Comments? Essay on Biopower, Knowledge, and Genetics...Help ASAP!

I'm a high school Junior and I'm doing my IB extended essay, does
anyone have any comments on my paper? My teachers seem to think its
too abstract and they don't really comprehend it nor foucault's
ideas, so the insight or commentary (good or bad) I get from them is
minimal. Thanks for your help! - Zach (queengayboi@xxxxxxxxx)


Genetics is about to bring a revolution far more powerful and
encompassing than even the revolution in physics in the early 20th
century. Its power to manipulate the human body brings about
questions about the nature of our being. However, society tends only
to object to genetics in regards to certain uses, like cloning or
eugenics. The problem lies in the fact that analysis tends to follow
the flawed notion of power. The key question that needs to be asked
is how do Michel Foucault's concepts of power, genealogy, and
resistance apply to genetics?

This paper uses Foucault's analysis of power and power relations in
order to actively criticize and resist the project in unforeseen
ways. The genealogy-the specific context and power structures that
allow something to come into play and for knowledge to be produces-of
genetics is analyzed in order to determine within what structure the
knowledge is intended to operate.

It is concluded that genetics has major power-knowledge implications
and it arose out of a need for an even more precise measure of
maintaining, controlling, and developing the health and security of
the population. This system of bio-power has been in place for the
past two centuries and genetics could quite possibly be the end point
of this process, totalizing control of the human body. In a society
designed to maintain and "cure" the population through different
institutions-prisons, asylums, schools, hospitals-this has major
implications-changing the relationship we have with ourselves. The
change could bring about a new conceptional framework for the world
just like the revolutions and other advances did at the end of the
18th century-marking the shift from the classical episteme to our
current humanist episteme. Constant criticism and resistance as
conceptualized by Foucault is needed.


French intellectual Michel Foucault provided the world with a
revolutionary analysis of how power works in contemporary society.
Enraging both conservatives and the liberals that thought he was
their ally, he conjured up some of the most shocking concepts in the
20th century. His analysis of bio-power-the management, maintenance,
and control of the social body, as the way power works in modern
society-is one of his most original contributions. He doesn't claim
to explain everything, or even to do it correctly, but his ideas
unlike any before seem to make things fall into place.

The Human Genome Project has been the site of much hope and much
distress in recent years. It offers the potential to have complete
control over the physical body. Yet the project itself continues on
without much objection to its information gathering on who or what we
are. Unfortunately, Foucault did not live long enough to talk about
the possibilities and dangers of genetics nor was he able to expand
on his concept of bio-power. This paper's purpose serves as an
instrument to encourage critical engagement of the project and its
possible effects. Significantly, genetic information and
engineering, as institutions of power, will have significant
implications in terms of Michel Foucault's analysis of bio-power and
power-knowledge and can only be resisted by understanding the
workings of power.

An Analysis of "Power"
Jana Sawicki, professor of philosophy at Williams College, explains
that our modern conception of power, the "juridico-discursive" model,
has three basic assumptions: Power is possessed (individuals, a
class, the people), it is controlled by a centralized source in a top
to bottom fashion (the law, the economy, the state), and that it is
primarily repressive in nature. Foucault noted that this model is
hardly adequate to describe power in society. He does not deny that
this is one type of power, but he does not think that it explains the
forms of power that make centralized and repressive forms of power
possible --- mainly the multitude of power relations operating on the
micro level of society (Disciplining 20).

Instead, power should be viewed as the relations that control life.
Power is nothing substantive, but scattered (Caputo and Yount
5). "[It] is the thin, inescapable film that covers all human
interactions, whether inside institutions or out" (Caputo and Yount
5). It must be viewed as something that is not repressive but rather
productive. For example, in order to create knowledge of the body,
it had to be seen through military and educational disciplines. It
was power over the body that produced medical knowledge
(Power/Knowledge 59). It is not situated at any source, it is,
however, just a web of relations pervading society and interactions.
Power can't be analyzed in terms of a source, but rather sources must
be analyzed in terms of power (Caputo and Yount 4-5).

Foucault puts a twist on Bacon's "knowledge is power". One of his
most startling revelations was his concept that power produces
knowledge and uses it to disperse itself. Truth is not something
that liberates. Without power, no "truth" could exist. "Knowledge
is what power relations produce in order to spread and disseminate
more effectively" (Caputo and Yount 7). This means that knowledge
claims are always linked with power and that knowledge only exists if
power relations allow it to. Certain large institutions tend to
produce a lot of knowledge, and thus tend to exert an enormous amount
of power. In modern society such institutions could be psychology,
medicine, economics and perhaps the human genome project. These
institutions, however, don't exert their own power, but instead are
the means that power uses (Caputo and Yount 4-5).

