Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Graduate Student Workshops

EACH YEAR, THE GRADUATE FELLOWS OF THE ANDREA MITCHELL CENTER invite graduate students from universities throughout the region to present their work-in-progress to a critical but supportive audience. The topics are not linked to an annual theme, but each session includes two papers that are thematically linked.  Sessions in the past have been devoted to issues of democracy, constitutionalism, and citizenship, including surveillance, technocracy, migration, race, social rights, empire building, party politics, education, the carceral state, and many more. Faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, and members of the public are encouraged to read the papers and attend the workshops to participate in lively academic discussions.

Archive of Past Workhops here.

2023-2024 Series


October 2023 – MAKING OF THE SELF: MEMORY, ECONOMY, AND THE MASK OF THE PRIVATE SPHERE

Wed. October 18, 12:00-1:30 pm
133 S. 36th Street, Room 335
Hybrid: In-person and online. Please register here.
Link and papers sent to registered attendees.

A Lesson in Risk: Life Insurance and A New Economic Citizenship in
Late 19th Century United States

Michael Ortiz-Castro (American Studies, Harvard)

FACING EXPLOSIVE GROWTH AND UNPRECEDENTED COMPETITION in the latter decades of the 19th century, life insurance companies across the United States sought to integrate their business into everyday American life. This took the form of a variety of publications — from short stories and poems to ads and holiday gifts for consumers. Looking at these objects, MICHAEL ORTIZ-CASTRO analyzes their work as pedagogical tools, arguing that what the documents reveal are a persistent focus on the question of the proper economic subject and the bonds (pun intended) that bound them to a proper polity. These documents integrated themselves into their customers’ psyche — thus legitimizing the business in human life — by appealing to emergent ideas of the autonomous economic subject. This was a new development, for, as historians have noted, new ideas of entrepreneurial subjectivity became dominant with the rise of financial capitalism. However, rather than simply speak of the autonomous, atomized subject, the documents sought to clarify what the relationship between the insured subject and his larger community was (or, perhaps, should be), in this way introducing new ideas of the “economic community” into everyday American life. Clarifying this tandem approach makes clear that the question of citizenship — the belonging in a polity — is inextricable from the defining of a political public. This cultural studies approach to the history of life insurance, capitalism, and the subject offers a mode of analysis that brings to light the complicated discursive forms through which citizenship and political belonging are contested, and their deep connections to idea of health, wellness, and community.

Alternative Routes to Power & Resistance: Diaspora Tamil Women,
Memory, and Social Reproduction

Mira Philips (School of Social Policy & Practice, Penn)

THE PROCESS OF MEMORY WORK AMONGST DIASPORA COMMUNITIES is intimately connected to the circumstances that surround their displacement. Prior research has focused on how these processes play out in the public and the obstacles that limit them. For diasporas affected by civil conflict, such as the Tamil diaspora in Canada, engaging in memory work to establish collective memories and memorialize their histories is complicated by residual trauma, tensions with individuals, the state in their home country, and non-supportive networks in their new country. From a gender perspective, feminist scholars argue that these activities are doubly difficult for diaspora women due to their relegation to the private sphere, and the privileging of “louder” (often male) voices, who act as the arbiters of collective memory and public acts of memorialization. As their experiences with inequality, violence, migration, and resettlement differ from men's, their absence leaves researchers without important nuances and perspectives when engaging with diaspora memory work.  However, while understanding and critiquing public memory work and diaspora women’s exclusion is important, this preoccupation also serves to background the memory work women do in the private sphere via social reproduction, or the activities involved in rearing the family. Using scholarship on gendered space, social reproduction, and diaspora and memory, MIRA PHILIPS engages in a conceptual discussion to 1) understand the connection between the domestic sphere, social reproduction, and memory work; 2) critique the preoccupation with the domestic sphere as a site of oppression, while ignoring opportunities for resistance; 3) interrogate the over-emphasis on collective memory, public memory work and memorialization amongst diaspora communities; and 4) consider the implications of memory work done in the private sphere for diasporas' public memory.


November 2023 – LIMITS TO FREEDOM: LANGUAGE, RELIGION, AND CITIZENSHIP IN POSTCOLONIAL INDIA

Wed. November 15, 12:00-1:30 pm
133 S. 36th Street, Room 335
Hybrid: In-person and online. Link and papers sent to registered attendees..

