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The Workshop

Session 2015

Bios, Techné and the Manufacture of Happiness

28 June - 8 July 2015 

You are invited to apply for a place in the 2015 Session of The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism. The 2015 Session will take place in Johannesburg (South Africa) from June 28 to July 8, 2015. Its theme is Bios, Techné and the Manufacture of Happiness. The JWTC was founded in 2008 as an independent platform for experimenting with theory in the global South. Since 2012, it has been located within the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER).

Its goal is to open up questions that are fundamental to contemporary aesthetic, philosophical, political, literary, ethnographic and ethical inquiry - questions that potentially point to new paths for critical theory at the interface of local, regional and global circuits.
Our audience is a new generation of local and international scholars who locate their work beyond the model of area studies; are willing to challenge naturalized interpretive conventions, and are eager to bring about a renewed dialogue among the disciplines with a view to a transformed critical theory landscape.

The Theme
Not so long ago, it was understood that human happiness could be achieved if only we could understand, predict and ultimately control the events and workings of nature. Human happiness, then, implied improving the lot of humankind. This was the time when means and ends were not readily detached from one another.

These questions lie at the heart of some of the most far-reaching traditions of human thought. Marxism attributes the loss of happiness to alienation and subjection to a capitalist mode of production. Psychoanalysis aims at bringing some form of happiness back by teaching us how to live with the Other within ourselves. Major religious traditions claim to bring us back to a lost state of bliss and of unity with the divine. The possibility of a good life, of a flourishing life, has animated thinking about human good, especially in the realm of ethics and economics. These developments are obviously not an exclusively Western concern. In fact these questions and concerns can form a bridge to other archives of philosophies and practices to which we seek entrance and understanding.

We now live in an age when the idea of happiness is more than ever before intertwined with that of health and the harsh facts of decline, decay and death. To be happy today is to be empowered by means of techniques, instruments and products; to assume greater control over one's life; to diminish one's subjection to misfortune, chance and necessity and to augment one's capacities to act and perform effectively. Happiness is more and more seen as produced at the intersection of biotechnologies, biomedicine and bio-economy. As the landscapes of risk keep expanding, happiness is increasingly understood less as a political - or even metaphysical - question and more as a constant work of modulation of the self in relation to desired forms of life.

The 2015 Session of The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) will examine these changes and will pay particular attention to those forms of life that are deemed to demand improvement. Of special interest will be the new understandings of mental processes and behavior as well as the new capacities to intervene into the workings of our bodies and brains and our mental life to alter them by rational design.

Current critiques of the rapidly growing practices that seek happiness as an explicit goal consider them to be stupefying. Such a pursuit is marked by uncritical delirium it is argued, and a willful drowning in the abyss of consumerism. Without the ability to think beyond the self and the sensory present, the pursuit of happiness is the anti-political.

Our goal is therefore to examine the forms that pursuits of happiness are taking in the contemporary, and the critiques they engender. It is especially in the new forms in field of the bio-technological, socio-technical and new media that we put these questions to work. These forms are compelling and pervasive. And they seek to replace, enhance and create from scratch bodies, minds, and social relations that erase outsides. Presentism and temporal engineering (speed, intensity, rhythm - trance) are compelling technologies for states of immediacy and intensity. Drugs are central. They are technologies given biochemical form which promise easy access to the heightened states of enhanced mood and speed. They mirror more labor intensive social technologies such as coaching, advertising, meditation, breathing, brain, posture, diet, mental metabolism, new media and advertising which are aimed at happy states. And they mirror new media technologies of connection, belonging and identity.

Imaginaries of happiness are further given form in self-created life-events such as wellness, weddings and holidays, popular magazines and advertisement. These imaginaries however remain surprisingly thin and it is only in relationship to broad, eclectic, absorbing, synthesizing, devouring and pentecostalizing practices that they fill boundless space.

Steeped in question of lifestyle and tilted towards practices of autonomy, we ask how the question of happiness and biotechnology pertain to and unfold in the South African context. How does happiness figure in South Africa social, cultural and religious lexicons in which race and class seem overwhelming, and how does it reframe questions of the political and raise urgent matters of justice and reparation? Here, we are in the domain of failures to achieve the psychic and material (pre-) conditions of happiness; and the prevalence of its very opposite, human misery and trauma (whether in the form of racialized poverty or depression, anxiety and suicide). These are symptomatic expressions of the very closure of a horizon of justice; a perspective which might seem a revenge on the concept of happiness itself.

But are melancholy and fear really the main social affects at work in this place? What does happiness look like when it is given expression in social or political life? What does a politics of pleasure/security/status/autonomy look like? Isn't the question of happiness (rather than a question of justice) played out on a grand political scale when the ANC for example sloganises a ‘better life for all'; when huge investments are made in adolescence and child rearing; and when in the absence of a political horizon of change, happiness is sought through sexual autonomy gauged by pleasure? The question is how, in the light of these developments, social processes such as disease, epidemics, migration, politics and efforts to bring about social change are being refigured?

The programme:
The 2015 programme will span nearly two intensive weeks of lectures, seminars, public events, encounters, exhibitions and performances.

The JWTC works with experimental and experiential pedagogy. Through the course of the workshop, forms of critical and theoretical analysis will be animated by immersion, testimonial, and expression. Participants will be encouraged to speak, perform, read and otherwise express the themes that animate the workshop. The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism also seeks to draw on the questions and preoccupations of many different social sciences and humanities disciplines.

The workshop will include lecture and seminar style presentations by critical thinkers engaging with emerging concepts and analyses. It will take these concepts into domains of literature and forms of city life and encounters with technologies of happiness and temporality. We will speed up and slow down, and work alone and in groups. Throughout there will the chance for intense discussion and engagement, and a return to and refiguring of concepts and forms of expression towards the end of the workshop.

The 2015 Session will feature a range of local and international speakers, including:
Vinh-Kim Nguyen, Julie Livingston, Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Anne Allison, Behrooz Ghamari, Neo Muyanga, David Goldberg, Jenna Ng, Erica Robbles-Anderson, Achille Mbembe, Gabrielle Schwab, Joshua Comaroff, Françoise Vergès, Garry Wilder, Ghassan Hage, and many others.

JWTC will collaborate this year with WISER's Medical Humanities programme. This is a major research area at WISER, focusing on issues ranging from organ transplantation to transgender and intersexuality to aging, histories of sex and neuroplasticity. Please see WISER's website for more details.

Who can apply?
We encourage to applications from both faculty and postdocs and senior post-graduate students in the humanities, social sciences and critical studies of law, media, psychology, medical humanities, technology, design, architecture, urban studies and visual and performing arts. We also encourage applications beyond the academy in cases where applicants have a strong interest and capacity for social theory.

The deadline for applications is the 20th of March 2015. Admissions to the Workshop will be announced by mid-April.

The conveners of the 2015 Session are: Julia Hornberger (WITS Department of Anthropology), Zen Marie (School of Arts), Achille Mbembe (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research) and Dhammamegha Annie Leatt (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Medical Humanities).

We will be accepting online applications from February 1, 2015 so please check back then for the link to the application form.

Please go to Practical Information and Fees for more logistical information.