CFP: Cultural Biopolitics in Modern Russia

Deadline: January 15, 2021

Proposals are invited for a special issue of Russian Literature dedicated to Cultural Biopolitics in Modern Russia. The term “biopolitics” was coined by Michel Foucault to describe a historical shift that took place in the 17th and 18th centuries, when an earlier concept of sovereignty, grounded in the power to decide when “to take life or let live,” was replaced by one determined by the state’s power “to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.” With the emergence of liberal democracy and modern capitalism, new forms of governmentality appeared that centered on the administration of bodies at the level of the population. From government funded programs to increase birth rates to prohibitions on smoking, euthanasia, and certain kinds of sexual behavior, natural life began to be included in the calculations of the state. Sovereign power increasingly became identified with the management of life. Politics assumed the form of biopolitics.

Foucault’s thesis sparked a wide-ranging debate among political theorists and scholars, some of whom have offered new and at times conflicting perspectives on the topic of biopolitics. Among these are Giorgio Agamben, who traces the origins of modern biopolitics to the ancient Greek and Roman division of subjects into those who enjoy a politically viable life and those who do not; Roberto Esposito, who investigates the relationship between the community and mechanisms of immunization; Eric L. Santner, who finds the “specter” of political theology in modern biopolitics; Donna Haraway, who examines the emergence of biotechnical bodies in postmodern scientific culture; and Achille Mbembe, who has introduced the notion of “necropolitics.” Of course, numerous scholars have also challenged Foucault’s thesis, especially on grounds that it is too Western-oriented.With its long history of coercive population management—from the reforms of Peter the Great to Putin’s return to “traditional values”—Russia would appear to offer many examples of modern biopolitics at work. Yet while the topic of biopolitics has drawn some attention from scholars working on the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, Slavists have largely refrained from applying a biopolitical framework to Russian history and culture. Understandably concerned that Foucault’s thesis may not adequately explain developments in Russia—particularly when it comes to the Imperial period—Slavists have yet to seriously consider alternative approaches to Russian biopolitics or engage with the biopolitical writings of other theorists. Especially lacking are studies that explore the role culture plays in asserting or contesting biopolitical regimes or the way it can inspire new biopolitical imaginaries. Given the outsized importance that culture has historically played in Russia as a political weapon and a mediator of Western ideas and practices, a culture-focused approach to Russian biopolitics could prove especially productive.

This special issue will seek to address the above-mentioned gap in scholarship by focusing on the importance of Russian culture as an instrument of biopower. We invite scholars from all disciplines to submit articles on “cultural biopolitics” in every period of modern Russian history: from the 18th to the 21st centuries.

Possible topics include: 

•      the role of culture in promoting and contesting biopolitical practices

•      cultural biopolitics and the formation of “new men” and “new women”

•      representations of “healthy” and “unhealthy” bodies in relation to the body politic•      culture as an arena for conflicts over sovereignty

•      biopolitics and Romantic “biopoetics”

•      conceptions of sovereignty and governmentality in the (Socialist) Realist novel

•      the biopolitical projects of the Russian avant-gardes

•      the “specter” of Soviet biopolitics in contemporary Russia

•      Russian biopolitics during the COVID-19 pandemic

•      biopolitical performance and performative biopolitics

•      the intersection of biopolitics and political theology

•      Russian necro- and thanatopolitics

•      the spaces of Russian biopolitics

•      positive versus negative conceptions of biopolitics

•      limitations and alternatives to Western biopolitical approaches

The deadline to submit a 500-word abstract and CV is 15 January 2021. A selection of authors will then be invited to submit article-length papers according to the journal guidelines by 15 August 2021. Acceptance of the abstract does not guarantee publication, as all papers are subjected to peer-review. Submissions are accepted in English only. Please submit abstracts to the editor for this issue, Maksim Hanukai, at Feel free to contact the editor with specific queries or with general queries.

Key terms: Russian and East European Studies; Literary and Cultural Studies; Critical Theory; Political Theory; Sovereignty; Governmentality; Biopolitics; Biopower; Necropolitics; Thanatopolitics; Michel Foucault; Giorgio Agamben; Homo Sacer; Bare Life; Immunization; Health; Performance; Biopoetics; Imperial Russia; Soviet Union