Conversion, Representation and the Dilemma of Religious Identity: A study of Political Pragmatism Among Dalits in Northern India, c.1932-1991

Amit Kumar (History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

The struggle for an autonomous religious identity for members of the ex-untouchable community has a long and chequered past in colonial politics. The Macdonald Award (1932) and the Poona Pact (1932), illustrate two incommensurable paths – while the former recognized separate electorates, the latter shifted the entire claim of autonomous identity to accommodative representation politics. These explosive and publicly debated questions informed the contrapuntal relationship between the rights to religious freedom and reservation provided under Articles 25 and 16 in the favor of Dalits in the Indian Constitution. Yet, as AMIT KUMAR demonstrates, the constitutional provisions would severely circumscribe the Dalit citizen, through liberal notions of choice (between religious and caste identity), as well as legal and political thought that established caste as primary and fundamental only to Hinduism. This dilemma was shaped by B.R. Ambedkar's rethinking of the religious question, and his call for religious conversion of Dalits in 1956. But the contradiction, pre-fixed in the Scheduled Caste Order of 1950 and the Right to Religious Freedom under the Fundamental Rights in the constitution discouraged Dalits calls for conversion. Later amendments included Sikh Dalits and Buddhist Dalits but notably not Muslim and Christian Dalits. Kumar argues that these tensions illustrate the subsumption of the social to the political, and the curtailment of emancipatory politics within the domain of constitutional representational politics. Yet, Dalit political pragmatism continues to be informed by its roots in a long genealogy of social movements and can be evidenced by successive attempts to disturb the nominal meanings of “representation.”

English Elitism, Trust Deficit and the Evolution of the Hindi-Speaking Intelligentsia in 1950s India

Click here to register for event

Akhil P. Veetil (South Asia Studies / Comparative Literature, Penn)

AKHIL P. VEETIL focuses on the predicaments of the Hindi-speaking intelligentsia in early postcolonial India, proposing that there was a rhetoric of moral harm that the Hindi intelligentsia perceived and articulated. For instance, at a “Banish English” Conference held in Ahmedabad, India in 1970, Ganesh Mantri, a participant, criticizes the English-speaking Indian elite for perceiving themselves as the carriers of the nation’s intelligence and wisdom. This conference was an extension of a larger social movement to remove colonial English from all domains of India’s new political project. For many Hindi-speaking intellectuals, this was a necessary step towards India’s self-rule. While there is insufficient evidence that this rhetoric gained currency among the Hindi-speaking followers, there was a lack of trust towards this class from speakers of other regional Indian languages. Taking this fraught context into consideration, how do we understand the role of the Hindi intelligentsia in comparison to those of English and other regional languages? How did this position between English and other regional languages shape the political and emotional orientation of the Hindi intelligentsia across the political spectrum? Veetil examines correspondences between Hindi leaders from the Socialist Party and the Indian National Congress roughly between mid 1950s to 1965 when, amidst great political unrest, the Indian government decided to use English and Hindi as two official languages.

Papers for graduate student workshop:

Akhil P. Veetil Paper
Amit Kumar Paper


December 2023 – MANAGING MIGRANTS: VIOLENT CATEGORIES AND THE MAKING OF THE BORDER
REGISTER FOR EVENT HERE

Wed. December 6, 12:00-1:30 pm
133 S. 36th Street, Room 335
Hybrid: In-person and online. Link and papers sent to registered attendees..

Welfare Inclusion vs Exclusion: The Impact of Forced Migrant Categorization on Welfare Access and Integration

(download paper here)

Alexander Bervik (School of Social Policy & Practice, Penn)
Anna Ferris (School of Social Policy & Practice, Penn)

THE 1951 UNITED NATIONS (UN) REFUGEE CONVENTION AND ITS 1967 PROTOCOL define what it means to be a refugee and offer protection for those who fall under that category. The Refugee Act of 1980 formally aligned with the UN Refugee Convention’s definition of a refugee, instituted a comprehensive federal program for refugee resettlement, and standardized legal proceedings for asylum. Since then, however, new legal categorizations have been constructed for forcibly displaced persons, which offer protection that is time-limited with no current pathway to permanent residency or citizenship. The policy categories constructed for forced migrants are not fixed. ALEXANDER BERVIK and ANNA FERRIS explore the impact that the legal categorization of forced migrants has relating to social welfare access in the US. At present, no other study has examined the intersection of forced displacement and the US welfare state. His research focuses on the post-1980 Refugee Act era and the individuals on Temporary Protected Status, Humanitarian Parole, Asylum Seekers (those with pending asylum claims), and Refugees/Asylees. They include the statistics on the size of each group, how different immigrant groups end up in different legal statuses, and its historical context to understand the social, economic, and political drivers associated with categorization and forced migration. Bervik and Ferris conclude that immigration statuses, in intersection with social welfare policy, operates as a tool to either include or exclude desirable and/or undesirable immigrants.

