Prompted by a variety of contemporary issues—including feminist, postcolonial, environmental, and posthuman concerns—scholars in jurisprudence have argued for a return to the Roman model of personhood. Rather than representing a naturalized person, such a model avoids reference to something natural, living, or organic. Instead, the model can be plastic: infinitely malleable and open to complexity. While conceptualizations of a plastic personhood are taking place in jurisprudence, the idea of a biological plasticity is emerging in social studies of the new biosciences. Developments in the new life sciences—such as microbiomics, neuroscience, epigenetics, and immunology—are changing the perception that bodies, brains, genes, and cells are bounded entities, and describe biological life instead as plastic. Here, biological processes are less linear and determinant as the science once thought. In its place, bioscientific insights point to complex permeabilities and malleabilities. Our paper examines these two conceptual approaches to plasticity. What does plasticity mean in the study of law’s persons? And what does it mean in the study of postgenomic science? We describe how these conceptualizations carry with them a clear social and political project—one that we support and underscore—but that taken together run into some kind of trouble. This trouble becomes evident when turning to existing and future claims of biolegality from people and communities that are based on biological rights. These rights claims, we argue, go against plasticity in both law and science. It raises the question of how publics and states can lay claim to artificial forms of legal personhood, devoid of any reference to the natural person, in a time marked by biolegitimacy.


About the speakers

Sonja van Wichelen is Senior Research Fellow with the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at The University of Sydney. Her research broadly engages with the body, law, and science in the age of globalization and the effects that changes in these areas have on our understanding of citizenship. She is the author of Legitimating Life: Adoption in the Age of Globalization and Biotechnology (Rutgers University Press, 2018), Religion, Gender and Politics in Indonesia: Disputing the Muslim Body (Routledge, 2010), co-editor of Commitment and Complicity in Cultural Theory and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), and co-editor for the Book Series Biolegalities (Palgrave Macmillan). She is the convener of the Biopolitics of Science Research Network at the University of Sydney.

Marc De Leeuw is Senior Lecturer at the Law School of the University of New South Wales. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University for Humanistic Studies in Utrecht and a MA (with honours) in Political Sciences, History, and Comparative Literature from the Free University in Berlin. Before coming to UNSW he lectured philosophy at Macquarie University (2011-12) and was a Junior Visiting Fellow at the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University (2008-10), New Haven. His work engages both with the so-called continental and analytical traditions while focusing on questions of human agency, epistemological practices and ethics. His projects are often interdisciplinary and examine the intersection between the ethico-political and moral-legal fields. His book Homo Capax. Paul Ricoeur’s Renewal of Philosophical Anthropology is forthcoming with Rowman & Littlefield. He convenes the UNSW Law Initiative for Bio-legalities (IBL) and is co-editor of the new book series Biolegalities (Palgrave Macmillan).


Forgan Smith Building
TC Beirne School of Law
The University of Queensland
St Lucia
Sir Gerard Brennan Boardroom (W353)