Health Biopolitics in Literature and Philosophy

On 17–18 September, the University of Tartu College of Foreign Languages and Cultures hosts a conference where scholars from Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, the UK and the USA will elucidate what can be learned from philosophy and literature about how our societies have imagined responses to pandemics, in order to shed light on the COVID-19 crisis.

According to the organisers of the conference, Prof. Raili Marling and Prof. Marko Pajević, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to bio-political measures that are unprecedented in modern times and that may lead to lasting transformations of our societies: “The measures took our societies by surprise but literature and philosophy have for decades presented imaginaries of societies where health policy shapes political structures and everyday life. This is why it is timely to turn to these imaginaries now,” says Marling.

Biopolitics designates the strategies that states use to organise the lives of their citizens not through overt coercion but through the control of reproduction, welfare and health. Prof. Marling says that the notion has been productively used in the analysis of gender, the body, environment, politics, law and, and social media. “In our conference we will, on the one hand, discuss different philosophical approaches to biopolitics (e.g. Michael Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito, Judith Butler) and, on the other hand, cultural representations, especially fiction, as the site of imagining different biopolitical strategies and responses. We will discuss representations from different cultures (the US, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, China) to show how culture intersects with biopolitics,” adds Prof. Pajević.

This conference wants to initiate a discussion on the forms of life and the shifts they undergo during pandemics. While there has already been considerable academic discussion of health policies and emergency measures, analyses of cultural representations have been much rarer. However, literary representations and philosophical discussions help to both establish and challenge biopolitical norms. They ask questions about the way that states of exception are implemented and the potential outcomes they produce. They can also be spaces for modelling different scenarios on an individual and collective level. Such representations are invaluable in understanding biopolitics in the context of pandemics like the present one.

For further details and the programme, visit the conference homepage.

Further information:
Raili Marling, University of Tartu Professor of English,
Marko Pajević, University of Tartu Professor of German Studies,