“We Do Not Wish To See The Border Formalized:” Administrative Discretion & the Making of Pseudo-Guest Workers

(download paper here)

Nahomi Esquivel (History, University of Chicago)

IN 1927 THE U.S. IMMIGRATION SERVICE CREATED A CATEGORY OF “GREEN CARD COMMUTERS” – workers who were admitted to the U.S. for permanent residence but who maintained their homes in adjacent Mexican cities, opting to regularly cross the border to their place of work – to relieve border traffic congestion. In 1959, agricultural growers began to use the status to circumvent restrictions placed upon the Mexican contract labor system, the Bracero Program. NAHOMI ESQUIVEL argues that agricultural growers insured themselves against the termination of the Bracero Program by enabling former contract workers to join the commuter ranks. She demonstrates that such a feat would have been impossible without the cooperation of state bureaucrats. In order to keep growers from returning to the wholesale employment of undocumented workers, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), as well as consular agents, used their administrative discretion to preserve employers' access to these “non-resident green card holders.” As unions and social advocacy groups protested this “latest form of cheap labor,” the Department of Labor weaponized the program’s ambiguity to create new admissibility requirements and thereby control the flow of agricultural commuters. At the same time, they dangled access to these workers before growers warning they could only be obtained if employers complied with DOL labor standards. Esquivel examines the porous boundaries between administrative discretion, informal governance, and bureaucratic corruption that created an ambiguous legal status which does not fit into any precise category found in the federal immigration statutes.


January 2024 – THE COST OF DEMOCRACY: ECONOMIC INEQUALITY AND POLITICAL POWER

Wed. January 24, 12:00-1:30 pm
Online only: Link and papers sent to registered attendees.

Sufficiency and Capitalism

Mike Gadomski (Philosophy, Penn)
Tyler Re, (Philosophy, Penn)

THE DEBATE BETWEEN SUFFICIENCY AND EQUALITY IN DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE is often assumed to correspond to the right and left of the political spectrum. MIKE GADOMSKI and TYLER RE seek to challenge this assumption, which is rooted in a more general tendency in the literature on distributive justice to separate the question of distribution from the question of socioeconomic systems more broadly. They criticize this tendency. It encourages the idea that there could be a system, like welfare state capitalism, that permits large inequalities yet satisfies the sufficiency condition. Hence sufficientarianism’s appeal for those on the center and right. Gadomski and Re argue that capitalism cannot sustain sufficientarian justice. This is because the goods and services required for sufficiency must be acquired through private markets, and these markets are compatible with many people not meeting the sufficiency threshold. This is not a function of markets per se, but rather private ownership of the means for producing what is needed to meet the sufficiency threshold. When these means are held privately, whether people have access to the goods that constitute the minimum threshold of sufficiency is at the discretion of their private owners, and so without guarantee. One popular response is to advocate for a state-guaranteed basic minimum as a supplement to a capitalist economy (i.e., welfare state capitalism), but Gadomski and Re point to the ways that such systems are self-undermining. The resulting economic inequality consolidates political power among those who would benefit from lowering the sufficiency standards. The tendency to think about distributive ideals divorced from concerns of political economy has allowed classical liberals and their neighbors on the right to claim the mantle of sufficiency. The upshot of their argument, however, is that taking sufficiency seriously must lead one to the left.

