RSA Summer Institute 2013:
Biopolitics and Bioethics
Stuart J. Murray, Carleton University
Twyla Gibson, University of Missouri

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 self-relation have organized around a narrowing concept of “life.” While the motto of sovereign power was “to take life or let live,” the motto of biopolitical power is “to make live and let die.” The focus has shifted dramatically: it no longer concerns the sovereign’s imperial hold on the individual body, but rather, a decentralized and polymorphic power that regulates the masses, the population, man-as-species, the “race.” The sovereign’s prerogative to kill or let live gradually has been displaced by the diffuse political power to make live—that is, to bestow life, to foster it, to protect it, by regulating human reproduction, fertility, productivity, public health and hygiene, accidents, medicine, and the like. In sum, biopolitics does not treat individual bodies; bodies are “massified,” bodies are “regularized,” and “bodies are replaced by general biological processes.”

This workshop poses biopolitics as a problem for ethics, which is now arguably characterized as a kind of technē informed by “codes of behavior” or “coercion-technologies.” 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 turn, the turning of the self upon itself in the care of the self (epimeleia heautou). Citing Plato’s Alcibiades, 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 intensional and directed 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, politics, media, technology, medicine, culture, activism, etc. What are the possibilities for disrupting biopolitical and neoliberal forms of self-relation, through “thanatopolitics,” for example, or through catachrestic forms of life and living?

Together, we’ll read and discuss several key texts resonant with participants’ interests. Roughly half of the time will be spent workshopping participants’ works-in-progress.  Everyone (including the leaders) will submit in advance a brief piece of 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.


overview of the workshop

Friday, June 7    Meet, greet, and introduce the problem of biopolitics and bioethics. Can there be an “ethical” biopolitics?

Saturday, June 8    Presentations. Our aim is to reserve as much time as possible for conversation. While different groups might take different approaches, our hope is that individual participants will not read their papers but craft a short presentation (roughly 10 minutes) that conveys the gist of their own position in relation to their group members’ papers and the workshop thematic.

Sunday, June 9    Round-table discussion, picking up on Saturday’s presentations. Some questions we might ask: What (if anything) is “beyond” biopolitics? What is the (bio)ethics to come?

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