New Spirits of Humanitarianism

New Spirits of Humanitarianism: Genealogies, Practices, Responses

International Workshop  

Humanitarianism Workshop 

Organisers: Jessica Whyte and Sonja van Wichelen
Dates: 11-12 December 2014
Venue: Female Orphan School, Parramatta South Campus, University of Western Sydney [Getting to Parramatta]

The final program is available here PDF, 231.5 KB (opens in a new window)
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.

Emerging scholarship is attending to the transformation of humanitarianism into an extension of governmental attempts to manage populations and risks (Calhoun 2008; Fassin 2012; Ticktin 2011). No longer outsiders in the realm of realpolitik, "humanitarians" as David Kennedy starkly puts it, "increasingly provide the terms in which global power is exercised." (Kennedy, 2005). Uncovering humanitarianism's foundational paradox – that for all its claims to shared humanity it is premised on (postcolonial) inequality – the endeavour becomes a moral choice of wealthy nations at best and a form of state violence at worst (Weizman 2012). As such, while emergency relief operations rely on the performance, efficiency, and economic viability of the humanitarian industry, military institutions engage humanitarian reason to legitimate war and violence.

Humanitarian government affects the ways in which we conceptualise emergency, trauma, victims, and perpetrators. It gives new meaning to suffering and pain and reorders the worth of lives within liberal understandings of humanity. In conflict-ridden regions this is manifested in differential treatments of lives that need to be "saved" and the lives that are "risked"; but it is also evident in domestic border making within immigration politics and in the way in which differential regimes of inclusion and exclusion affect the everyday lives and subjectivities of asylum-seekers, refugees, and "illegal" migrants.

This workshop aims to problematise and explore genealogies, practices and responses to the new spirits of humanitarianism in late modernity. Central to the humanitarian focus on the suffering of bodies is the assumption that such suffering can be described independently of historical and contexts (Meister, 2011). In contrast to this approach, this workshop seeks to interrogate the emergence of humanitarianism and its continuing embeddedness in liberal governmental rationalities. It asks: What are the histories of humanitarian government? How does it relate to colonial and imperial contexts? If we can see it as a liberal diagnostic, what does it offer to western nations or liberal democracy? What relations exist between neoliberal forms of governmental rationality and humanitarian reason? What role do institutions play in according humanitarian aid and to what extent does this affect the morality of our modern liberal will? 

Keynote Speakers

Ilan Kapoor, York University - "The Ideology of Celebrity Humanitarianism"
Miriam Ticktin, New School for Social Research, New York City - "Humanitarianism and Beyond: the Pasts and Futures of Care"
Eyal Weizman, Goldsmiths, University of London - "Lethal Warning"

Full abstracts and biographies (opens in a new window)

Keynotes are open to the public. Postgraduate students are encouraged to attend the workshop as well.
Only a limited number of places are available for scholars who wish to attend the workshop as a whole (please contact the organizers). Preference will be given to those working on humanitarianism and who can commit to attending the entire workshop.

Organisers: Jessica Whyte and Sonja van Wichelen