Cost-benefit Analysis and the History of Democracy

Charles Troup (History, Yale)

WHEN WE THINK OF THE HISTORY OF REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNING OR DEMOCRACY, we don’t normally include the theory and practice of cost-benefit analysis in modern states. Several influential commentators have indeed identified cost-benefit analysis as a preeminent example of “economic reason” in contemporary governance, antithetical to democracy by virtue of its depoliticizing influence on communities’ processes of collective decision-making. Yet the early architects and advocates of cost-benefit analysis in government, CHARLES TROUP argues, explicitly intended the technique to bring the public authorities closer to the ideals of representative governing. Its calculations of relevant costs and benefits, when compared to available alternatives, and their impacts upon specific members of the political community, allow it, as one pioneering British functionary wrote in 1951, to “fill the hiatus between the authorities who decide and the public.” Troup sketches the history of cost-benefit analysis as a practice of representative decision-making and asks what light this casts on the story of modern democracy and its scholarship. He argues that scholars often neglect the historical tension between things “democratic” and things “political,” which has caused them to omit cost-benefit analysis – the preeminent technocratic form that the aspiration to representative governing took in the 20th century Euro-Atlantic world – from its integral, if puzzling, place in democracy’s modern history. 


February 2024 – UNDOING DEMOCRACY IN THEORY AND PRACTICE

Wed. February 21, 12:00-1:30 pm
133 S. 36th Street, Room 335
Hybrid: In-person and online. Link and papers sent to registered attendees.

The Origins of Anti-democratic Discourse: Representation and Mis-representation of Athenian Democracy in Ancient Historical Sources

Odysseas Espanol Androutsopoulos (Classical Studies, Penn)

THE DEMOCRACY OF ANCIENT ATHENS HAS LOOMED IN THE IMAGINARY of much of the world as the Ur-example of a representative political system. The story of Athens, of the “birth of democracy”, of the thwarting of the Persian empire, and of the meteoric rise to and just as rapid fall from power of the Athenian empire, in both cases linked to reasons often implied to be inherent in the very system that made it special, takes on the status of a founding myth. But how much of this narrative is borne out in ancient sources? ODYSSEAS ESPANOL ANDROUTSOPOULOS examines the depiction of mid-5th and 4th century BCE Athenian democracy in our two extant contemporary historiographical sources, the works of Thucydides and Xenophon and asks to what extent these sources themselves were colored by the biases of their cultural milieu. He looks at the way in which figures and events in the narrative are framed, and how responsibility is assigned for perceived success or failure, in a selection of important events across Thucydides’ "History of the Peloponnesian War" and its sequel, Xenophon’s "Hellenica.” He argues that much of our modern discourse on democracy stems from ancient Athenian sources that overwhelmingly represented an aristocratic milieu ambivalent about the system at best. This calls into question especially negative tropes, deployed to this day, about the inherent instability of democracy, the dangers of “mob rule”, and the consequent need for wise and firm leaders to “rein in” the people. Rather than based on historic fact, these tropes very well may have reflected the prejudices, echoed throughout the ages, of an often overtly anti-democratic elite.

Disputing "Democratization": The Problems of Guatemala's Radio Spectrum Regulation

Polly Lauer (History, Yale)

AS GUATEMALA’S 1996 PEACE ACCORDS WERE BEING SIGNED after a 36-year genocidal armed conflict (1960-1996), economists and lobbyists recognized an opportunity to restructure Guatemala’s telecommunications market. Prior to 1996, titles for FM and AM frequencies had been free — save for small administrative fees and under-the-table bribes — for Guatemalan applicants. These economists, however, argued that using Ronald Coase’s auction-based model to allocate frequencies to the highest bidder, Guatemalan or not, would “democratize” and “liberate” Guatemalan media. This neoliberal move functionally privatized the spectrum. POLLY LAUER probes the political economy of Guatemalan radio frequency regulation in order to illustrate the fraught meanings of “democratization” in post-peace Guatemala. She explores the ways this process immediately limited local radio stations, especially Indigenous radio stations, from obtaining legal access to frequencies, as they could not financially compete against multi-national media conglomerates. The exclusion of local media creators in this “liberation” of the radio spectrum reflects that the policy in fact obstructed the democratic promises of radio by creating a frequency market that prevented makers and audiences from engaging the otherwise low-cost, wide-reach medium. This case illustrates the conflicting definitions and uses of “democratization” in Guatemala’s neoliberal context. Lauer shows how the language of “democratization” was deployed to legitimate a tense political project, revealing the ways that policy makers disguised their ultimate economic motivations in the popular language of democracy.  


March 2024 – CRISIS, CAPITALISM, AND THE TEMPORALITY OF RESISTANCE

Wed. March 20, 12:00-1:30 pm
133 S. 36th Street, Room 335
Hybrid: In-person and online. Link and papers sent to registered attendees.

Toxic Immortalities: Plastics and an Eco-Philosophy in Praise of Decline

Jessie Croteau (Political Science, Johns Hopkins)

AS SHORELINES ARE ERODED, HABITATS DESTROYED, SPECIES EXTINGUISHED, and peoples left in abjection, the media, climate activists, and academic ecological literature all seem to agree – our world is in a state of decline. JESSIE CROTEAU takes seriously the sorrows of death and destruction during our time of climate wreckage, but also insists that decline, disintegration, and decay are not mere indicators of devastation. They are worthy of political and theoretical attention in their own right. To do so, first, she demonstrates that a positive politics need not only, cannot only, be a politics of growth and creation. Not declining, refusing to disintegrate, and being recalcitrant in material persistence is the stuff of a conservative politics of preservation. Instead, new life, new bodies, and new worlds all require dissolution. Second, she suggests that because plastics refuse to degrade or break down like other materials, these petro-materials might be the closest anthropogenic thing we know to immortality. However, rather than inspiring hope for eternal life, their persistent presence produces a catastrophic here and now, polluting lands, waters, and bodies with their refusal to decay. Croteau concludes by making a case for an ecological ethos that affirms dissolutions and insists a politics of declination is necessary in our time of cancerous capitalistic growth.

Humor and Politics: Dispatches from the Lebanese Crisis

Yara Damaj (Political Science, Penn)

HUMOR HAS BEEN A SUBJECT OF INTEREST FOR POLITICAL THEORISTS since before the Greeks. It has functioned as both a tool for public enjoyment and an indirect challenge to sovereign power for centuries. YARA DAMAJ examines the emergence of humor as a “governing logic” in reaction to political events that have taken place in recent Middle Eastern history. By drawing on stand-up comedy skits, memes, and jokes that circulate on social media, she shows why and how humor is one of the dominant affects of our present moment and how laughter has become the opium of the people. She borrows from the particular experience of the Lebanese people to study humor in times of crisis and to demonstrate how humor is not only a tool for psychic release or a coping mechanism amid increased uncertainty. Instead, she proposes that humor presents itself as a political tool that both signals what is important to us and ridicules that which holds power over us. She considers the ways that humor seeks to disrupt the status quo by appearing harmless, yet creates such anxiety among sovereign powers that it results in its censorship. Damaj takes humor seriously and claims it as a political phenomenon—one that is at once reflective of our present moment but also potentially creative and productive.


Special Event – The Andrea Mitchell Center Graduate Panel on Environmental Studies
RESOURCES, RESISTANCE, AND THE RIGHTS OF NATURE

Wed. April 10, 5:00-6:30 pm
133 S. 36th Street, Room 250 (Forum)
Hybrid: In-person and online. Link and papers sent to registered attendees.

Recycling Bodies: Plastics and Social Mobility in Mumbai, India

Adwaita Banerjee (Anthropology, Penn)

PLASTIC WASTE HAS BECOME A PERVASIVE ENVIRONMENTAL and social challenge, with detrimental impacts on ecosystems and public health. Simultaneously, Mumbai's lower caste communities face numerous socio-economic hurdles, including social stigmatization, and limited access to formal employment opportunities. ADWAITA BANERJEE presents an ethnographic study that investigates the multifaceted question of plastic recycling, registers of citizenship and degrees of social mobility amongst lower caste communities in Mumbai. Drawing on a qualitative approach rooted in participant observation and in-depth interviews in Mumbai’s Deonar Dumping Ground, his research delves into the lived experiences, perspectives, and strategies of lower caste individuals engaged in the plastic waste recovery and recycling sector. By exploring their involvement in this informal industry, he asks what is the extent to which plastic recycling can provide mobility to lower caste communities economically, politically, socially, and environmentally? The findings of his research aim to understand the futures and opportunities for lower caste communities in Mumbai connected to plastic waste, while acknowledging several challenges faced by lower caste individuals in the plastic recycling sector. These include limited access to resources, inadequate infrastructure, exploitative labor practices, and stigmatization due to the association with waste management.

