Before the winter school “Biopower and Semiotics of the Body” in Kääriku, I had never really deeply considered such a theory, always having focused on the wider world of international relations and political science. Having just recently developed an interest in semiotics due to my friends in the programme here, I decided that I should at least try to understand the discipline more completely. As for biopower and biopolitics, I had nothing more than a cursory understanding from scanning articles on Wikipedia – nonetheless, I found the concepts completely fascinating and needed to know more. Setting out from Tartu’s bus station with a couple of close friends from here at the university, I had absolutely no expectations for the coming week because I had absolutely no idea what to expect in the first place.
Biopolitics primarily concerns the regulation of the human body, and in some cases, of the mind as well. Ironically, the experience at the winter school gave all the participants an opportunity to free ourselves from that very regulation of work and traditional academic environment in the cool embrace of Estonian foothills that surround Kääriku. Through the study of biopolitics in such an environment, we could discuss the regulation of humans while unregulating ourselves, connecting with other people from disparate cultures, continents, and backgrounds. Together, hailing from Estonia, Russia, the United States, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, and Taiwan and coming from disciplines ranging from political science and semiotics to law, economics, and medicine, we forged new understandings and connections all by coming together in the heart of the Estonian wilderness.
The winter school itself is part of a larger series of conferences entitled “Escapes from Modernity,” which seasonally takes place in remote locations throughout Europe. Jokingly, many of us characterized it as an “escape from modernity” into the seemingly entrenched postmodernity of the theories that we were studying during our lectures. Ignoring the pithiness of this quip, we really were able to escape from the trappings of the modern, regulated life and become more in tune with nature and each other. This mélange of scholarship with the bareness of the isolated backwoods provided an atmosphere unlike any other in terms of an academic and personal experience.
The steam of the sauna and heated conversations over late-night drinks facilitated countless cerebral discussions just as much as the lectures and movie sessions did to stimulate a deeper level of scholastic introspection. Plunging into the icy depths of the lake inbetween short sessions in the humid heat of the sauna invigorated the body as much as these conversations provoked the mind. All in all, a sense of deep personal development imbued the totality of the entire experience in Kääriku.
Our group presentations stood out to me as the most memorable occurrence at the winter school. While during the entire week we had absorbed information and theory about biopolitics, this opportunity really showed how thought-provoking and all-encompassing the topic is in practice. From topics such as nationalism, citizenship, and religion to art and sports, all of the participants were able to display their newfound knowledge to everyone else. What really struck me from this whole experience is just how applicable the concept of biopolitics is to every single facet of life – and this is both an exhilarating and worrying implication.
Coming back to Tartu, it still felt like home, but at the same time, everything felt different. Not only do I have a new academic and theoretical background that will always come into play when I do future research, I also have new connections and relationships that I would have been unable to get otherwise. As both an academic and personal experience, this winter school conference presented me with opportunities that I would have never experienced, let alone even conceptualized as a possibility.
George Spencer Terry is a master’s student of European Union and Russia Studies at the Johann Skytte Institute of Political Studies.