Genetics as an Institution of Power & Science's Power Effects

Genetics is situating itself to be a tremendous locus of power and in
some ways it already is. There are many reasons why this may be
true, most significantly in regards to Foucault's concept of bio-
power, to be discussed later on. But generally society uncritically
accepts the goals and methods of science and scientific research. We
don't think that science is problematic outside of its uses. We want
to know everything. We are willing to let science work and deal with
the consequences later, while believing our current social
institutions can absorb these advances. Therefore, the genome
project is a product of our "collective and uniform moral and
scientific expectations" (Murphy 3). Despite being wrong, science
always appears to be right, and therefore all-powerful---and
sometimes had ended up extremely bloody as a tool of power (Appleyard
68). Most ethical analysis tends to shy away from problematization
of the project itself (Murphy 3).

"The silence [surrounding the Human Genome Project] is more than
likely the result of our society's homogeneous views as regards the
morality of scientific inquiry [^Å] the result of the erroneous view
that scientific inquiry is itself value free and only morally
significant with regards to its consequences" (Murphy 5). The
federal government helped to create a scientific orthodoxy with its
funding of the project. Making our pitfall more dangerous, "every
time there are converts to a scientific project, voices of dissent
capable of correcting and advancing human knowledge and wisdom may be
lost" (Murphy 4). Genetics is a big science with big consequences,
and it can form a moral ideology because of its single-natured views-
conforming people and their discourse and their expectations (4).

Furthermore, the scientist is given the role of a specific
intellectual-given authority because of their value and their title
and less because of reason (Foucault Reader 23). They are situated
at the level of knowledge and thus have tremendous power effects with
their claims to truth. But more importantly they are also the
product of power relations. Timothy Murphy, professor of philosophy
at the University of Illinois, notes:

"There are many ways to represent the nature of human beings, and
none of them are value neutral. Even a genomatic characterization is
already always determined by our social and conceptual background.
What we see, therefore, in a genomatic characterization of human
beings depends on what we are accustomed to and interested in
seeing. This for both the species as a whole and an individual in
particular. There is no escaping the immersion in the social and
conceptual preconditions of observation, representation, science, and
language; we cannot ever hope to achieve the position of an entirely
unconditional, uninterested observer" (7).

Medicine has always been a tool for the exercise of public opinion -
more focused on order than truth (History of Sexuality 54). It will
be these scientists and society as a whole determining what
is "normal" as opposed to the "abnormal". We continue on our
commitment to orthodox science, hoping for the production of
knowledge, its positive effects, to the point at which we remain
complacent in regards to how this knowledge will effect society
(Murphy 5).

Throughout the course of history, science has changed abruptly at
several junctures. This is true for both the human and the natural
sciences, and each shows a complete conceptional discontinuity to
former practices (Foucault Reader 9). Only Foucault's model of power
can adequately explain why this type of transition occurs and doesn't
destroy the population's faith in science. Knowledge is contingent
on the power structures that create it, and the discontinuities are
significant events in the struggle of power. This is extremely
important in regards to genetics in particular. We need to realize
that it is ridiculous to say that science today is not like the
mistakes of the past because they were based on "wrong" science.
Five hundred or even fifty years from now the same will be said of us
(Appleyard 68).

Moreover, Foucault noted that conceptions of what is "normal"
and "abnormal" have changed over time. These arbitrary categories
are defined in order to separate the abnormal, and within our current
system, are used as tools for normalization of the "abnormal" in
order to make these social "misfits" more acceptable (Ransom 46).
This process of normalization is part of the process of bio-power,
which is what Foucault saw as the apparatus of power operating in
modern society. This is what I perceive as the most dangerous
application of genetics, as I will discuss later.

Genetics has the potential to have many other power effects. It is
impossible to determine what exactly is going to happen because power
is everywhere and the infinite power relations ensure that perception
will be different than actuality. But it is possible to theorize
some of the possible power-knowledge consequences. Paul Rabinow, a
professor of anthropology at the University of California and noted
Foucault scholar, writes that older categories such as race, gender,
and age may be combined with the vast array of new ones bringing
about new forms of racism, sexism, and ageism. Our preexistent
categories won't be replaced with the new ones, but instead
will "cross-cut, partially supersede, and eventually redefine" them
(Essays 103).

