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Manuscript deadline
01 September 2021

Cover image - Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory

Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory

Special Issue Editor(s)

Hannah Richter, Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Hertfordshire
[email protected]

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Critique in times of Covid Capitalism: postfoundational avenues

In the same way as the 2020 covid-19 pandemic has interrupted and re-oriented social relations and personal lives across the globe, it has also posed a fundamental challenge to the working mode of post-foundational theory. This challenge is illustrated vividly by the fate of the political commentary offered by one of its most prominent contemporary thinkers, Giorgio Agamben. In February, during the early days of the pandemic, Agamben suggested that the ‘invention of an epidemic’ (2020, The European Journal of Psychoanalysis) was merely the next iteration of the exceptionalist mechanism that sustains sovereign power. Agamben’s take on the covid-19 pandemic as a politically manufactured state of exception received immediate and significant backlash, not the least from those scholars who use his theory to understand the political functionality of framing events and processes, from terrorist threats to immigration, as emergencies. In the face of a collectively experienced pandemic, it seemed tempting to, for once, let go of what critics have termed post-foundationalism’s epistemological ‘paranoia’ (Berg, 2020, Giorgio Agamben’s coronavirus cluelessness, The Chronicle of Higher Education) and disregard the political economy behind the coronavirus episteme in favour of focusing on the challenge of a manifestly real, viral threat.

This call for papers encourages authors to resist this temptation. Agamben’s coronavirus commentary was certainly misjudged, but maybe even more importantly it simply turned out to be of limited use to understand the profound social, political and economic transformations brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. While cases like Hungary and Israel show that the pandemic is indeed being used to facilitate and legitimise authoritarian politics in Agamben’s sense, exceptionalism is only one cog in the apparatus of coronavirus governance. While covid-19 might have given wide-spread legitimacy to an executive force with obvious biopolitical connotations, it also, as Roberto Esposito (2020, The European Journal of Psychoanalysis) pointedly remarked, revealed its vulnerability in the face of deaths and economic decline that governments are unable to halt. Against this background, this special issue seeks to bring together contributions which use and innovate the entire register of post-foundational thought to critically unpack the mechanisms that drive and govern societies in times of covid-19.

The guiding assumption of this special issue is that post-foundational theory is urgently needed here because it can look beyond, and behind, the dominant narrative of total unprecedentedness to unpack the functioning of the political economy that has emerged from the coronavirus pandemic. Like its pre-pandemic predecessor, ‘covid capitalism’ functions through a historically developed political economy of differentiation and hierarchisation, but the contours of the inequalities produced are sharpened. The ‘home office’ economy is sustained by a domestic labour renewed in its gendered quality. The essential workers whose lives can be sacrificed to make the population live, be it as health care employees or in amazon ware houses, are, to a disproportionate extent, women and ethnic minorities, often both. Coronavirus governance thus appears to operate through a gendering and racializing biopower. But diverging from Foucauldian biopolitics, the roles of both dimensions vis-à-vis the biopolitical functions of ‘making live’ and ‘letting die’ are fluid and interchangeable. The covid-19 pandemic seems to lay open how biopolitical governance operates through the contingent attribution of a life and death function which are always intimately connected. In this sense, Dale and Bhattacharya (2020, Covid Capitalism) diagnose a fundamental weakness lying at the heart of covid capitalism: the inability to conceal its foundational incongruences, above all the tension between making profit and making live.

Viewed differently, the dissolution of fixed operational patterns and hinges can however also be understood as the particular functional characteristic of a shape-shifting covid capitalism. Maybe most importantly, it oscillates freely – and survives comfortably – between neoliberal and Keynesian politics. While large-scale governmental rescue packages and furlough schemes appear to mark a significant turning point away from neoliberalism, these ‘ghosts of state capitalism in a neoliberal landscape’ (Dale and Bhattacharya, 2020, Covid Capitalism) also ensure the uninterrupted continuity of contemporary capitalist dynamics. These dynamics include the exploitation of natural resources, which is widely recognised as having provided the fertile ground for the emergence and spread of the coronavirus pandemic, but has generated comparatively little legitimacy for political action that curtails the capitalist economy.

The different socio-political responses which emergencies - including but not limited to the coronavirus pandemic - generate underscores the need for a post-foundational analysis which encompasses both the material reality of the threat perceived and the epistemological framework through which the former is made sense of. On a global level, Malm (2020, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency) suggests that the coronavirus epistemology reveals an in-built prioritisation of the global north. On a national level, it has given rise to new political divisions between libertarian ‘anti-mask’ sceptics and the supporters of sovereign biopolitics, which however share the pandemic as a common reference point. In this sense, the covid-19 pandemic could be unpacked with a view to how ontological security is produced in contemporary capitalist societies. As suggested by Nancy, the coronavirus offers a ‘communising’ (2020, Communovirus) epistemological framework that does not necessarily produce communal cohesion, but collectively shared orientation.

This special issue seeks to develop a post-foundational analysis of the political economy that sustains covid capitalism in its historical and epistemological path-dependencies and continuities as well as its novel dynamics, its productivity as well as its incongruences and points of vulnerability. Doing so, it aims to provide a clearer view on where possible openings for the paradigmatic change of global capitalism might lie which many critical commentators were hoping for in the early days of the pandemic.

Possible topics for submission:

This call for papers invites contributions which aim to think and re-think critique for the times of covid capitalism. The special issue seeks to bring together papers that use, sharpen and develop the theoretical tools available to critical post-foundational theory so that it can effectively tackle the political economy that has emerged from the covid-19 pandemic in its functioning, appearance and effects. As indicated in the possible lines of analysis and argumentation drawn out above, political economy is here understood in a deliberately broad sense. The special issue welcomes submissions from the disciplines of philosophy, economy, sociology, politics, cultural studies, geography and environmental studies as well as from scholars working on related issues in the humanities.

Possible focal points for the use or re-working of post-foundational critique in the light of the coronavirus pandemic are the following:

  • Possibilities and prospects of holding on to a post-foundational ontology in the face of manifestly real social and material changes
  • The relevance of post-foundational, new materialist and post-humanist approaches for a post-foundational mode of theorising that can be sustained in the face of material reality
  • The specific epistemological frameworks that orient social life and guide political action in contemporary capitalist societies, particularly an analysis of the coronavirus as one such guiding episteme
  • The state of exception as a theoretical paradigm and its relevance for understanding contemporary political governance
  • The biopolitical dimensions of the capitalist political economy, particularly the role which the two axes of ‘making live’ and ‘letting die’ play in contemporary biopolitics, how they operate, and whether this operational mode continues or breaks with Foucauldian biopolitical theory
  • The immunitarian logic of contemporary biopolitical governance
  • The functioning of race, gender and economic inequality as operational hinges of covid capitalism
  • The extent to which contemporary capitalism still operates within a neoliberal paradigm, and how covid capitalism can and/or should be captured beyond the Keynesian/neoliberal divide
  • Ecology as sustaining and/or rupturing contemporary capitalist dynamics, and how this relationship between ecology and political economy can be captured from a post-foundational perspective
  • Spaces for resistance and change within the political economy of covid capitalism

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Submission Instructions

  • Indications of interest should consist of a title and an abstract of 500 words and be sent to Hannah Richter at [email protected] .
  • Abstracts will be considered on a rolling basis but should be submitted no later than March 31, 2021.
  • Authors who are invited to submit a full paper are requested to do so by the final paper submission deadline of September 1, 2021.
  • Papers should be no more than 12,000 words, inclusive of tables, references, figure captions, footnotes, endnotes.

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