ACLA 2016 Seminar in Review: Biopolitical Modernities

Near the end of March, I attended the American Comparative Literature Association’s annual conference. Evan Mauro and I collaboratively organized a two-day seminar titled “Biopolitical Modernities: Empire and Biological Governance in the Long Twentieth Century”, and I have to say, it was one of the most productive and rewarding conference experiences I’ve ever had.

The papers were all outstanding and the dialog and conversation was both rigorous and invigorating. We also got some excellent feedback, comments, and questions from folks visiting from other seminars. It was truly amazing.

[DISCLAIMER: I’m recapping these papers based on my own notes and memory, take them as brief blurbs intended to arouse your interest and allow you to find intellectuals working on these topics, not as ironclad recapitulations of papers given or arguments made. I cannot do any of these great papers justice.]

On Day 1 we had four presentations.

First, Jennifer Wang’s “Unhistorical Forms of Life in Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem” got us started by reading Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem against Nietzsche’s conceptions of historical and unhistorical life. Wang focused primarily on complicating the concept of “unhistorical life,” demonstrating how McKay’s novel shows relations between unhistorical life, empire, and black modernity and argues that we must consider unhistorical life on its own terms (rather than simply as the grounding for historical life that is also left bare).

Ramon Soto-Crespo then presented “The Neobuggarón: Sexual Trash, Biopolitics, and Latin/o America.” Soto-Crespo examined how contemporary anthropological discourse has missed a moment of transition, wherein the figure of the buggarón has been revived through sexual tourism as a neoliberal construct. The neobuggarón ends up having high stakes, as the market vitalizes an invisible sexual identity that does not seek political agency and defies regulation.

Molly Hall then gave a paper titled “Biopolitical Sacrifice and Cnsumption in Padmanabhan’s Harvest.” In this paper, Hall read Manjula Padmanabhan’s Harvest through the lens of Giorgio Agamben’s biopolitical theory, examining how the factory farming of organ donors in the play at once makes them commodified objects AND hyperregulated and fetishized subjects.

I rounded out the first day of the conference by presenting “‘To cleanse them from pollution’: Medicine, Race, and Degeneration in Dracula and Biopolitics.” I had a two part argument. (1) That we need to historicize biopolitical discourse and understand that, given its emergence directly out of clinical/medicalized justifications for empire, colonialism, and eugenic endeavors, it is a provincially European postcolonial formulation that can benefit from dialog with postcolonial, disability, critical race, sex, and gender studies and queer theory. [Though I didn’t mention it at the time, obviously settler colonial criticism also applies here.] (2) The entangling of biology and politics and the turning of the clinical gaze onto the nation’s population at the end of the Nineteenth Century contributed to the formation of an assemblage that produced perceived threats of bioinsecurity to justify racial and social violence. [Feel free to email me for more info or a copy of the talk:]

Day 2 was just as productive and engaging.

Jih-Fei Cheng started us off with a fascinating paper on “Magnification and the Microbiopolitical.” Cheng performed a settler-colonial reading of the history of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV), and by extension in some measure, the origins of virology itself. Ultimately, Cheng critiqued the concept of scale as it has been elucidated in virology, as a visual iteration and translation of coloniality and the colonial racial form. [And as someone who has done some research on early virology, it was eye-opening seeing some of Jules Crevaux’s and others’ remarks about TMV infected plants being “made mulatto.” I thought that historical connection between race, colonization, Empire, and exploitation was really illuminating.]

Sonali Thakkar then presented “Unesco and the Politics of Racial Plasticity and Racial Reeducation.” Thakkar gave a fascinating critical history of the 1950 UNESCO statement on race, examining how the drafts of the statement veered more and more towards a goal of racial reeducation, while also failing to meet the original goal of positively defining race. The stakes of this intellectual reformation are greater than they appear, as the negative definitions of race offered by UNESCO in the end seem to contribute in some measure to the emergence of a postracial discourse. [This is also really interesting because at nearly the same time that the interdisciplinary board of thinkers in UNESCO tried to destabilize race as an object of scientific discourse and reeducate the world on race, the UN was participating in international sterilization projects with International Planned Parenthood and the London Eugenics Society.]

My co-organizer, Evan Mauro closed out the seminar for us with “The Social Life of Sensation: Logistics and Settler Colonialism.” Mauro’s paper looked at the argument between Brooks Adams and William James over what the “New Empire” of the U.S. should look like, examining how the neocolonial strucure of American Imperialism in the Twentieth Century was radical in its nature as trade colonial Geoeconomic/Debt imperialism. Mauro connected the establishment of logistics for settler colonial purposes to the global control of logistics through economic and trade relations as a neoimperial/neocolonial structure.


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