Critical life studies (CLS) is an international research field, which is in conversation with and provides a critical response to the explosion of ‘turns’ and ‘studies’ in academia—e.g. the anthropocene, ontological, posthuman, and affective turns, and gender, trans, queer, critical race, postcolonial, and animal studies, which, in resonance with newer feminist onto-epistemological theorizings, promise hope for the future of theory by attempting to dethrone the anthro-ontological notion of the Human. Each intervention contributes significantly to transforming our knowledge by demonstrating the inadequacy of the concept of the Human to account for and respond to ongoing social injustices and global crises, but only few has dared to ask: should we reject humanism tout court and if so, how might this be done? From the perspective of CLS, this oversight is a product of the vestigial humanism lingering in their shared, and often veiled, allegiance to a non-negotiable concept of life itself.
The core concept of critical life studies (CLS) therefore strikes at the heart of the dilemma that contemporary critical theory has been circling around: namely, the negotiation of the human, its residues, a priori configurations, the persistence of humanism in structures of thought, and the figure of life as a constitutive focus for ethical, political, and onto-epistemological questions. Despite attempts to move quickly through humanism to more adequate theoretical concepts, such haste has impeded the analysis of how the humanistic concept ‘life itself’ is preconfigured or immanent within the supposedly new conceptual leap. This research field thus addresses how we may begin to think life critically—outside the orbit and primacy of the human.
CLS is a diagnosis of the state of critical theory today, including academic feminisms, but also a bold, tripartite prescription: 1. to challenge Humanism by acknowledging the urgent need for a radical overhaul of the central proto-figure of life—whilst being alert to its inheritances; 2. to contest presumptions about life as beginning and ending in the organism, as a priority in the generation of meaning, and as a ‘special’ boundary in the constitution of ethico-political worlds; and 3. to use the departure from life as a necessary condition of new thought, obliging an engagement with all that does not have (human) life as its essential referent and center. This prescription is not meant as the horizon of all constitutive meaning, but instead a problematic that opens up a more expansive engagement with critical theory.
Strand chair: Jami Weinstein
21st century global crises transform us into biological citizens with the right to protection of bare life and the living body. Yet preserving basic biological life without tackling broader ethical questions is not enough. Further, the human and social sciences are at a crossroads— new modes of thought are needed to address these threats. Accordingly, this strand investigates the ethics of life, or vital ethics, in order to: challenge humanism by questioning the legibility of the concept life itself—contesting the premise that life originates in the human/organism; 2. refute bare life as a foundation meaning and value by analyzing how life itself is used uncritically and subsequently politicized; 3. and contribute to the terms and methods of critical theory by both isolating the reliance on life as a vestige of humanism, and arguing that the departure from life is a necessary condition of new thought. This strand thus not only critically examines what life is, but also asks what ethical and political possibilities exist when life is no longer seen as the final arbiter or privileged fact in translating knowledge into action.
Embodied and institutionalized discourses and practices related to death, dying and mourning are pervaded by normativities and regulations, framed by intersecting power differentials related to gender, sexuality, race, class, religion, but also to the life/death binary and to material agencies not so commonly included in discussions of intersectionality such as liminality, killability, uncontainability, and vibrancy.
The strand generates new discussions around these issues, scrutinizing and challenging conventional normativities, assumptions, expectations and regimes of truths that are brought to life or made evident by death, dying and mourning. The strand also, critically, explores how dichotomies are utilized to make sense of the relationship between life/death, the living/the dead, animate/inanimate, and to understand ethical distinctions bound to norms related human exceptionalism, contrasted by the precarious status of lives not counted within such norms. Finally, the strand clusters research endeavours which take into account how such dichotomies can be deconstructed. In so doing, it links up with different kinds of critical death studies, which, for example, mobilize concepts such as absence-presence, liminality and social death to address the false simplicity of the pre/post-mortem divide, and with biophilosophy and bioart practices, which, for example, create artworks on the boundaries of living and non-living meant to prompt new reflections on these.