“Health is the new morality,” the editors of the provocative recent book Against Health proclaim. Their comment diagnoses the way a range of laws and cultural norms currently treat physical wellness as an individual’s duty to society, rather than an aspect of personal well-being. How did this come to be? Who profits from placing such a premium on the vitality of the body, and whose bodies are deemed “problems” standing in the way of national productivity?
We will explore how we can work toward reducing disease and suffering, while also developing a critical perspective on the ways “health” currently functions as a normalized set of bodily practices that benefits some groups at the expense of others. We will begin with a landmark in the development of biopolitical thinking, T.R. Malthus’ notion of the population. We then turn to the United States during the 1850s, a time when a small group of women became the first licensed female physicians in the modern world. As we will learn, these advances for (white) women often came at the cost of racial justice, as female physicians justified their unusual professional ambitions by their belief that they were contributing to the gradual perfection of the Anglo Saxon race. We will also examine how, concurrently, male physicians worked to clamp down on white women’s rising political and social power by illegalizing abortion and thus bringing women’s reproductive lives under the control of the nation-state and the medical community. Next, we will explore the eugenics movements of the early twentieth century in the U.S. U.K, which sought to improve the racial stock of the nation by preventing “unfit” women from reproducing and encouraging “fit” women to have more children. Finally, we will consider how the U.S. and other advanced economies have recently framed individual health as a moral imperative. Overall, students will learn how modern political and economic power often functions through optimizing the biological life itself of the population, a process that targets some groups for life and consigns others to death.
Course Objectives and Learning Goals
Students will become acquainted with theories of biopolitics and how to use them to explore notions of health, normalization, progress, population, gender, and sexuality. Students will explore biological interpretations of feminism adapted by activists to create greater social roles for women. Students will learn to consider contemporary health politics as part of a centuries-long tradition of politics that seeks to manage the life itself of the population, conceived not as a legal entity but as a biological species. Finally, students will make original analyses of how these phenomena shape contemporary life.
Students will be able to identify, analyze, and critique the formation and reproduction of social, economic, and political hierarchies grounded in race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality.
Through their study of works by women and men committed to the eradication of racial and gender subordination, students will develop the capacity to assess the comparative merits of alternative accounts of race, gender, and sexuality; interrogate cultural stereotypes and naturalizations of hierarchies of difference; recognize the complexity and variety of women's and men's lives and livelihoods around the globe; analyze power dynamics from the microlevel to the macrolevel; identify the politics of issue framing and knowledge production; undertake innovative research; devise creative strategies to promote social change; and collaborate across differences with others in coursework, cocurricular activities, and in life.