Special issue call for papers Biopolitical tensions after pandemic times
Annika Skoglund, Uppsala University
Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha, Kazi Nazrul University and ILSR, Calcutta Fabiana Jardim, University of São Paulo
David Armstrong, King’s College London
Keywords: Biopolitics, Covid, health politics, governance, pandemic, self-management
Finitude, facemasks, screens and vaccines: the virulence of Covid has made the tensions between our ways of living and what we have learned to identify as biological threats more visible, felt and contentious. Similar to historical cases of epidemic and pandemic threats (Foucault 1976/2002, 1977, 1977-78/2007), human connectivity has, yet again, become a matter of life and death. And when threats in any form rapidly flow through the population, so does the quest for new knowledge, coupled with innovative ways of governing oneself and others, commonly in attempts to minimise danger. These are certainly interesting times and we now invite contributions to a special issue of Foucault Studies that can begin to unearth what has happened. There are many ways of approaching the pandemic and without prejudicing individual contributions we pose a few questions below that might stimulate further exploration.
Contested knowledge and confessions
Is there, or was there, a ‘pandemic’, caused by a certain virus and its mutations? During the early months of 2020, many voices acknowledged a new Covid infection sweeping the world but thought it no worse than a ‘minor flu’. Media reports of widening spread, together with overwhelmed hospitals and an increasing death toll, then persuaded many that this was no ordinary infection. Juggling with uncertainty, embedded in models of the future course of the infection, scientists made assumptions about the potential effects of various preventive measures. Facemasks were produced in vast quantities – some even had ‘I care’ written on them – and many were willing to wear them. Yet the take up was not universal or consistent, and in the overall knowledge production some citizens and even governments became known as ‘pandemic resistors’, due to their counter-actions. Caring differently, they either questioned if Covid was any worse than annual influenza, or accepted it as unavoidable, like any other major natural event, a tsunami or an earthquake.
A related debate questioned the origins of the Covid virus. Was it a ‘natural’ mutation, or human agency that allowed a ‘non-natural’ organism to escape from a laboratory? This tension was also re-iterated in the policy response. Was this virus part of the natural order to be managed by biological resilience and the development of ‘herd immunity’ or was it,
like other social threats, to be dealt with by human intervention and ingenuity? This tension informed policies that, on the one hand, accepted deaths of older citizens, or those with prior illness, as simply bringing forward events by perhaps a few months or years, and on the other, created novel categories of the ‘vulnerable’, rolling out particular protections, particularly in terms of vaccination priority.
Through this immense knowledge production and generation of very different claims to truth, the pandemic quickly became a global event, finding people aligning with contrasting worldviews, confessing their loyalties one way, then another. In the wake of such a multiplicity of knowledge production, how can we understand the pandemic as productive of new realities and subjectivities?
Social solidarity and population segmentation
In addition to the production of new knowledge, citizens were being encouraged to unite in creative, emotional ways, notably as a response to those who denied the significance of the threat. In India, for example, military helicopters scattered rose petals over Covid-19 hospitals and naval ships fired guns at the ocean in demonstrations of national solidarity and gratitude towards ‘Corona warriors’. In the U.K., people came to their doors once a week ‘clapping’ with kitchen utensils to show appreciation for the efforts of health care workers, and in New Zealand, Teddy Bears were placed in windows (Trnka 2020). These efforts had no direct effects on the progression of the virus but they seemed important gestures, signals of common purpose, reassuring displays of solidarity in the face of an implacable foe.
Yet at another level of emotion, the reaction to the pandemic was not one of solidarity and unity but division as populations were segmented, and in some parts of the world, violently so. In India, again, the government response often sought to victimize the poor (Sengupta and Jha 2021), and migrant workers became the necessary casualties in the effort to portray the impression of quick and ‘strong’ leadership. The migrants were forced to walk back home, to a domestic sphere, often hundreds of miles, going unfed and untreated during the hurriedly imposed lockdown (Purakayastha and Alam 2020). Some of them were killed by heavy vehicles while walking, and how many actually died from Covid remains uncertain, given their deaths were refused official recognition. These ‘bodily’ costs, even disqualified deaths, were an ironic consequence of the ‘preventive’ measures being introduced.
