Though Sarah Richardson’s and Alexander Weheliye’s presentations had very little in common, after thinking it over for a few months I have come to the conclusion that both could be considered major contributions to the “Not So Fast” theme that is emerging in this series.
Here’s what I mean. Richardson’s work, picking up in many ways on that of Hannah Landecker, reminds us that before we get too happy about epigenetics (on the grounds that epigenetics allows us to introduce questions of social justice in the discussion of genetic inheritance, insofar as famines, wars, depressions, and what Lauren Berlant calls “slow death” might leave their traces in our very DNA), we need to see whether epigenetics becomes, under the heading of “maternal effects,” yet another way for medical and political authorities to police the bodies of pregnant women. Epigenetics as a means to foster justice? Not so fast….
Weheliye’s work is of course aimed at Agamben rather than at the processes of evolution, and represents a turn to the humanities in this series– one that we have not seen since Rosi Braidotti’s visit. Habeas Viscus is more closely aligned with criticisms of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History: Four Theses” than with science studies, but the “not so fast” aspect of his argument aligns productively with Richardson’s. For Chakrabarty, of course, the concept of the Anthropocene is (among other things) an invitation to move past some of the standard gambits of postcolonial thought– provincializing Europe, say– and begin to think of ourselves as a species; one response to this invitation has been to insist that we must learn to think about climate change as a global phenomenon without evacuating specific histories and peoples. Hence “climate justice.” Are we a species? Well, yes, we are. But not so fast….
Weheliye, likewise, urges us (as Heather put it in the seminar) to think about the biological constitution of humans without ignoring the social processes that produce racialization and “blackness.” Or, as I wrote in my introduction to Weheliye’s talk, before we get around to thinking of ourselves in terms of biological species, we need to understand how and when and why we have created the intraspecies categories Weheliye names in his book– full humans, not- quite-humans, and nonhumans. Bare life as a means to understand human vulnerability and the operations of sovereignty? Not so fast. Thus, in place of habeas corpus and the judicial machinery of the state, Weheliye gives habeas viscus– you will have the flesh– and the processes of human disqualification.
It is looking more and more like the capstone event in April 2017, bringing all these people back for two days of discussion and debate, is going to be very awesome.