Dead Voice

It was welcome news that Jesus Rodriguez-Velasco’s book, Dead Voice, has been accepted for publication by UPenn Press and is looking at a tentative May 2019 release date. An incredibly informative read focused on 13th century law, although I can only suggest them here, it opened my eyes to many perspectives on political personhood relevant to contemporary discourse.  Once again, editing academic texts proves to have rewards well beyond pay.

Dead Voice concentrates on the Workshop of Alfonso X, which was responsible for the groundbreaking legal work, Siete Partidas. It was the first vernacular law code in Spain, but, as Rodriguez-Velasco makes clear in detail, there is so much more.  Beyond passing law by decree, Siete Partidas includes passages giving the philosophical and theological underpinnings of law and explores the legal subject’s responsibilities as a constructed entity in parallel with speculation on the law’s metaphysical origins.  Herein lies the problematic (at least to a 21rst century reader) nature of juridical personhood as Rodriguez-Velasco traces it through Siete Partidas: subjects of law are at once offered the right to claim redress against a grounding of mutual individual and state responsibility and are concomitantly subsumed in juridically constructed personhood.

The book opens with a definition of “Dead Voice,” used to distinguish between the living voice of a testifying witness and the content of that witness as recorded in a documentary process giving the content signifying power beyond the immediate time of testimony.  As such, the content is articulated, even constructed, by the language of power in which it is recorded. The voice of the person is lifted from its own materiality and is given a ghost-like presence surviving its contemporary moment in a historicizing and defining text empowered beyond the life of the speaker and the events testified to. Subsequently, the text is archived along with accoutrements signifying its authenticity as a stable document. One sees the origins of precedent law.


Situated as such, the person who is a subject of the law becomes a fictive entity constructed by the law code itself. As such, subjecthood is a definition at once derived from and effacing the material/pyschological person. The person, in this case, becomes a subject through subjection to the law as the law understands and constructs the citizen. The beauty of this, as Rodriguez-Velasco is at pains to point out, and despite how uncomfortable it may make contemporary western individuals, is that persons are defined as entities whose behavior toward each other and the state is open to regulation that attempts to ensure compliance with moral absolutes from which the law, as articulated, descends. By doing so, it rescues citizens from the arbitrary will of tyrants.

Another departure from the concept of law as descending from the king’s subjective person is the writing of Siete Partidas in then contemporary Spanish. The work draws on the philosophies of classical, Christian, Jewish and Islamic sources, but the work is in Spanish, and open to scrutiny by any literate subject of Alfonso’s rule. Rights and responsibilities are known and set forward before the arbitrary judgement of anyone in the governing hierarchy.

As usual, the author may have thanked me for my editorial work, but I was once again most likely the party who more benefited.  Please look for it when available and do yourself the favor of giving it a careful read.