Queen's University

Dr. Lisa Guenther

Professor, Cultural Studies Program, Department of Philosophy

Queen's National Scholar in Political Philosophy and Critical Prison Studies


 I am the Queen’s National Scholar in Political Philosophy and Critical Prison Studies, cross-appointed to the Department of Philosophy and the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies. My research lies at the intersection of phenomenology, political philosophy, and critical prison studies, with further specializations in feminism and philosophy of race.

After earning my PhD at the University of Toronto, I traveled to New Zealand, where I taught at the University of Auckland. After five years, I accepted an assistant professorship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.  During this time, I began volunteering in prisons in Nashville and eventually set up and facilitated a discussion group for men on death row. Initially the focus of the discussion was on philosophy but broadened to collective inquiry on themes such as restorative justice, radical pedagogy, and friendship. 

The Queen's National Scholar program afforded me the opportunity to return to Canada in 2017, where I am able to bring all the experience I have gained working internationally back to my homeland. At Queen's, I see an opportunity to build bridges and to strengthen the ties that are already established between the university, community groups, and community members who are affected by prisons. I also hope to help strengthen the network of scholars and activists working on these issues. 

My authored works include Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives (2013) and The Gift of the Other: Levinas and the Politics and Reproduction (2007), and I was the co-editor of Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration (2015) with Geoffrey Adelsberg and Scott Zeman.  I am currently working on a book about incarceration, reproductive politics, and settler colonialism in Canada, Australia, and the United States. 

My recent articles include “On Pain of Death: The ‘grotesque sovereignty’ of the US death penalty” in The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities (2016), “A Critical Phenomenology of Solidarity and Resistance in the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strikes” in Body/Self/Other: The Phenomenology of Social Encounters (2017), and “‘We Charge Genocide’: Anti-Black Racism in the United States as Genocidal Structural Violence” in Logics of Genocide (forthcoming).  As a public philosopher, my work has appeared in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and CBC's Ideas. A collection of my published works can be found here.

Most Recent Project

On Pain of Death: The 'Grotesque Sovereignty' of the US Death Penalty

The United States is the only Western democratic nation to practice capital punishment in the 21st century. Lethal injection was introduced in the late 1970s as a more palatable alternative to evidently brutal methods of execution such as electrocution, hanging, and firing squads. Today, executions are staged as a quasi-medical procedure in which the inmate/patient is put to sleep and put to death on a gurney, hooked up to an IV machine, sometimes with the direct participation of medical professionals such as anesthesiologists. Medical knowledge and authority is both invoked to justify the practice of lethal injection and also strictly limited in its capacity to critique, or even to optimize, this practice. In the Supreme Court case, Baze v Rees (2008), prisoners on Kentucky’s death row called for the use of medical technology and expertise to minimize pain during execution. The court denied their request, but in response to a dissenting opinion, many states introduced manual “consciousness checks” which function as both a both biopolitical ritual of care and a necropolitical ritual of social death. Following Foucault, this chapter analyses the current practice of lethal injection in the US as a form of ‘grotesque sovereignty’ or Ubu-esque power.

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Other Projects

  • A Critical Phenomenology of Solidarity and Resistance in the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strikes

    Much depends on the battle to define the kind of social group that organized the 2013 hunger strikes. Was it an activist group engaged in a non-violent human rights struggle, or was it an alliance of gang leaders manipulating the prison system, the public, and vulnerable prisoners in order to enhance their power? Could it be both? Without taking a position on whether members of the Short Corridor Collective are, or ever were, gang members or leaders, I want to analyze the emergence of collective agency and organizational power in the Pelican Bay SHU. How did such agency and power emerge from the extreme isolation of the Pelican Bay SHU, among people who might otherwise be divided by social, material, and institutional barriers? And what might we learn from their example about the phenomenology of social encounters, the structure of collective action, and the political possibilities for effective resistance in an age of mass incarceration and extreme punishment?

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