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Review: SCHOLARSHIP AND PERIODIZATION: Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time by Kathleen Davis

Reviewed Work: Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time by Kathleen Davis
Review by: Constantin Fasolt
History and Theory
Vol. 50, No. 3 (October 2011), pp. 414-424
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41300103
Page Count: 11
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SCHOLARSHIP AND PERIODIZATION
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Abstract

Davis argues that the familiar periodization dividing European history into medieval and modern phases disguises a claim to power as a historical fact. It justifies slavery and subjugation by projecting them onto the "feudal" Middle Ages and non-European present, while hiding forms of slavery and subjugation practiced by "secular" modernity. Periodization thus furnishes one of the most durable conceptual foundations for the usurpation of liberty and the abuse of power. In part I, devoted to "feudalism," Davis traces the legal, political, and colonial struggles behind the development of the concept of "feudal law" in early modern France and England and unravels just how that concept hides colonial oppression while justifying European sovereignty. In part II, devoted to "secularization," she demonstrates the failure of twentieth-century critics of "secularization" like Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Karl Lowith, Hans Blumenberg, and Reinhart Koselleck to break out of the limits imposed by the medieval/modern periodization. Part II concludes with a look at conceptual alternatives in the writings of Amitav Ghosh and the Venerable Bede. Three limitations of this book are worth mentioning. It traces the political history hidden by the concept of "feudalism," but does not trace the political history hidden by the concept of "religion." It offers no answer to the question of how to break the link between scholarship and politics without ending up in a logical impasse or reinforcing the link. It does not address the possibility that answering this question may require breaking with the terms of professional historical inquiry. Perhaps the question could be answered in terms like those that led Wittgenstein to characterize his Philosophical Investigations as remarks on the natural history of human beings.

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