Faculty-Graduate Seminar 2015–16: Black Studies and Biopolitics

Wednesday afternoons 4:30-6:00pm, Stanhope Hall, Barfield – Johnson Seminar Room (201)

Faculty Convener: Ruha Benjamin

Social inequality is legitimized by cultural mythologies about human difference—stories that are made to matter through science, technology, and biomedicine. Whether in the context of race-based pharmaceuticals, genetic ancestry tests, designer babies, or police forensics, socio-political categories are reproduced and reconstituted through techno-scientific practices that act on, with, and against human bodies. Scholars have long framed critique of such processes as an expression of biological determinism, arguing that purportedly natural distinctions between racial groups are, in fact, socially and politically fabricated—a credo much more than a consensus across the social and life sciences.

As a popular refrain, the social constructivist principle is routinely assumed rather than demonstrated, exclaimed rather than put to work in the difficult task of showing how, by whom, under what conditions, and to what ends symbolic categories are made real in the lives of individuals and in the workings of institutions alike. The expression, nevertheless, offers a potent challenge to a visual economy that purports everyone “has” a race that can be read off of the body.

More recently, the constructivist principle is reflected in the seeming nimbleness of blackness (e.g. “The New Black”), which finds potent expression in a recent novel about “racial reconstruction surgery” where a white Jewish protagonist becomes black. Such examples of the indeterminacy of race, however, cannot fully account for the multiple contexts in which race is stubbornly inscribed on to black bodies—with often deadly consequence. Likewise, the economic value of racial difference is a resource for companies selling tailored drugs and genetic ancestry tests, where the seemingly benign forces of supply and demand underwrite what, in a previous era, was so clearly a byproduct of eugenic ideals.

How might scholars, artists, and others working in, and inspired by, the black studies tradition respond to the simultaneous dexterity and deadliness of racial vision and division?

“Black Studies and Biopolitics” seminar participants will explore mythologies and practices that naturalize racial differences, as well as conceptualize a future social terrain that is more equitable and just. In this way, it will serve as an intellectual incubator for new thinking at the nexus of biology and politics, offering a space to think critically and creatively about the study of race generally — and African American and African diaspora studies specifically — in this era of increasing investment in biotechnology. Invited presenters will include scholars theorizing race in the context of an array of biopolitical arenas, exploring how the naturalization of race as it intersects with gender, sexuality, and disability is, at turns, reproduced, resisted, and reimagined.

Among the themes we hope to consider over the course of the year:

  • Eugenics
  • Disability
  • Biosociality
  • Necropolitics
  • Racism and stress
  • Biomedicalization
  • Biological citizenship
  • Race, caste and science
  • Genetic ancestry testing
  • Mental and chronic illness
  • Neuroscience and violence
  • Policing and premature death
  • Racial profiling and forensics
  • Enhancement and posthumanism
  • Alternative health and wellness practices

The African American Studies Faculty-Graduate seminar is an intimate intellectual community. Our goal is to establish a small but intellectually diverse and committed group of scholars who will attend all meetings and engage in sustained discourse during the year. Given these goals and the limited meeting space, we will be accepting only ten (10) graduate students into each semester’s seminar. We encourage graduate students to commit to both semesters and preference for spring registration will be given to students engaged in the fall seminar.

If you are a graduate student interested in joining the 2015 – 2016 Faculty-Graduate Seminar, please email Dionne Worthy (dworthy@princeton.edu).

Schedule — Fall 2015

October 7

UC Hastings

October 21

University of Amsterdam

October 28

College of William and Mary

November 18

New York University

December 9

Princeton University

Schedule — Spring 2016

February 10

University of Pennsylvania

February 24

Emory University

March 9

Wesleyan University

March 23

Penn State

April 6

Emory University

April 13

Columbia University