Similarly divisive policies were adopted in Brazil (CEPEDISA/Conectas 2021), a response that became infamous worldwide (Dall’Alba et al. 2021) for its targeting of precarity (Leite 2020). Less known, however, are the bottom-up responses, with grass- roots initiatives that started to act out something like a ‘bureaucracy at street level’. Together with networks of voluntary actors in urban peripheries or indigenous and traditional Quilombola territories, people took it upon themselves to disseminate recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO). They even distributed masks and alcohol, as well as basic items of food, to prevent those living on a day-to-day basis exposing themselves to dangerous work conditions.
Through these new practices of social solidarity and population segmentation, the pandemic has inspired new relationships to others. But how have these relationships rejuvenated the making of ‘citizenship’ and its bodies?
Innovativeness and self-mastery
Grounded in a will to adapt to dangers, and espouse both responsibility and resilience, voluntary measures have largely replaced one of the oldest public health strategies, quarantine. The Covid pandemic, however, elicited a broad sweep of tactics from the archive of public health armoury (see Armstrong 1995), including novel ways of policing quarantines, fostering self-surveillance and counting deaths (Armstrong 2021). In the U.K., for example, the momentarily lost entrepreneurial spirit was reawakened, innovating technologies that could keep the population circulating, despite the danger (Ahrens and Ferry 2021), resulting in countless businesses for surveillance, swabbing, diagnosis and reporting. People were given increased agency and responsibility to use their own means to respond innovatively, at the same time as they were constrained regarding their potentially misdirected self-mastery, pronounced in the restrictions on social gatherings and the following violations thereof. Tensions between collectivity and individuality, people and politicians, surfaced with the exposure of rogue, restriction-breaking bodies at the numerous parties being covertly organized at No. 10 Downing Street, further amplifying the strains on agency and autonomy.
In Sweden, on the other hand, voluntarism spread without creating such visible and mediatized strains. Through an evidence-based strategy, the Swedish Health Agency continuously optimized their knowledge agenda and imaginaries of a participative democratic citizen (Wikforss 2021). For example, strenuous efforts were made to provide expert information and advice on appropriate measures for effective self-management in: Arabic, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Dari, Finnish, French, Chinese, Kurmanji, Meänkieli, Persian/Farsi, Polish, various forms of Romani, and of importance more recently, Ukrainian. Instead of forcing people to behave in a certain way during pandemic times, the Swedish strategy attempted to build long-term resilience through a knowledgeable citizen.
Through innovative government of self and others, the pandemic has thus pushed ‘the population’ beyond its historical logistical qualities. So what are the effects on self- mastery and care of the self?
Foucauldian contributions to think pandemics differently
What the above examples from across the world have made obvious is that two years of everyday life with the virus has been far from subtle. If anything, the virus has infected politics (Povinelli 2020). And, since the official outbreak in early 2020, Foucauldian scholars have, often depending on their geographical position, employed different approaches to better understand the human response. The problem of how to govern whom, or what, have, for example, been discussed in relation to novel legislation in Asia (Ramraj 2020), emergency protocols in Australia (Glitsos 2021), closed borders in Italy, Malta and Greece (Tazzioli and Stierl 2021), Chinese lock-down (Li 2021) and quarantine in the Philippines (Siena 2022). Studies of the policing of behaviours traditionally known to feed viruses (De Munck 2020), such as intoxication in bars and nightclubs (Pellizzoni and Sena 2021), and sloppy hygiene in office toilets or at home (Umamaheswar and Tan 2020), have further clarified how Covid has become more about the human, than the virus.
What emerges is a human whose thoughts are channelled less by the establishment of an ‘evil system of surveillance over will-less bodies’ (De Munck 2020:119), than by a productive engagement with ambiguously willing bodies, fostered as they have been to invest in life itself. ‘Making live’ and ‘letting die’, guided by partitioning and hierarchical differentiation (Hannah, Hutta, and Schemann 2020, Schubert 2022), in the explosion of explicit and implicit measures, has spurred several biopolitical shifts with diverse effects (Hull 2020). With empirical studies illustrating how biopolitics, underpinned by a genuine care for the population, has, with Covid, become both unquestionably justified (Constantinou 2021) as well as habitual (Glitsos 2021). An habituation that has become more entrenched with ground-breaking digital technology for population management, pointing to Covid conceived as endemic (Couch, Robinson, and Komesaroff 2020).
