The Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities
Georgetown University Law Center
Washington, DC
6–7 March 2015

The Human Right to Die

From Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp to Pelican Bay State Prison, in recent years a discourse of human rights has been mobilized to justify the forced feeding of hunger striking prisoners. Keeping alive at all costs, the biopolitical logics of forced feeding are counterposed to suicide, which is presented as an aberration of human life, a temporary deviance in need of correction. Taking solitary confinement as its scene of study, this paper considers suicide as thanatopolitical—that is, as a threat to, interruption of, and corporeal critique of neoliberal biopolitics. But it is not simply death, in opposition to bare life, that is at stake for the suicide: it is what Blanchot theorizes as “the Openness of a community.” This Openness is a condition for human rights, which must be founded in community, and not upon bare biological life. In other words, “the right to have rights,” to use Arendt’s phrase, depends upon the relevance of speech, which is radically undermined by solitary confinement, but which nevertheless emerges in flickering moments of solidarity across the solitary archipelago. Conceived in this manner, the Openness of community must be underwritten by suicide—the only death that actively contests the biopolitical state power “to make live and let die.”

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American Circuits, American Secrets
Canadian Association for American Studies
The University of Alberta @ The Banff Centre
Banff, Alberta, Canada

18–21 September 2014

The Circuits of Secret Desire: Masturbation and the Defence of Scholarly Cynicism

According to Michel Foucault, “Masturbation is the universal secret shared by everyone but disclosed to no one.” This paper discusses masturbation in the context of Foucault’s late work on ethics as “the care of the self”—a self-relation that critically resists the institution of abstract rationalism, an ethic of autonomy, and their apotheosis in neoliberal forms of governance. The paper falls into three parts. In the first, I sketch the history of masturbation as a religious, social, political, medical, and economic problem. I’m interested here how masturbation arose as a threat to governing logics and ideologies, and thus as a threat to normative subject formation. In the second part, I venture an apology for the metaphorics of masturbation. Turning to the ancient Greek “care of the self,” I theorize the self’s relation to itself in terms of masturbation and a phenomenology of touch. I argue that the central trope for the masturbator is catachresis. In this context, the masturbator might serve as a critical figure, one whose activities cannot easily be commodified or co-opted by regimes of accountability, efficiency, and utility. In the third and concluding part, I reflect on the circuits and politics of the production of knowledge in the social sciences and humanities. I argue that the scholarly work that we do—often dismissively characterized as “mental masturbation”—might be productively re-figured as an ethic of self-care modeled on Cynic philosophy. A defence of theoretical scholarship, this paper is also a scathing critique of “austerity” and the wholesale neoliberalization of the university.

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Critical Legal Conference
University of Sussex, United Kingdom
4–6 September 2014

Biopolitical Mor(t)alities: Canadian Law, Biomedicine, and Neocolonial Imaginaries in the Case of a Young First Nations Girl

Stuart J. Murray and Tad Lemieux

Suffering with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, eleven-year-old Makayla Sault, a First Nations girl, refused continued chemotherapy treatments after reporting that Jesus had visited her in a vision. Her doctors reported her to the relevant Children’s Aid Society in order to determine, according to Canada’s Health Care Consent Act, whether she was “capable” of refusing treatment. This paper analyses the widespread media response to the ruling that deemed Makayla “capable,” and problematises law’s silence on the question of her religious fundamentalism and her Indigeneity. Indeed, there is legal precedence from the Supreme Court of Canada to remove a minor, and to force biomedical treatment, on the basis of religious belief rendering a minor “incapable.” In this case, however, although Makayla’s Indigeneity seems to have been a deciding factor in the case, (neo)liberal state institutions would undermine their own authority, and the mechanisms of that authority, if they were to admit that “capacity” belongs also—or perhaps even primordially—to a people on the basis of shared tradition, culture, or even ancestral heritage. If the state embarked on such a debate, it would expose the fictional nature of individual “capacity,” along with the fragile authority—and arbitrary violence—by which the state itself produces and polices individuality as an instrument of biopolitical governance, if not subjugation. This paper uses the case of Makayla Sault to critically trace the medico-legal imaginaries that were mobilized to produce, bestow, and to reify the moral fiction of a “capable” individual, rather than engage a discourse on decolonisation.

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Life, in theory

Life, in Theory
European Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts
Turin, Italy
3–6 June 2014

Towards an Etho-Rhetorical Critique of “Affirmative” Biopolitics

This paper stages an encounter between Heidegger and Foucault, offering an ontology of care as a critical response to recent scholars who propose an “affirmative” biopolitics (Campbell, Esposito, Hardt & Negri, Rose, Santner). Heidegger’s Being and Time characterizes human being as “distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it.” This self-reflexivity revolves around the ontological structure of care. In his late work, Foucault turns to the Hellenistic “care of the self” (epimeleia heautou) and argues that the self’s relation to itself represents an ethic of care. For both thinkers the tropological constitution of the human subject is paramount. My contention is that “affirmative” biopoliticians have not understood the rhetoricity of narrative and are caught within a utilitarian, neoliberal ethic. I offer a reading of the crucial midway point of Being and Time (§42), where Heidegger cites Hyginus’ first-century CE fable, “Care [Cura].” Significantly, this is the only moment in which his text deploys narrative, mythological or otherwise. I examine this radical shift in rhetorical registers and argue that the fable, which narrates the creation of the human, also functions performatively by prompting a meditation on language and death.Foucault’s “care of the self” is relevant here because the self-relation is rhetorical, based on the non-instrumental understanding of “use” (chresis). Care, then, is the “use” the self makes of itself, mediated through an aesthetics of existence—a rhetorical conception of life (bios), evidenced through Foucault’s final lectures on the fabled death of Socrates.

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Rhetoric Society of America Conference
San Antonio, TX
22–26 May 2014

Pronouncing Death: Biopolitical Affirmations

What, then, calls me into question most radically? Not my relation to myself as finite or as the consciousness of being before death or for death, but my presence for another who absents himself by dying.     —Blanchot, The Unavowable Community 

The suicide bomber is unimaginable: irreparably irrational, radicalized, Islamicized. However, few figures circulate more widely in the War on Terror, operating as its ultimate raison d’être. This paper argues that the suicide bomber is the “unimaginable” and generalized face of “the terrorist”—enemies of the state who will their own deaths, revoking their lives, such that killing is little more than passively “letting die” those who are figured as “already dead,” unsurvivable. To kill is little more than pronouncing death, a biopolitical pronouncement spoken anonymously in the name of life itself. The sovereign spectacle of the scaffold is displaced by a disappearing public sphere: “black sites” like Guantanamo, the vaporized victims of drone strikes, clandestine burial at sea. Producing the death it disavows, foreclosing on compassion and identification with the dead, what hope is left for an ethical intervention in the War on Terror? In whose voice would it speak?

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