Ten minutes for the good of the order (Brent Maher).
Before we get to Rabinow, we need to understand some Michel Foucault. Foucault’s ideas lie at the heart of contemporary critical thought, and anthropologist Paul Rabinow extended Foucault’s thinking in his concepts of biosociality, biopower, and biopolitics. For Foucault, knowledge is a power structure, disciplining societies through various conventions (social structures and cultural practices). Everyday social institutions (such as schools) discipline people into unthinkingly following particular cultural practices. This power can best be understood through idea of the panopticon (from Foucault’s study of prison, Discipline and Punish). First conceived of by Jeremy Bentham in the late 19th century, the panopticon forces inmates in a prison to act as if they are being observed. In the picture above, one watchman can view into prisoners’ cells to see what is going on; in its idealized form (perhaps with one-way glass), prisoners would not be able to tell if they are being watched. Bentham describes this as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example” (Bentham 1843:39).
How does this form of power work? Think of a STOP sign on a rural road, and it’s 2am, and you are driving home. What happens when you see that red octagonal sign? Even if there are no police at the corner, you slow down the car for a stop, and then continue on. This is the disciplinary power that Foucault says happens in everyday situations that cause people to submit to a particular authority. Now think of all the social institutions and past cultural practices that have led to your automatically and unthinkingly pressing on the brake pedal in your car to stop at that sign – your high school driver’s education class, your state’s department of motor vehicles, the police, your parents who drove with you when you had your learner’s permit, even Sesame Street. This is the true influence of disciplinary power; it works even when there is no one around to enforce it.
For Foucault, biopower is a social technology that started in the late eighteenth century to control society (see Foucault’s book The Birth of the Clinic, focusing particularly on medical practices and conceptions of the human body. So what does Rabinow mean by biopower? Rabinow writes: “what brought life and its mechanism into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life” (1999:407). Biopower clusters around two distinct poles:
- “anatomo-politics of the human body,” the target of disciplinary practices (as seen in panopticon, or ideas of gender, etc.)
- regulatory pole, centered on policies, strategies concentrated on knowledge, control, welfare
For Foucault, epistemes are regimes of knowledge – specific historical moments that point to the limits of discourse. They are framed by language, life, and labor. But for Rabinow, technoscience serves as the epistemic frame.
Rabinow wants to explore social and cultural implications of the human genome project, specifically ideas of changing the human genome. What does the human genome project impact what it means to be human? Mapping the human genome is clearly a scientific project that will help us understand human beings, and it goes unquestioned that there are benefits to understanding genetic composition. To determine its impact on what it means to be human, Rabinow explores the issue of mapping as a form of representation: how biology is represented makes a difference in terms of how genes are understood, but also how being human is understood. What in the human genome is worth mapping (e.g., the issue of “junk genes”)? The second big question that Rabinow explores is who owns the map. Whose genome is it: “The collective standard consists of different physical pieces mapped at centers around the world. Given the way genes are currently located on chromosomes, i.e., linkage maps, the easiest genome to map and sequence would necessarily be composed of the largest number of abnormal genes. In other words, the pathological would be the path to the norm” (Rabinow 1999:410).
If we are 98% chimpanzee, is it the remaining 2% that makes us human?
Rabinow’s definition of biosociality: “the new genetics will cease to be a biological metaphor for modern society, and will become instead a circulation network of identity terms and restriction loci, around which and through which a truly new type of auto-production will emerge, which I call biosociality” (Rabinow 1999:411)
One result, as we mentioned earlier, is increased surveillance, as in the example of medical insurance companies using genetic probabilities to set premiums (and companies using medical insurance costs for differential hiring or employee pricing). So instead of face-to-face type surveillance of individuals and social groups, we may now be subject to faceless, virtual surveillance through our medical records, where risk factors become a way to categorize people (the ‘Minority Report’ effect). Castel refers to this as “the technocratic administration of difference” (Rabinow 1999:412). Herein lies the panopticon, but now it is invisible, buried deep within the bowels of a server farm.
“The collection of a DNA sample from an individual raises a profound and far-reaching privacy concern. Genetic traits can identify family members and reveal predispositions to disease and mental illness. DNA is a robust descriptor of an individual’s entire physiological identity. DNA testing can also result in “social stigma, discrimination in employment, barriers to health insurance, and other problems.” (EPIC amicus brief, on Moodle)
BTW, don’t ask me about “the Golden Pond or the Sierras.”