The Biopolitics of America:
Bodies, Environments, and the Liberal Imagination
International Conference, Würzburg, July 28-30, 2016
In the mid-1970s, Michel Foucault reconceived the Aristotalian notion of bios politikos, the organization and regulation of human affairs in the polis, as a concept that enables us to describe a historical shift in the way political power is understood and exercised. In the mid-eighteenth century, he argued, sovereign power begins to be supplemented and superseded by new forms of power that take life itself as their object and aim at fostering the vitality of the governed. The logic of biopolitics, which Foucault eventually came to identify with that of liberalism itself, demands that the state should restrict its own power so as to govern more effectively. In casting the state as guardian of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” the United States Declaration of Independence represents one of the earliest and fullest articulations of the principles that guide the new art of liberal government. It effectively defined the political project of creating a democratic American republic as a biopolitical one.
In American Studies, the concept of biopolitics has figured prominently in discussions of race, citizenship, and the “war on terror.” A principal aim of this conference is to widen its purchase. A broadened understanding of biopolitics requires not only that American Studies address concerns that are central to the environmental humanities and vice versa. As Leerom Medovoi has argued, the concept of environment must be grasped in systematic correlation to that of population. The effective governance of a population requires the regularization and control of the environment which sustains it, and it is this insight which drove not only modern theories of policing, urban planning, or warfare, but also the development of scientific ecology and environmentalist discourse. Thus understood, the notion of environment encompasses both the social and political aspects of human existence, and its ecological foundation conceived by Hannah Arendt as “the basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to man.”
We suggest that a broadened understanding of biopolitics and its location at the intersection of American Studies and the Environmental Humanities can also inform a reassessment of the role of literature and the arts. In The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling celebrated literature as the human activity “that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty”—that is to say, as a practice through which people come to understand themselves in their own aliveness. In other words, literary culture reflects the “vitality” of a society and constitutes an essential counter-force to the modern tendency to rationalize and exploit life. It is the very ambivalence of Trilling’s account—which casts literature in opposition to biopolitics even while it affirms the conceptual linkage of life and liberty on which the concept is founded—which makes it worthwhile to revisit his ideas today.
Against this background, this conference will address questions such as the following:
- To what extent can America be understood as a biopolitical project?
- What role does liberty play in biopolitical thinking?
- To what extent does biopolitics provide a shared conceptual framework for both conservative and (in the modern sense) “liberal” politics in the United States?
- What perspectives are opened up when we begin to conceive of phenomena central to the American self-understanding (e.g. such as national parks, gun laws, or automobility) as biopolitical arrangements?
- And to what extent do literature and the arts participate in formulating a critique of the biopolitical under the condition of the Anthropocene?
The conference is supported by: