Reading Michel Foucault in the Postcolonial Present: A Symposium
Bologna, Italy, March 3-4, 2011.
Hosted by the University of Bologna
Funded by the Finnish Academy
Neoliberalism is superficially understood as a theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being can best be advanced by the development of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade. Less understood, however, is how its claims to be able to develop wealth and freedom became correlated with claims to develop the prosperity and security of life itself. Life, in the form of species existence, rather than human nature, has progressively emerged as a singularly important a priori for liberal political economy. Neoliberalism breaks from earlier liberalisms and traditions of political economy in so far as it pursues the development of economic profitability and prosperity not just with practices for the development of the human species, but with the life of the biosphere.
These correlations of economy, development, freedom, and life in and among neoliberal regimes of practice and representation comprise some of the foundations of its biopolitics. As this symposium will explore, we cannot understand how liberalism functions, most especially how it has gained the global hegemony that it has, without addressing how systematically the category of life has organized the correlation of its various practices of governance, as well as how important the shift in the very understanding of life, from the human to the biospheric, has been for changes in those practices.
Today it is not simply living species and habitats that are threatened with extinction, and for which we must mobilize our care, but the words and gestures of human solidarity on which resistance to biopolitical regimes of governance depends. A sense of responsibility for the survival of the life of the biosphere is not a sufficient condition for the development of a political subject capable of speaking back to neoliberalism. What is required is a subject responsible for securing incorporeal species, chiefly that of the political, currently threatened with extinction, on account of the overwrought fascination with life that has colonized the developmental as well as every other biopoliticized imaginary of the modern age.
While Foucault’s thought has been inspirational in diagnosing this condition of the postcolonial age, his works have too often failed to inspire studies of political subjectivity. Instead they have been used to stoke the myth of the inevitability of the decline of collective political subjects, describing an increasingly limited horizon of political possibilities, and provoking a disenchantment of the political itself. In contrast this symposium will excavate the importance of Foucault’s work for our capacities to recognise how this debasement of political subjectivity came about, particularly within the framework of the discourses and politics of “development”, and with particular attention to the predicaments of postcolonial peoples. Why and how it is that life in postcolonial settings has been depoliticized to such dramatic effect? And, crucially, how can we use Foucault to recover the vital capacity to think and act politically in a time when the most basic expressions of thought and human action are being targeted for new techniques of control and governance?
The immediacy of these themes will be obvious to anyone living in the South of the world. But within the academy they remain heavily under-addressed. In thinking about what it means to read Michel Foucault today this symposium will address some significant questions and problems. Not simply that of how to explain the ways in which postcolonial regimes of governance have achieved the debasements of political subjectivity they have. And certainly not that of how we might better equip them with the means to support life more fully. But that of how life itself, in its subjection to governance, can and does resist, subvert, escape and defy the imposition of modes of governance which seek to remove it of those very capacities for resistance, subversion, flight, and defiance.
This symposium will be the second in a series, the first having been held in Calcutta in September 2010, “The Biopolitics of Development: Life, Welfare and Unruly Populations”. As was established there, the formulation of and response to these questions and problems remains open. The political reception of Foucault’s thought is not monolithic and the debates provoked among the participants at the Calcutta event are far from settled. Hence the demand for a second symposium, this time in Bologna.
Confirmed speakers include Michael Dillon, Sandro Mezzadra, Julian Reid, Judith Revel, and Ranabir Samaddar. We also invite papers on this thematic from anyone else wishing to participate. Contributions analysing the topic of Foucault, political subjectivity and development from the perspective of other postcolonial locations will be particularly appreciated.
Send your abstracts to the organizing committee: Sandro Mezzadra (firstname.lastname@example.org), Julian Reid (email@example.com) and Ranabir Samaddar (firstname.lastname@example.org) by December 31, 2010.