Past Initiatives
Sawyer Seminar on Biopolitics

Sawyer Seminar on Biopolitics

The Center for the Humanities, with major support from the A.W. Mellon Foundation’s John E. Sawyer Seminars program, sponsored a two-year-long seminar in 2011-2013 for interdisciplinary inquiry in the humanities titled “Biopolitics: Life in Past and Present.” A capstone conference was held in May of 2013.

The seminar sought to explore the mutually productive spheres of politics and the life sciences, and to engage with the fundamental problem of biopolitics for the twenty-first century. As originally outlined by the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault in the mid-1970s, biopolitics served to describe the organization and deployment of state and institutional power through the management of populations and bodies via discourses of hygiene, health, sanitation, sexuality, and race. In recent decades, the emergence of global health inequities, transgenic technologies, the organization of reproduction, the crisis of the modern welfare state, hunger, and human rights as major ethical battlegrounds indicates the ongoing centrality of biological life for politics, as well as the need for both a more expansive and a more rigorous definition of biopolitics for the twenty-first century. This seminar addressed both the promise and the limitations of biopolitics as an interpretive framework, integrating the contributions of philosophers, anthropologists, literary critics, historians, sociologists, and biological scientists in exploring such themes as biological citizenship; bioarts and biopoetics; biomedicine and subjectivity; reproduction and regeneration; and biolegitimacy, among many others.

The seminar, coordinated by Sara Guyer (Associate Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Jewish Studies and Director, Center for the Humanities) and Richard C. Keller (Associate Professor of Medical History and Bioethics), sponsored three dissertation fellows and one postdoctoral fellow in the academic year 2011-2012 whose work explored the seminar’s key themes. Five core Faculty Participants attended meetings and acted as respondents. Members participated in discussions, workshops, and events with internal speakers from the UW-Madison campus as well as external speakers and guests of the Center for the Humanities.

Please send all inquiries to Megan Massino.