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Biopolitics and Bioethics

Workshop Leaders:

Stuart J. Murray, Carleton University
Twyla Gibson, University of Missouri

This workshop asks how biopolitics forces us to rethink our understanding of ethics. In his later work, Michel Foucault defines ethics as the self’s relation to itself, a relation we might consider to be rhetorical. In a biopolitical age, however, the terms of our ethical self-relation have organized around a narrowing concept of “life”—where classical sovereign power has been displaced by the state’s power to make live: to bestow life, to foster it, to protect it, by regulating human reproduction, fertility, productivity, public health and hygiene, accidents, medicine…. What are the possibilities for disrupting biopolitical and neoliberal forms of self-relation, through “thanatopolitics” (Murray) or “necropolitics” (Mbembe)—a “politics of death”—or through other catachrestic forms of life and living?

We take our cue from Foucault, whose re/turn to ancient thought sought to overturn modern ethics (and politics) founded in what he calls the “Cartesian moment,” which has reached its apogee in the biopolitical and neoliberal present. In his Collège de France lectures, Hermeneutics of the Subject, Foucault suggests that ethics is a (rhetorical) turn, the turning of the self upon itself in the care of the self (epimeleia heautou). Citing Plato’s Alcibiades I, the self’s relation to itself is a relation of khrēsis; however, Foucault takes great pains to demonstrate that this is not an instrumental relation, as it is for the neoliberal subject. While khrēsis can be translated simply as “use,” it enjoys a more extended sense: it is an attitude, behavior, or, in the language of phenomenology, a comportment or corporeal engagement, perhaps even a being-in-the-world. This sense of khrēsis shares a great deal with the rhetorical figure of catachresis, commonly defined as the misuse or abuse of a word or expression.

The leaders of this workshop invite scholars engaged in the rhetorical study of biopolitics and ethics. We hope to explore ethics in Foucault and beyond, and are particularly keen to foster an interdisciplinary forum, with researchers whose work is inflected through theories and practices of race, ethnicity, gender, postcolonialism, homonationalism, law, politics, media, technology, medicine, culture, activism, etc. We aim for a mix of scholars not just across the disciplines, but at all stages of their careers, from accomplished Foucauldians to those just beginning to explore these themes.

Together, we’ll read and discuss key texts by Foucault, including selections from Hermeneutics of the Subject, “Society Must Be Defended” and The Birth of Biopolitics, as well as Plato’s Alcibiades I. Other post-Foucaudian texts treating biopolitics and ethics will be selected dialogically, taking participants’ interdisciplinary interests into consideration. Roughly half of the time will be spent workshopping participants’ works-in-progress. Participants are asked to submit in advance a list of 3-5 relevant texts as well as a brief piece of their own writing (approx. 5 pp.): an excerpt from a dissertation chapter or prospectus, a reflection on methodology, a set of archival notes, or some other related text. Texts will be uploaded to a password-protected online repository for ease of access; prior to the workshop we will develop an online discussion board to encourage an exchange of ideas, which we hope will help set the tone and direction of our discussion in person.

Questions should be directed to Stuart Murray at

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