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New book deepens discussion on biotechnologies, control and resistance to biopower

3 May 2017 - Resisting Biopolitics, Philosophical, Political, and Performative Strategies is a recent publication, edited by S. E. Wilmer, Fellow Emeritus in Trinity’s School of Creative Arts and Audronė Žukauskaitė, Head of Research at the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute. It highlights the relationship between political control and the body from a number of multi-disciplinary perspectives.

Professor Steve Wilmer, following the recent launch of the book in the Trinity Long Room Hub in April 2016, explained the concept: ‘The book came about as a result of a conference in the Trinity Long Room Hub in 2012 where we invited a number of scholars who had shown an interest in biopolitics in the past, and most of the contributors to the book were at that conference. We asked the authors afterwards to rethink what they were doing and develop new papers for the book itself.’

Wilmer describes biopolitics as the discipline which is concerned with how society is ‘organised and controlled. He says it’s a political term ‘dealing with the inter-relationship between politics and biology, or the body. It encompasses a number of fields bordering on the disciplines of law, medicine, anthropology, politics, media, drama and sociology.’

Some of the chapters of the book deal with topics as diverse as surveillance, expulsion and land control, the evolving relationships between humans and animals, chimerism, the human organ industry, and the control of Irish society, and women in particular, by the Roman Catholic Church, through institutions such as the Magdalene asylums, which features in Wilmer’s own chapter.

The variety of topics reflect the current mood and concern about the growing pervasiveness of biotechnologies, surveillance and political control while also delving into more complex issues further removed from current debates.

A chapter by Philosopher Rosie Braidotti, looks at the ‘post-human’ and what she describes as the changing or ‘shifting’ relations between human and non-human entities. Braidotti’s own research for example looks at the changing nature of the relationship between humans and animals. ‘She is interested in biopolitics and the changing nature of society; and how humans and animals are now seen to be more overlapping in terms of their behaviour and their needs.’

Saskia Sassen, a prominent sociologist at Columbia University, writes about how people are being displaced from their land in the Global South due to the pollution and destruction of land by the presence of global firms seeking to extract minerals, food and water. However, in a perverse cycle of destruction, indebted governments now depend heavily on the money being sent back home by migrants (‘immigrant remittances’), and see it as a major resource of foreign exchange reserves. This new quasi-development strategy also provides new profit making opportunities for small-time entrepreneurs who now turn their hand to trafficking, and whose own businesses may have been decimated by the entrance of new global firms and markets.

Other chapters deal with chimerism and the human body: ‘a women has not just her own cells but the cells of her baby that she’s carrying and in addition to that there’s the possibility of earlier cells from other bodies. So the point the author’s making is that while we normally think of the self as a homogenous being, this is not really true,’ explains Professor Wilmer. The author refers to microchimerism as the presense of cells from another co-existing with the cells of one’s own body, in their body, challenging the embedded societal boundaries between self and other.

Matthew Causey, Associate Professor of Drama at Trinity College Dublin, examines in his chapter the ‘posthuman’ drawing on Braidotti’s research on same, and looking at the romantic or erotic relationship between human and machine, often represented in film. He looks in particular at the film Her, a film whose leading character becomes intimately involved with his computer’s operating system –known as ‘Samantha’.

Finally, Professor Wilmer’s own chapter looks at the control of women in Ireland in the case of the Magdalene laundries, institutions for unmarried mothers in the 20th century.

‘Biopolitics is a way of looking at how society was controlled by the Roman Catholic Church and women were forced to disappear if they didn’t conform to the norms of society. That’s a way of saying that social norms are more important than human values.’

Wilmer who started as a political playwright, has always been interested in how performance can transform societies and people’s attitudes towards certain issues, demonstrating resistance. His chapter in the book looks at how the play Eclipsed, by Patricia Burke-Brogan, and further media representations, highlighted the brutal human impact as a result of the institutionalisation of women in Ireland through the Magdalene laundries. 

‘I’ve always been interested in issues relating to nationalism, to issues of the government and its relationship with people, and particularly interested in questions of social justice but, most importantly, about using theatre as a way of informing an audience about social justice.’

Resisting Biopolitics: Philosophical, Political, and Performative Strategies is published with Routledge.

Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895