Consistent with Foucault's concept of genealogy-the process of
discovering the point of creation of a concept or event and why and
how power relations were situated in order for this to occur-I must
determine the origin of genetics. With a little help from Foucault
himself, this is not too difficult. In the last section of The
History of Sexuality, Foucault gives a startling insight into bio-
power, the power of the social body in managing, ensuring,
maintaining, and developing life. He views this as the power
structures as situated in our day. Genetics can be seen as a
continuation of this process, and possibly the absolute totalized
application of bio-power.


Foucault's most amazing and shocking contribution is this concept of
bio-power. "For a long time, one of the characteristic privileges of
sovereign power was the right to decide life and death" (History of
Sexuality 135). The king exercised his power by the power to
extinguish life, his right to kill. But at the end of 18th century
all of that changed. Since the classical age we have undergone a
serious transformation in power mechanisms. As Nietzche proclaimed
the death of God, man turned inwards on himself, seeking to manage
the social body-"working to incite, reinforce, control, monitor,
optimize, and organize the forces under it: a power bent on
generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than
one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying
them" (136). This coincided with the ability of European food
production to keep stable for the population. "This death that was
based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the
reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or
develop its life" (136). This is humanism.

Various institutions have been created to exert this power. Medicine
is perhaps the most pervasive of these. The body is viewed in
relation to life-population, health, age-and disciplines through
which power is exercised provide a power whose intention is not death
but an investment in life. The body is viewed as a machine-
discipline, optimization, utility, docility, integration into
efficient systems, and economic controls-are all ensured by the
procedures of anatomo-politics (139). This is a process of
normalization, of eliminating that outside of the "norm."

Institutions and centers of power--medicine, psychiatry, economics,
schools-form the young into complacent subjects of normalization.
Institutions-asylums, hospitals, prisons-also reform the abnormal who
stray beyond the limits of normalcy (Caputo and Yount 6). The goal
of political power is to raise the health of the population and
ensure well-being. Power apparatuses are called upon to control
bodies in order to ensure health. Health becomes the duty of each
and the objective of all (Power/Knowledge ?). It is easy to see how
genetics falls quite easily into the mechanisms of bio-power.

It is important to recognize that no one directs this type of power
but everyone is increasingly enmeshed in it, which only leads to the
increase of the power and the order. Our normalizing society is the
outcome of these procedures of power centered on life. Law operates
as a norm rather than as a controlling factor. It is situated at the
level of rights---"the 'right' to life, to one's body, to health, to
happiness, to the satisfaction of needs, and beyond all the
oppressions or 'alienations,' the 'right' to rediscover what one is
and all that one can be." All of our democratic Constitutions,
revisions, and our continuous legislative activity, these are all the
forms that make "an essentially normalizing power acceptable"-and
were produced merely in reaction to these new power structures that
the classical juridical system was "utterly incapable of
understanding" (History of Sexuality 144-145).

Foucault also points out the effects of this humanist system. Wars
are bloodier than they have ever been, we no longer fight under the
name of the sovereign, but instead for the sanctity of the human
race, for human existence. Never before have regimes exerted such
massive slaughters on their own populations. "If genocide is indeed
the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a return of an
ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised
at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale
phenomena of population." Strikingly, only under this system of
power is the atomic situation possible. " The power to expose a
whole population to death is the underside of the power to guarantee
an individual's continued existence." One has to kill to go on
living, this is the rule of the world of today (136-137). Foucault
boldly declares, "For millennia, man remained what he was for
Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a
political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places
his existence as a living being in question" (143).

Genetics and Bio-Power

Bio-power has allowed for the existence of genetics. It is only in
this system of control of health and of the body that such a
technology would surface. Most people believe that eugenics-the
process of creating a "master race" or of "perfecting" the human
being-through genetics would not happen in our society. But knowing
what we know about the situation of bio-power, is it really that
improbable? The problem with the current conception of power is that
it rests on the axiom that power is controlled, so the only type of
eugenics people conceive of is that of state-sponsored eugenics along
the lines of Hitlerean politics. But bio-power is eugenics, it is a
process by which the population is normalized, controlled, perfected,
and inserted into an economic and political machine. We as a society
have been committing eugenics for 200 years.

Genetics has many bio-political implications. It is so dangerous
because it does provide the perfect technology for social control and
the manipulation of the body. Once we are able to manipulate DNA, we
will have complete control over the body. Like the doctor over the
past couple centuries, the geneticist will become the expert, the
advisor responsible for improving the social body and maintaining its
health. It offers control like never before and it offers
normalization like never before.

