Woyzeck and the birth of the human research subject

Bioethica Forum 6 (3):97-104 (2013)
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Abstract
In various writings Michel Foucault has shown how, in the beginning of the 19th century, in settings such as army barracks, psychiatric hospitals and penitentiary institutions, the modern human sciences were ‹born› as an ensemble of disciplines (medical biology, psychiatry, psychology, criminology, and the like) From the beginning, the nature-nurture de- bate has been one of its key disputes. Are human individuals malleable by environmental factors (such as psychiatric treatments or disciplinary regimes), or do they rather display inborn predispositions for delin- quency and other forms of antisocial behaviour? In the current era of genetic testing, in behavioural genomics and neuroscience, this issue is as controversial and topical as ever. Büchner’s unfinished drama Woyzeck (written in 1836) is a remarkable anticipation of this debate, staging the birth of the human individual as a research subject. It is the story of a destitute soldier who, according to his superiors, displays er- rant behaviour and is therefore recruited to serve as a research subject in an experiment. His army physician turns him into a ‹case›, which can be meticulously monitored and studied so as to record the genesis of a crime. In this paper, Büchner’s unsettling play is analysed in detail as one of the great anticipatory literary documents of the 19th century, ex- ploring the idea of predictive psychiatry and the quest for genetic pre- dispositions: a primal scene as it were of the nature-nurture debate as it unfolds from predictive criminology up to behavioural genomics.
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Archival date: 2019-02-07
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Performing the Future.Toonders, Winnie; Verhoeff, Roald P. & Zwart, Hub

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2013-11-10

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