Theory of Biopolitics and the Global Response to HIV/AIDS

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Pinni B building auditorium 1096, address: Kanslerinrinne 1.


Doctoral defence of Lic.Soc.Sc. Jaakko Ailio

Theory of Biopolitics and the Global Response to HIV/AIDS : From critique to affirmation

The field of science of the dissertation is International Relations.

The opponent is Dr. Alan Ingram (University College London, UK). Professor Tuomas Forsberg acts as the custos.

The language of the dissertation defence is English.

Theory of Biopolitics and the Global Response to HIV/AIDS

The vast evidence shows that the scale up and liberalization of the global HIV/AIDS relief especially in the past fifteen years has overall improved the life changes of people virtually everywhere. However, as numerous critical studies have simultaneously emphasized, in the globally marginalized locations this overall improvement has been accompanied by cementing already existing hierarchies and the establishment of new inequalities. In these locations the well-intentioned global response to HIV/AIDS has run into an obstacle that has been undefeatable; namely, the body. Due to the fact that people are physiologically and pharmaceutically different, the global response to HIV/AIDS has not been able in reality to affirm the freedom and equality of all globally marginalized sufferers, despite this being the intention. This is not at all surprising from the perspective of the biopolitical theorizing of the past four decades. One of the most established and well-known claims in this interdisciplinary field is that political universalism recedes when life steps to the foreground. When the general aim is to save, improve, secure, modify or foster life, the attention is eventually focused on particular biological differences, regardless of universal ideas that might inspire this governance. And yet, in spite of this resonance that runs between the field of biopolitical thought and the concrete problems of the contemporary global HIV/AIDS governance, extensive and systematic attempts to introduce biopolitical theories into the context of the global HIV/AIDS governance have so far been lacking.

This research responds to this lack. The focus of the study lies in bringing the field of biopolitical thought into an intimate connection with the currently unsolvable political problematics of the contemporary HIV/AIDS governance in order to move beyond a simple critical elaboration of the current situation. After all, in spite of the difficulty of thinking political universalism and the management of our lives together, not all scholars of biopolitics have seen political universalism and the domain of life as absolutely incompatible. On the contrary, recently a number of theorists of biopolitics have brought forward different ideas on how political universalism might still be made operative in relation to the domain of life. In spite of the insightfulness of these ideas, however, these so-called theories of ‘affirmative biopolitics’ have remained somewhat cryptic and no general consensus have emerged over how life and politics could be brought together in a way that would make it possible, for instance, to speak about politics of life that also in practice affirms everyone’s freedom and equality.

As a result of this ambiguousness, we will not only reflect the current debates within the field of biopolitical theory but also develop and push further the ideas of seminal theorists of biopolitics, such as Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito and Michel Foucault. Empirically this engagement will lead us to analyze the political limits of the contemporary global response to HIV/AIDS through literary works that concentrate on the difficult situation of the globally marginalized HIV/AIDS sufferers. The literary works we will focus on are Carolyne Adalla’s Confessions of an AIDS Victim, Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother, Meja Mwangi’s The Last Plague and Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village. All these works have been selected on the basis of their resonance to the actual problems of the global governance of HIV/AIDS, and all these works are read by contrasting them to the political limitations of our current perceptions of these problems, along the lines set by a methodological orientation called the ‘materialist criticism’ of literature, which originates from the work of Elaine Scarry.

Through our empirical analysis we will show how even the most marginalized HIV/AIDS sufferers can be seen on the basis of their lives to be actually free and equal in a more extensive sense than on the basis of the liberal public health ethos. In this manner, we will eventually introduce ‘affirmative-biopolitical’ ideas of freedom and equality into the context of global HIV/AIDS governance. Through these two ideas we will sketch a political relation that consists from the prevalent liberal policies and from the viable possibility of concrete affirmative biopolitics, which on the basis of the affirmation of these ideas of freedom and equality, possesses genuine potential to go beyond the limitations of the current global response to HIV/AIDS. Finally, we will reflect our actual possibilities to transform the contemporary global response to HIV/AIDS and elaborate what kind of political acts as such are in this context faithful expressions of affirmative biopolitics.


The dissertation is published in the publication series of Acta Universitatis Tamperensis; 2307, Tampere University Press, Tampere 2017. The dissertation is also published in the e-series Acta Electronica Universitatis Tamperensis; 1811, Tampere University Press 2017.

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