Despite ‘draconian policies’ (Gjerde 2021:474) locking-down those citizens conceived as ‘belonging’, and locking-out those deemed not to belong (Goldberg 2020), ‘universally destructive’ viruses are nonetheless, as Foucault pointed out in Society Must be Defended (Foucault 1975-76/2004:254), beyond ‘all human sovereignty’. With Covid this realization slowly seems to have strengthened a ‘medicalization of insecurity’ (Elbe 2011), along with a ‘nationalization of the biological’ (Foucault 1975-76/2004:240), underpinned by futile attempts to recover state sovereignty without looking fragile (Makarychev and Romashko 2021). As a complement to comparisons of national health systems and survival rates (cf. Braithwaite et al. 2021), disciplinary subjugation (Wagner, Matulewska, and Marusek 2021) and resistance thereto (Meeker 2020), have thus become new judgement criteria for the evaluation of national competitiveness.
In tandem with this benchmarking between nations, international concerns have been raised about how to manage the aleatory aspects of life across the globe (Marinković and Major 2020). Not only was human connectivity targeted as a threat to life, but also interspecies connectivity, which could encourage this dangerously ‘jumping’ virus (Vatter 2021). Life, conceptualized within an amalgamating ecological system, was problematized anew, often being aligned with leftist critiques of climate change (Malm 2020). By coupling the virus to the dangers with both fossil-fuel mobility and the acceleration of monetary circulation and accumulation, discourses on Covid have facilitated an environmentalist agenda, but one strangely skewed away from a perceived or felt species intimacy. Talk about a global sickening and Earth-encompassing chronic emergency has become easier (Ibid), testifying to the prolific language of pathological concepts needed in ‘our big war’ against the incessantly transforming ‘invisible enemy’ and its unpredictable whereabouts (Reid 2020).
Considering this diversity of pandemic predicaments, what does the contemporary ‘right to health’ look like (cf. Foucault 2004:6)? This ‘right’ originally demanded biopolitical intervention in the form of novel technologies of power that were flexible, economical and alluring enough, but have, with Covid, been suggested to permeate both discipline and sovereignty to remould and enforce them anew (Lorenzini 2021, Pykett and Lavis 2021). Depending on geographical position and epidemiological preferences, the regulation of life via science, statistics and responsibility has not only diffused logistically, motivated by biological longevity with racist implications (Liz 2020, Horvath and Lovasz 2020), it has also opened up for ideas of future bodies, aided by a priori knowledge and the leading question: In what innovative ways can the population, or even a global mass, be governed anew?
About this call
Foucault offers a wide range of approaches to think differently about the pandemic. This Special Issue of Foucault Studies calls for research that think widely on the place of Foucault’s work in relation to Covid in different empirical realms, historically and into the future. Based on the richness of already existing Foucauldian studies of Covid, attention could for example be given to the historicity of the medicalized body (Gougelet 2010, Enoch 2004, Petersen and Bunton 1997), with a broader interest in clashing or aligning knowledge movements, and how shifts in epistemological thresholds nurture new modes of ‘seeing’ and a morphing of human subjectivities, attitudes, and desires (Foucault 1977, 1978). How Covid has infected politics and infused biopolitics differently around the world, and beyond an understanding based on the canon of Foucault, could also be further debated (Foucault et al. 2020, Demetri 2020, Delanty 2020, Horton 2021), especially considering researchers who already have drawn attention to neglected contexts and experiences. A focus on biopolitical tensions could also prompt creative tensions through dialogues with contemporary philosophical debates. We therefore invite authors to explore Covid through Foucault based on their own empirical and theoretical interests to reach beyond what we currently know.
Submission deadline: 31st of December 2022 Publication: autumn issue 2023
Please visit the Foucault Studies website for instructions to authors: https://rauli.cbs.dk/index.php/foucault-studies/about/submissions
Submit your manuscript directly to co-editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
Articles should aim for a target length of 7,000 to 12,000 words and an abstract of 150 to 250 words and 5-6 keywords. Book reviews, which are commissioned, should be between 1,000 and 2,000 words. Review essays, which are also commissioned, should be between 2,000 to 6,000 words.