Spirituality and Protest in New Environmental Movements

Rebecca Marwege (Political Science, Columbia)

REBECCA MARWEGE EXPLORES THE POLITICAL ROLE OF SPIRITUAL REFERENCES by new environmental movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement. She demonstrates that these movements refer to spirituality in a plethora of different ways, but that references to spirituality, broadly defined, help to exceed scientific references and emphasize a transcendental value of nature in relation to humans, connect individual grief with collective action, and contribute to coalition building and countering movements on the right side of the political spectrum. Marwege discusses some normative pitfalls such as the political appropriation of complex belief systems into a protest-oriented idea of spirituality. While these questions have been explored to some extent in the context of Christian evangelicals and their highly varied commitment to environmental protection (see Veldman 2019, Veldman et al. 2021, Hempel and Smith 2020 for example), Marwege contributes a critical assessment of how new environmental movements that are situated mostly on the left utilize spiritual references.

The Nuclear Option: Politics of the Past, West German Energy Policy, and the Quest for Energy Independence, 1973-1986

Nicholas Misukanis (History, University of Maryland)

CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE NECESSITY TO REDUCE CARBON EMISSIONS has dominated political conversations, but activists continue to remain divided on one question: What role should nuclear energy play? Different countries have pursued different policies. France relies on nuclear energy for almost 70% of its domestic need. In contrast, Germany has shut down its last reactor this past April. In the 1980’s, nuclear energy provided almost 35% of West Germany’s energy needs, but after an arduous anti-nuclear campaign, political party leaders and voters eventually came to oppose nuclear energy. The question of why support for nuclear energy faded to such a degree that by 1986, all the major German political parties abandoned nuclear energy has not yet been answered. NICHOLAS MISUKANIS explores the role nuclear energy played in the politics of West Germany from the first OPEC oil crisis in 1973 to the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. At the core of his analysis lie two questions: Why did West German political leaders seek to develop nuclear energy during this time? Second, why did arguments against nuclear energy successfully overwhelm pro-nuclear messaging? The nuclear energy debate during Helmut Schmidt’s chancellorship reveals insight into the complexities liberal democracies face in promoting experts’ opinions and communicating to the public while also allowing public debate on these policies among the voting base.

Oil, Land, and State Building in Iran

Bita Mousavi (History / Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, NYU)

OIL HAS MIRACULOUS POWERS. As revenue, it has lifted nations across the Middle East into unprecedented prosperity. As gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, it moves commodities and labor at a world scale to realize utopic dreams of ease and connectivity. But our global dependence on fossil fuels also causes unmitigated environmental damage and feeds despotic regimes. That oil emancipates as much as it devastates is one of its central paradoxes. BITA MOUSAVI focuses on the antimonies of one particular oil state: Iran. Whereas the Qajar empire (1789-1925) was characterized by administrative devolution and a fiscal system that lacked a “conscious or targeted policy to bring about economic growth,” the first Pahlavi state, following the 1908 discovery of oil in southwestern Iran, sought to regularize the collection of oil royalties, agricultural taxes, and other ground rents. This meant challenging the validity of the contracts that the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) secured for oil exploration from tribal authorities in southwestern Iran. Thus, before a discourse of resource sovereignty could take hold in Iran, it was necessary that the nascent Pahlavi state validate and have validated by others, not least of all APOC, its territorial sovereignty. The anti-democratic tendencies ascribed to oil states, Mousavi argues, thus derive not from the abstract quality of economic rents but, in part, from the historical abolition of the customary rights of tribes to oil-bearing land. Moreover, the oil industry cemented land reform as a central nexus of political reform and economic action, and with it, a dialectic of specialization and dependence that animated much of Iran’s subsequent history. The state continued to assume the role of managing the nation’s natural wealth, but in doing so abetted its dependence on oil revenues and stifled democratic approaches to the question of land reform.

Moving Toward Ecocentric Constitutionalism: Buen Vivir and the Rights of Nature

Joseph Rodriguez (Political Science, Duke)

