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Michel Foucault and the Body. Questioning the Paradoxes of Juridical and Political Inscriptions.

Lecture Series at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), University of Warwick, Coventry, UK

Organised by Dr Valérie Hayaert and Dr Melissa Pawelski

With organisational support from Mostyn Taylor Crockett

16 - 17 September 2022 OC1.06 (The Oculus) and on MS Teams

Event description (more information will follow soon!):

The French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (1926-1984) suggested that the human body could be understood as a ‘surface of inscription’ of past and current systems of political power, making the body a legible object in the study of history (Foucault: 1970, 1975). Foucault’s idea subsequently travelled across languages and disciplines and was critically discussed in Judith Butler’s article ‘Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions’ (1989) to further question the very idea of the human body as something ‘pre-given’ and upon which regimes of power could inscribe their actions. The body in Foucault’s work and in subsequent critical debates is a site in which power both gets formed and contested.

This two-day lecture series aims to create a platform for debate on various bodily inscriptions, and especially to question the body as a site for visual punishment as well as the marks and signs of political coercion. Perceived today often as body art and a fashionable practice, the case of tattooing has been functional in marking criminality and gang membership. Tattoos punish criminal acts, but they also produce a set of behaviours and subjectivities. Recent projects in the digital humanities – such as the AHRC-funded Digital Panopticon making accessible online criminal records of 90,000 convicts throughout the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries in the UK and Australia – allow for a broader historical perspective into the ways in which offences and offenders were identified, marked, and registered. Bodily inscriptions must not only correspond to a physical materiality, but they can also concern the way in which modern technologized power seizes personal information and produce data sets to develop patters of investigation. Today, the advent of new surveillance technologies applied to the body profoundly impacts our daily lives, but it also informs new legal approaches to digital justice as well as the various ways in which we report and reflect upon, through the medium of language, this governance of the body. Alongside these questions of materiality and visibility, our capacity to speak about and translate experiences of violence, punishment and control may either reinforce or fail the expression of this bodily pain. We must furthermore carefully consider the relationship between different languages and these bodily inscriptions, addressing questions on the words, phrases and signs inscribed on the skin.

The event proposes an interdisciplinary approach to this new definition of bodily inscriptions, combining philosophy, languages, semiotics, visual and legal history, anthropology, cultural and translation studies.

  • What do the various bodily inscriptions (for example, criminal tattooing) express, communicate, register, or contest?
  • If criminal tattooing registers or produces a particular set of behaviour, how and where does this behaviour become problematical?

Michel Foucault in a leather jacket

For any questions, please contact either Dr Valérie Hayaert at valerie dot hayaert at warwick dot ac dot uk or Dr Melissa Pawelski at melissa dot pawelski at warwick dot ac dot uk