Bookshelf with AQ Issues

CFP: Origins of Biopolitics in the Americas

A special issue of American Quarterly (September 2019)

Edited by Greta LaFleur (Yale University) and Kyla Schuller (Rutgers University–New Brunswick)

Biopolitics as an analytic has borne an increasingly influential role in a number of fields and areas of inquiry central to American studies. Contemporary scholarship in Black, critical ethnic, and gender and sexuality studies—to name only a few—has taken biopower as a point of departure to illuminate how hierarchies of differential value and disposability have shaped life in the Americas in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, Foucault’s and Agamben’s theoretical framework out of which so many studies of biopower have grown has been famously inattentive to slavery, colonialism, empire, and settler expansionism. Many of the key concepts and questions of biopolitical inquiry (security, population, state racism, the management of life and death, necropolitics, political and reproductive economy, etc.) were developed out of and implemented within slavery and other colonial economies, as scholars such as Mbembe have illuminated. Key gaps thus persist in our knowledge: How did biopolitics unfurl its deadly calculations of the relative value of life in the context of the early American colonies and later the United States? What can biopolitical frames offer early American studies and vice versa? Our purpose is both to critically engage the history of the biopolitical in the period before 1900 and to reframe early American studies in relation to biopolitics.

This special issue underscores the increasing relevance of biopolitics to current scholarly debates within early American studies and offers crucial correctives to dominant analyses of biopower. It aims to add new insight to ongoing conversations in early American studies, including questions about the shifting strategies of colonial and state-based governance at the level of the parish, the city, the frontier, and the nation; the changing relationship between waged and unfree labor, especially in the context of racial capitalism and the assumed disposability of Black, Asian, and indigenous life; the increasing centrality of the human sciences to understandings of difference and emergent nationalisms; the understanding of the Human and the commons that underpins liberal democracy; and the changing relationships of religion, secularism, and postsecularism to settler colonialism, empire, and territory control. Conversely, exploring the role of religion, in particular—the governing structure of imperial projects—helps displace the state as the privileged actor of biopower. Highlighting the range of tactics deployed by expansionist empires in the Americas opens new vantages onto the integral relationship between settler colonialism and biopolitical control. Furthermore, analyzing how sex difference, gender, and sexuality emerged in relation to racial formations provides urgently needed intersectional responses to Foucault’s theory of state racism.

Proposed essays may consider, among other topics:

  • Comparative slavery studies
  • Race science, public health, medicine, and other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century technologies to produce and manage bodily difference
  • Resistance of individuals and populations marked disposable
  • Networks of economic, medical, scientific, religious contact throughout North America, the Caribbean, and Central and South America
  • Management of reproduction and fertility among free and unfree populations
  • War, geopolitics, and militarization of daily life
  • Competing colonial and imperial forms of increasingly racialized, and immigrant, labor
  • Shifts in governance from colonial to liberal democratic settler state models
  • Reform movements including abolitionism, feminism, and temperance
  • Intersections between the logics of racial difference and other civilizationist hierarchies
  • Underexamined theorists of biopower (Spillers, Hartman, Roediger, Stoler, Patterson, Lowe, etc.)
  • Capitalism, industrialization, and the management of multispecies populations and ecologies
  • Intertwined technologies of individual discipline and population regulation, such as the prison, school, slave ship, domestic home, or plantation
  • Sustainability, conservation, and the uneven origins of anthropogenic change
  • The violences of settler colonialism and indigenous removal campaigns
  • Biopower and its relation to aesthetic and cultural modes, genres, and forms

Essays of up to 10,000 words are due August 1, 2018. Authors must address the guest editors and clearly indicate in a cover letter that the submission is intended for the 2019 special issue. Information about American Quarterly and submission guidelines can be found at

Post date: March 1, 2018

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