"The model of the gene as the blueprint, as a determining factor and
a source of good and evil, nicely fits into our pursuit for control
over life and health and security" (Jochemsen 80). The truth is that
genetics is already being set up to become an extremely large center
of power. A diverse group of disciplines are making claims of the
connection between an array of social problems (crime, mental
illness, alcoholism, gender relations, intelligence), even though few
of these claims are valid. These claims of scientific truth merely
exercise power to entrench societal morality in the guise of a
medical norm. As mentioned before, with changes in power,
formulations of what is "abnormal" and what is "normal" have
changed. Therefore our current conceptions of these categories are
limited to the power relations we exist in. The genomatic
characterization will represent not the individual, but the "ideal
form," allowing interpretation of desirable/undesirable and
normalcy/difference (Murphy 7). A trait we consider a "problem" to
be exterminated now might not be so from another viewpoint in the

The advances can have parents choose desirable traits based on
society's comparative terms (Kevles 25). The population will carry
out eugenics with seemingly autonomous choices, however abuses and
coercion will occur with no government interference (Dyck 30).
People generally desire the same things for their children-
intelligence, health, normalcy-this will form eugenics in the social
body (Appleyard 83). In the context of a free market economy, the
situation becomes even more perilous. Striven for competition in
this genetically engineered environment, parents fearful of their
kids being left behind will ensure that their genetic makeup will not
be of disadvantage. "Problems" will be corrected, and "desirable"
traits will be added. We are marching down a path of normalization in
which people will be engineered "autonomously" to be the same. This
absolute control of the body-combined with institutions like the
schools, the prisons, the factories, and asylums that are set in
place to improve and develop the social body-is the completion of the
biopolitical dream.

This is the opposite of state-sponsored eugenics. The eugenics of the
free market combined with genetic knowledge has major implications.
Public tolerance may be there, but privately we would not want to
have a gay child-if only so that they would not have to experience
hardships. This would be a perfect program of eugenics-more
effective than Hitler. "The free market takes off where Nazism left
off" (Appleyard 84).

The homosexuality example is a good one to demonstrate the side
effects of this process. The extermination of homosexuality might
prevent the birth of important people whose contribution to society
is tied to their sexuality. This would "push society towards a
preconceived idea of morality" (83). We admire those with genius,
the abnormal-Mozart, Michaelangelo, James Joyce. When it comes to
genius, the closest to normal was Shakespeare, and most think he was
bisexual. Yet we will want the low-risk "normal approach" to ensure
social integration (86). Without resistance, a concept I will get to
later, prevailing power structures will only serve to reentrench

Genetics as a Possible Opening to a New Episteme

The power that genetics can exert makes it very precarious. Foucault
makes the claim that man can die just as God did for Nietzsche, that
the humanist episteme-the complete framework of knowledge, the way
power is situated, the way the world is conceptualized-will come
crashing down just as the classical episteme did at the end of the
18th century. He doesn't know where or how, but it will be sudden,
over a period of just a few years (Order of Things 386-387). He
concludes The Order of Things with one of the most powerful
statements in philosophy:

"If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some
event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the
possibility- without knowing whether what its form will be or what
its premises-were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of
Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one
can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in
sand at the edge of the sea" (387).

Genetics, I wager, could be that event destroying our conception of
humanity. Its control is enormous enough, its power so total that
the complete system of bio-power will no longer be necessary.
Rabinow comes close to making this point when he says that the new
genetics will cease being just a biological metaphor for modern
society, but instead it will be its own system that he
terms "biosociality" in contrast to the current term of
sociobiology. "If sociobiology is culture constructed on the basis
of a metaphor of nature, then in biosociality, nature will be modeled
on culture understood as practice" (Essays 99).

Rabinow also claims that of the three foci that Foucault thinks that
would open the way for a new episteme-life, labor, language-life is
the most "potent present site of new knowledges and powers" (92).
Foucault had mistakenly predicted language would be the one to cause
the change, and he acknowledged his error a decade after The Order of
Things (92). Rabinow points out that the object of knowledge-the
human genome-is to be known in a matter so that it can be
modified. "Representing and intervening, knowledge and power,
understanding and reform, are built in, from the start, as
simultaneous goals and means" (93). More than anything before,
genetics has the ability to changes man's conception of himself and
also change man's relation to society.

