ICS Seminar Series - Dr Jessica Whyte and Dr Sonja van Wichelen

Date: Thursday 27 November, 2014
Time: 11.30am - 1pm
Venue: EB.2.21, UWS Parramatta South campus

Dr Jessica Whyte and Dr Sonja van Wichelen 

New Spirits of Humanitarianism 


Humanitarianism is changing. Increasingly professionalised and instrumentalised it has become a full-blown industry with its own standards of efficiency, transparency, evidence, and best practice. Replacing an earlier framework of internationalism, one which relied on the cooperation of nation-states and their commitment to international law, humanitarianism's justifications are more and more entangled in a politics of life intimately connected to wider forms of liberal governance. Today, the legitimating power of humanitarian reason lies not so much in the authority of the political subject as in a moral imperative to protect the depoliticised suffering body.

In this ICS Seminar Jessica Whyte and Sonja van Wichelen will introduce their upcoming workshop on New Spirits of Humanitarianism and will talk about how their work highlights some of the current problematics, debates, and responses to the operations of humanitarianism in late modernity. In her contribution, Jess will talk about Foucault’s notion of 'State Phobia' and will examine how this belief in a continuity between various state forms relates to the new generation of activist humanitarian organisations which, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, challenged the principle of national sovereignty. In particular she investigates the 'elective affinities' between the anti-Third wordlist assault on the post-colonial state and the neoliberal economic policies that came to prominence in the same period. 

While there is an emerging scholarship on the rejection of humanitarianism from postcolonial countries Sonja explores in her contribution how the Global North is rejecting humanitarianism too. Through an examination of a currently debated Bill on Asylum in Australia, she explores the increasing practice of 'unsigning' to humanitarian obligations by states in the Global North. Such forms of compromising humanitarianism, she proposes, point to new justificatory frameworks of asylum and testify to the consolidation of humanitarian governance that is increasingly defined by a depoliticized and dehistoricized 'juridification' of the suffering body.  


Jessica Whyte is a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney. She has published widely on theories of sovereignty and biopolitics, critical legal theory, critiques of human rights and contemporary continental philosophy. Her current research is on the emergence of the 'right to intervene' in the practices of the new activist humanitarian NGOs of the 1970s, and its transformation into a legitimising discourse for state militarism. She is the author of Catastrophe and redemption: the political thought of Giorgio Agamben (SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, 2013).

Sonja van Wichelen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney. She received her PhD in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and held positions in the US (Yale and Brown) before coming to Australia in 2010. Her research projects broadly engage with culture, law, and science in the age of globalisation and the effects that changes in these areas have on our understanding of citizenship. Her current project entitled 'The Changing Rights to Family Life in Australia: Biomedicine and Legal Governance in Globalisation' (funded by an ARC DECRA) investigates the impact of globalisation and biomedicine on the constitution of family through a cultural study of legal processes. 

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