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Didier Fassin
Didier Fassin — Life: A Critical User’s Manual & The Will to Punish
Tuesday, November 13th, 2018 at 6PM — Labyrinth Books Princeton

The acclaimed anthropologist, sociologist, and physician Didier Fassin has published not one but two new books, each of deep contemporary relevance. We invite you to a far-ranging discussion with the author.


How can we think of life in its dual expression, matter and experience? Philosophers and, more recently, social scientists have offered multiple answers to this question, often privileging one expression or the other – the biological or the biographical. But is it possible to conceive of them together and thus reconcile naturalist and humanist approaches? Using research conducted on three continents and engaging in critical dialogue with Wittgenstein, Benjamin, and Foucault, Didier Fassin develops three concepts in Life – A Critical User’s Manual: forms of life, ethics of life, and politics of life.


Over the last few decades, most societies have become more repressive, their laws more relentless, their magistrates more inflexible, independently of the evolution of crime. In The Will to Punish, Fassin addresses the major issues raised by this punitive moment through an inquiry into the very foundations of punishment. What is punishment? Why punish? Who is punished? Through these three questions, he initiates a critical dialogue with moral philosophy and legal theory on the definition, the justification and the distribution of punishment. Taking up the legacy of Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, he shows that the link between crime and punishment is an historical artifact, that the response to crime has not always been the infliction of pain, that punishment does not only proceed from rational logics used to legitimize it, and that more severity in sentencing often means increasing social inequality before the law. Going against a triumphant penal populism, this investigation proposes a salutary revision of the presuppositions that nourish the passion for punishing and invites to rethink the place of punishment in the contemporary world.


Didier Fassin is Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study and a Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. His many influential works include Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing and Prison Worlds: An Ethnography of the Carceral Condition. He is currently President of the French Medical Committee for Exiles.

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