IN 2008, THE COUNTRY OF ECUADOR UPDATED ITS CONSTITUTION and became the first country to enshrine the rights of nature. Inspired by the indigenous Andean cosmovision of sumak kawsay (the equivalent legal term in Spanish is buen vivir), the Ecuadorian preamble posits nature as belonging to the nation’s identity and entitled to constitutional protection. What, normatively, is at stake when a state chooses to grant rights to nature in its constitution? And how does that transform traditional understandings of constitutional design that center and privilege the human being? JOSEPH RODRIGUEZ argues that the Ecuadorian Constitution reveals a conceptual shift in our thinking on constitutional design, from anthropocentric to ecocentric. While constitutions have typically been thought of as enshrining a human “people,” the Ecuadorian Constitution provides a case study for considering the inclusion of nonhuman life into a political community, modifying our conception of a “people.” He interprets the principle of buen vivir that animates the Constitution as justifying this inclusion. An ecocentric constitution, as opposed to an anthropocentric constitution, includes nonhuman life into its political community because it recognizes that all life is equally valuable and therefore should be treated as such. This is not to say that nonhuman life should take priority over human life, or that nonhuman interests are superior to human interests, but rather to expand our imaginative capacities to include more for the sake of “good living.” By looking at Ecuador, we learn that one of the primary and structural purposes of a constitution is to define who counts as a political member—not just humans but animals, rivers, and trees.


April 2024 – PRACTICES OF BELONGING: SPEECH, CITIZENSHIP, AND THE STRUGGLE FOR THE SOVEREIGN SELF

Wed. April 17, 12:00-1:30 pm
133 S. 36th Street, Room 335
Hybrid: In-person and online. Link and papers sent to registered attendees.

Refusing to Listen: Receptive Audiences & the Political Authority of Speech in Hobbes, Locke, and Mill

Hank Owings (Political Science, Penn)

THE POPULARITY OF THE TERM “CANCEL CULTURE” gestures toward the popularity of free speech culture in the United States. And yet, “to cancel” refers only to a certain subset of speech: the pejorative invocation of “cancel” is meant to identify and constrain attempts to impute harm to speech. In other words, attacking “cancel culture” is a defense of one’s ability to say anything with impudence, burdening the consequences of speech exclusively on the listener. HANK OWINGS returns to early modern political theory and canonical liberal texts in order to demonstrate that this understanding of speech is present from the very beginnings of Western liberalism. Working through the ways Hobbes, Locke, and Mill understand both freedom and speech, he identifies how “freedom of speech” is always a unidirectional freedom from speakers to listeners. For Hobbes and Locke, those without or with less political authority or obligated to passively listen to speech from those with authority. For Mill, every member of society bears a heavier burden of actively listening to most speech, even that which might be construed as harmful. Absent in this account and lacking in canonical political theory is a robust tradition of refusing to listen. “Cancel culture,” then, is simply confirming this assumption inherent in the liberal tradition: that those with traditional authority are entitled to an audience, and that audience is not allowed to stifle speech or refuse to listen. 

“Authentic” Transgender Citizenship: Legality and Diagnostic Practices of Gender Dysphoria in Pakistan

Uzma Sher Zafar (Anthropology, University of Virginia)

SINCE THE INTRODUCTION OF THE TRANSGENDER PERSONS (PROTECTION OF RIGHTS) ACT 2018, trans people in Pakistan can access citizenship under the category of khwaja sira (transwoman), khwaja sira (transman) and khunsa-i-mushkil (intersex or hermaphrodite persons). In this context, UZMA SHER ZAFAR explores emergent meanings of gender dysphoria in medical consultations between transgender people and medical practitioners.  An inclusive definition of gender variant citizenship has initiated narratives around “authentic” trans bodies and who is genuinely khwaja sira. The deployment of biomedical models to investigate the authenticity of trans experience has orchestrated complexities of care at the intersection of dysphoric experience, citizenship and gender affirming psychiatric care as the gateway to gender affirming surgical care. Under the new law, doctors have become accessories of state bureaucracy as assessors of legitimate citizenship claims. This includes Sunni Muslim psychiatrists with strong beliefs in “Nature” and the “natural” body as unalterably Allah-given. Zafar analyzes medical encounters between doctors and those seeking psychiatric certifications of gender dysphoria in the pursuit of eligibility for citizenship documents and explores the ethical negotiations that make gender affirming medical care possible for their trans patients. In the process, Zafar traces a socially conscious reconfiguration of Sunni Muslim ideas on gender dysphoria and the “natural” body. What are the questions asked of dysphoric patients to medically “prove” their dysphoria? How is gender dysphoric experience visibilized in a psychiatric setting to qualify the trans body for citizenship? How does the sociality of the medical encounter make space for proving or denying gender dysphoria as genuine psychic suffering? Zafar looks at the varied ways in which doctor-patient interactions become a place of evidence production to satisfy state legislative demands of citizen psychology.