disavowal of slavery. Sovereignty is also at the heart of today's often violent struggles over secular and religious politics, and Davis traces the relationship between these struggles and the narrative of "secularization," which grounds itself in a period divide between a "modern" historical consciousness and a theologically entrapped "Middle Ages" incapable of history. This alignment of sovereignty, the secular, and the conceptualization of historical time, which relies essentially upon a medieval/modern divide, both underlies and regulates today's volatile debates over world politics.

The problem of defining the limits of our most fundamental political concepts cannot be extricated, Davis argues, from the periodizing operations that constituted them, and that continue today to obscure the process by which "feudalism" and "secularization" govern the politics of time.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Everyone should read this book. There are at least two reasons I think so. The first is the sheer intellectual pleasure ot be had in grappling with its challenging and complex argument. The second is the exciting way the book models the kind of comparative, cross-field, interdisciplinary projects that everyone values but that few of us are trained to do."—Criticism

"Kathleen Davis's learned and thoughtful book makes a strong argument for scholars to avoid the simplistic and reified invocation of categories and historical processes, like feudalism, sovereignty, and secularization, in their work. While these categories and processes have frequently been employed to mark temporal stages in so-called historical progress, she demonstrates that scholars and social critics have often used them as inappropriate though powerfully consequential conceptual markers of other social and political formations of the colonial and postcolonial world. This is an intellectually demanding book, but one that handsomely rewards attentive reading."—William Chester Jordan, Princeton University

"Kathleen Davis is a shrewd and indispensable commentator on the operations of 'political theology' in the Middle Ages and more modern periods as well."—Paul Strohm, Columbia University

"An outstanding achievement that shows why medievalists and postcolonial scholars would benefit from working together. The point has been made before but Davis's is the most rigorous demonstration so far of this proposition. She is able to point out where postcolonial analysis has been seriously impaired by ignorance of European debates about the medieval (and debates in the so-called medieval period). The book leaves the reader with an overall impression not only of the solid and imaginative scholarship on display here but also of an author who wants to think big and think creatively without sacrificing any of the rigor or meticulousness of her scholarly equipment."—Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago

"This book has the potential to eliminate the problematic term 'feudalism' from historical discussions of the 'Middle Ages.' Davis has brought to light new material concerning the origins and early development of the concept and has synthesized her insights into a blockbuster argument concerning the triumph of feudalism as a result of feudal historiography's entanglement with colonialism during the eighteenth century."—Felice Lifshitz, Florida International University

"This is an exceptionally smart, sophisticated, and wide-ranging book. Its argument is theoretically ambitious and its discussion of evidence is thorough, precise, and compelling."—Carolyn Dinshaw, New York University

"Kathleen Davis, a skilled scholar of Anglo-Saxon and medieval English literature, and a courageously committed dialogist of medieval and postcolonial studies, has crafted a critical analysis of the political-theology of periodization. Her study is as dynamically precise as the structure of a protein. Composed in two parts, it intentionally folds in on itself in order to mark performatively the double bind of periodization—a mimesis of temporality and a Western juridical concept of sovereignty. Her aim is to explicate how the time of periodization is the time of sovereignty, or, put another way, sovereignty is a mode of temporality."—The Medieval Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812240832
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/25/2008
  • Series: The Middle Ages Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 1,499,113
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathleen Davisis the author of Deconstruction and Translation. She has taught in the Department of English at Princeton University and is currently on the faculty of the University of Rhode Island.

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Table of Contents


1. Sovereign Subjects, Feudal Law, and the Writing of History
2. Feudal Law and Colonial Property

3. The Sense of an Epoch: Secularization, Sovereign Futures, and the "Middle Ages"
4. A Political Theology of Time: The Venerable Bede and Amitav Ghosh


Works Cited

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