Ahrens, Thomas, and Laurence Ferry. 2021. “Accounting and accountability practices in times of crisis: a Foucauldian perspective on the UK government’s response to COVID-19 for England.” Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal. 34 (6): 1332- 1344.
Armstrong, David. 1995. “The rise of surveillance medicine.” Sociology of health & illness 17 (3):393-404.
Armstrong, David. 2021. “The COVID-19 pandemic and cause of death.” Sociology of health & illness 43 (7):1614-1626.
Braithwaite, Jeffrey, Yvonne Tran, Louise A Ellis, and Johanna Westbrook. 2021. “The 40 health systems, COVID-19 (40HS, C-19) study.” International Journal for Quality in Health Care. 33(1):1-7.
CEPEDISA/Conectas. 2021. Boletim n.10 – Direitos na Pandemia: Mapeamento e análises das normas jurídicas de resposta à Covid-19 no Brasil. São Paulo. https://www.conectas.org/publicacao/boletim-direitos-na-pandemia-no-10/
Constantinou, Costas S. 2021. “Responses to Covid-19 as a form of ‘biopower’.” International Review of Sociology. https://doi.org/10.1080/03906701.2021.2000069
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De Munck, Bert. 2020. “The Human Body Must Be Defended: A Foucauldian and Latourian Take on COVID-19.” Journal for the History of Environment and Society 5:113-123.
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Demetri, Felipe. 2020. “Biopolitics and coronavirus, or don’t forget Foucault.” Naked Punch, 21:1-4.
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Foucault, Michel. 1977-78/2007. Security, Territory, Population. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Francois Ewald and Allessandro Fontana. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
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Hannah, Matthew G, Jan Simon Hutta, and Christoph Schemann. 2020. “Thinking through Covid-19 responses with Foucault: An initial overview.” Antipode Online. 5th of May, https://antipodeonline.org/2020/05/05/thinking-through-covid-19-responses- with-foucault/
Horton, Sarah. 2021. “When the Face Becomes a Carrier.” Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 77 (2/3):715-732.
Horvath, Mark, and Adam Lovasz. 2020. “Foucault in the Age of COVID-19: Permitting Contingency in Biopolitics.” Identities 17 (1):144-153.
Hull, Gordon. 2020. “Why We Are Not Bare Life: What’s wrong with Agamben’s Thoughts on Coronavirus.” New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science. A group blog with people from all over the map. https://www.newappsblog.com/2020/03/why-we- are-not-bare-life-whats-wrong-with-agambens-thoughts-on-coronavirus.html.
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John R. Bryson, Lauren Andres, Aksel Ersoy and Louise Reardon. pp. 227-236. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
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Sengupta, Sohini, and Manish K Jha. 2021. “Risks and resilience: COVID-19 response and disaster management policies in India.” India Review 20 (2):121-141.
Siena, Merimee T. 2022. “A Foucauldian discourse analysis of president Duterte’s constructions of community quarantine during COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines.” Journal of Constructivist Psychology https://doi.org/10.1080/10720537.2022.2032503
Tazzioli, Martina, and Maurice Stierl. 2021. ““We Closed the Ports to Protect Refugees.” Hygienic Borders and Deterrence Humanitarianism during Covid-19.” International Political Sociology 15 (4):539-558.
Trnka, Susanna. 2020. “Rethinking states of emergency.” Social Anthropology 28 (2):367-368. Umamaheswar, Janani, and Catherine Tan. 2020. ““Dad, wash your hands”: Gender, care work, and attitudes toward risk during the COVID- 19 Pandemic, Socius 6:2378023120964376.
Vatter, Miguel. 2021. “One health and one home: On the biopolitics of Covid-19.” In Coronavirus, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy. Edited by Fernando Castrillón and Thomas Marchevsky. pp. 79-82. Abingdon: Routledge.
Wagner, Anne, Aleksandra Matulewska, and Sarah Marusek. 2021. “Pandemica panoptica: Biopolitical management of viral spread in the age of covid-19.” International Journal for the Semiotics of Law-Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique:1-37. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-021-09821-1
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