If genetics truly does bring an end to our episteme there is no way
that we can conceptualize what is to replace it. But the end product
of our current path is quite clear, a completely normalized society
with a lack of diversity and a complacent population. This seems
like an actualization of Nietzsche's concept of "The Last Man."
Critical resistance is needed to counteract current power structures,
but we need to understand how power works in order to resist its
effects. Significantly and traumatically, genetic technology will
transform man's conception of himself. "The self that has been
changed is the self that is trying to understand that change"
(Appleyard 5). Therefore we must engage in resistance and criticism
now, beginning a difficult and never-ending process.

Resistance & Criticism

Reading this paper is the first step. Our solutions are tied to how
we understand the problem, we must question that method. We need to
ask how the problems in society that supposedly need to be solved
came to be problems in the first place-we need to find their
genealogy (Hoy 89). Even though there is a lot of conflict on
certain issues, there is a striking consensus on which issues to
fight about, this creates an inability to apprehend new things
(French DNA 178).

Foucault's analysis expanding the political to include the power
struggles in the microlevel of society helps to open up space for
resistance and self-creation by attacking the constraining effect of
totalizing theories and the juridico-discursive model of power
(Disciplining 62). "Resistance must be carried out in local
struggles against the many forms of power exercised at the everyday
level of social relations" (Disciplining 23). Resistance needs to be
perpetually acted out, as a power-free society is impossible, and we
must never grow complacent-"victories are overturned; changes may
take on different faces over time" (27-28).

Foucault maintained that there is definite value in negative
criticism-that which is not necessarily coupled with an alternative
or a solution (Feminism 65-66). Through analyses such as this essay,
we can open the space for resistance---we can criticize the existing
power/knowledge regimes. The value of which is stated no better than
Foucault himself, "[Critique] should be an instrument for those who
fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in
processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal. It
doesn't have to lay down the law for the law. It isn't a stage in
programming. It is a challenge directed to what is" (qtd. in Gandal


Genetics has clear power-knowledge implications within our current
framework of bio-power. It is so powerful it will cause the complete
realization of bio-power and quite possibly the death of man-the
death of our humanist episteme. Like the wave washing over the
drawing in sand on the beach, man is a fragile invention. This is
neither good nor bad, but dangerous if only because we don't know
what will replace it or what is going to happen. Power is a fluid
that can't be grasped nor destroyed so micropolitical resistance is
the only way to combat current power structures bent on normalization
and the proliferation of such discourse in the realm of genetics.

Works Cited

Appleyard, Bryan. Brave New Worlds. England: Penguin Books. 1998.
Caputo, John, and Mark Yount, eds. Foucault and the Critique of
Institutions. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Davis, Joel. Mapping the Code. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Dyck, Arthur. "Eugenics in Historical and Ethical Perspective."
Genetic Ethics: Do the Ends Justify the Genes? John Kilner, Rebecca
D. Penic, and Frank Yount, eds. Michigan: Paternoster Press. 1997.
Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical
Perception. New York: Vintage Books. 1978.
-------. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York:
Vintage Books. 1978.
-------. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.
New York: Vintage Books. 1970.
-------. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings,
1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books. 1981.
-------. Power. James Faubion, ed. New York: New York Press.
-------. The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality. New York:
Vintage Books. 1985.
Hoy, David. Michel Foucault: Critical Assessments. Volume 3. Ed.
Barry Smart. New York: Routledge. 1994.
Jochemsen, Hank. "Reducing People to Genetics." Genetic Ethics: Do
the Ends Justify the Genes? John Kilner, Rebecca D. Penic, and Frank
Yount, eds. Michigan: Paternoster Press. 1997.
Kevles, Daniel. "Eugenics and the Human Genome Project is the Past
Prologue." Justice and the Human Genome Project. Ed. Timothy
Murphy. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1994.
Mehlman, Maxwell, and Jeffrey Botkin. Access to the Genome: The
Challenge to Equality. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University
Press. 1998.
Murphy, Timothy. "The Genome Project and the Meaning of
Difference." Justice and the Human Genome Project. Berkeley:
University of California Press. 1994.
Rabinow, Paul. Essays on the Anthropology of Reason. New Jersey:
Princeton University Press. 1996.
-------, ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books. 1984.
-------. French DNA: Trouble in Purgatory. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press. 1999.
Ransom, John S. Foucault's Discipline: The Politics of
Subjectivity. Durham: Duke University Press. 1997.
Sawicki, Jana. Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the
Body. New York: Routledge. 1991.
-------. "Feminism, Foucault, and 'Subjects' of Power and Freedom."
Feminist Interpretations of Michel Foucault. Ed. Susan J. Heckman.
University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press. 1996

Partial thread listing: