Vingt-Trois Et Moi

How a giant of 20th century philosophy, taken too soon from us, would view the proliferation of consumer genetic testing, not to mention its impact on our sense of self, identity, and relationship to power…

“Where there is power, there is resistance…”

–Michel Foucault

“Power is only tolerable on the condition that it masks a substantial part of itself.”  So said and believed the seminal 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault. To find examples of power, therefore, he believed it’s critical to examine where new forms of knowledge are being produced and new discursive methods are being employed. 

As an enthusiastic chronicler of the history and philosophy of science, Foucault, who was tragically taken from us at the age of 58 (one of the first to fall victim to the HIV-AIDS epidemic), would have been copiously intrigued by contemporary developments in the prevalence of what he called biopower in society, eagerly examining how these powers interact with the vitality of the individual and social body. 

What might he have made, for example, of 23andme, a company that sells a personal, mail-in gene-testing kit, from which a copious amount of new knowledge can be produced?  Much of the information generated is quite helpful, and the enterprise presents itself as a tool for positive social change, allowing people to feel more connected by common genetic traits. A thorough Foucaultian analysis of the company, however, its claims and techniques, reveals a new strategy of biopower which inserts itself into everyday life through a discourse on genetic identity. Further, it is clear that the service actually does much work to preserve the divisions which have traditionally separated people in Western society.

Many of the techniques of power employed by 23andme are tools that developed in the early 18th century, an era, according to Foucault, that saw the emergence of population as an economic political problem.  Along with this new variable, the care of which was tasked to the state, the monitoring of new phenomena became increasingly important: birth and death rates, life expectancy, fertility, state of health, frequency of illnesses, patterns of diet and habitation.  From this, statistics became the science of the state. Demographics became the tool which determined how resources were to be apportioned: where one lived, one’s ethnic background, and one’s ancestry all became essential features of one’s life as a social being.      

Among those facets of life which became a concern of power, perhaps the most important was sex. In the case of sexuality, Foucault writes, “between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less; a whole web of discourse, special knowledges, analyses, and injunctions settled upon it.” When it became clear to the state that an essential part of maintaining the health of its people and its population was the monitoring of sex, the multiplication of discourse and power in the realm of sex became essential functions of the state. A swell of repressive tactics came into being, preventing a discourse around sex and sexuality. 

Similarly, in the case of genetics, there is a belief that issues of race, class, and nationality have been tabooed and removed from the hands of biologists and given to the human sciences. The Encyclopedia Britannica, in fact, cites the separation of biologically inherited traits from culture and language as a core “tenet of anthropology.” Foucault would find, for both genitalia and genes, that “not any less was said about it; on the contrary. But things were said in a different way; it was different people who said them from different points of view.” 

In particular, while the study of race and culture is no longer conducted by a eugenicist with a set of calipers and a collection of human skulls, a company like 23andme, employing scientists, doctors, historians, and anthropologists, still presents hundreds of hundreds of cases on their main website advertising the importance of learning one’s ethnic background. In one such case, a Lebanese man, Kamal, finds that he is 9% Italian. He responds to this discovery: “I always felt a part of me was Italian…I love to speak with my hands. I like Martin Scorcese movies.” Although the gene testing service doesn’t claim that it will be able to explain a consumer’s love of certain directors or expressivity, it advertises that the most mundane and most profound information can be divined from 23 chromosomes while reinforcing widely-held stereotypes about ethnic groups. 


Kamal finds truth, gene by gene

Even more outrageously, by framing culture as something that exists in our DNA, the company gives license to its customers, like Kamal, to comment on cultures to which they’ve never belonged. At the very same time, the video is titled “looking beyond the differences; seeing commonalities.” Kamal goes on to say that through his ancestry report, he found that he was part Ashkenazi Jewish, and suggests that people in the Middle East might change their attitudes towards each other if they realized that they could share great-grandfathers. In this not-too-subtle way, the company is advertising that genetic information, hidden from the public until their product’s birth, could finesse some of the most unsolvable geopolitical issues in modern history. 

Yes, there has been a shift in the way we discuss genes and heredity. A scientist would have difficulty today claiming that poverty is a genetically inherited condition, but this doesn’t stop genetic testing companies like 23andme from arguing that one’s cultural perspectives and community can be found on a strand of DNA, as they did in their presentation of “Jeannie’s” Ashkenazi ancestry, a woman who was raised Christian but always felt that she was Jewish.  As one of their spots intones: “Jeannie knew that she already felt Jewish, but now it was not just in her heart – it was in her genes,” implying that, even though this woman, until recently, had no knowledge of her genetic background, her blood has shaped her into the person she is. 

What 23andme represents in the scientific community is what Foucault would call a “regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse.” Suddenly, after spitting in a tube and fedexing it around the world, people feel that a new knowledge of themselves has been uncovered, and they can experience life in ways that were previously impossible. Foucault would want us to examine the effects of the introduction of this new knowledge.  23andme makes it clear the effects their surveys are meant to have in every report they send back. In each segment of the report, the goal is clear: to organize people around the notion of a “normal body.” This aim of power is characteristic of a society driven by biopower, or as Foucault would put it: “a normalizing society is the historical outcome of a technology of power centered on life.” 

In the case of sexuality, as Foucault observed, this normalization also came from doctors and scientists. In an effort to drive couples to the desired conjugal arrangement, the sex of the husband and wife was beset by rules and regulations. Suddenly, it became of the utmost importance for people to consider: “do I have a normal sex life?” Parents, with the fear of responsibility, were placed in a position where they had to monitor their children for “deviant” or “aberrant” features of their sexuality, lest they develop into something dangerous. If you send in your genetic test, you will find, in your personalized report, the same neurotic obsession with normalcy. 

This is exemplified on the report page titled “genetic weight.” In the sample report the company provides, Jamie King finds that she is predisposed to weighing “about 9% less than average.” A small graphic below it, featuring a blue bathroom-door-style woman, says that a woman of Jamie’s height, age, and genetic background is 157 pounds. A responsible doctor doesn’t assign an ideal weight for a patient simply based on averages. According to the CDC, “BMI and waist circumference are not diagnostic tools for disease risks.” The notion of “healthy weight” is diagnostically useless without information about lifestyle and environment (a fact which the report mentions in tiny grey font). 

Wrong answer, right answer on the pendulum. Note that he’s with us always, everywhere…

The true intention of setting this standard is even clearer when a table at the bottom of the page lists “Healthy Habits for Your Genetics,” all of which provide an activity coupled with information about how this relates to weight loss. For example, someone with the same genetic background, as Jamie, who eats 7 servings of vegetables again, would be expected to weigh 9.4% less than someone who eats no vegetables. The very structure of this document is meant to give the reader the impression that, instead of striving for the goal of satisfaction with one’s body, the ideal, “healthiest” body exists at the average: a norm. What purpose does this serve? Just as the “garrulous attention,” as Foucault describes it, which surrounds sexuality serves the ultimate purpose of constituting “a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative,” the craze that has driven 10,000,000 people to send their saliva to 23andme produces a similar ideologically economic and conservative understanding of genetics, by creating bodies which “on average” are thought to be healthier, even though “healthy weight” varies from person to person regardless of genetics. 

This is not the way in which  23andme re-valorizes the normal and demonizes the deviant in ways that trace back into the far reaches of modern history. In the case of sexuality, for example, as Foucault observes, for centuries “hermaphrodites were criminals, or crime’s offspring, since their anatomical disposition, their very being, confounded the law that distinguished the sexes and prescribed their union.” The case of hermaphroditism was–and is–one where certain individuals, by their very existence, oppose an understanding of the world: how can sex and gender be both contingent on each other and binary, when some bodies, by nature, express two different sexes? Our country is currently coming to terms with the fact that reality and understanding are not homologous on this issue, as trans-people are demanding that spaces exist for them (in bathrooms, workplaces, college campuses, etc.), where before political decisions weren’t made with them in mind. 

Although race and gender are different forms of identity, with vastly different origins and implications, many societies have struggled to maintain their understanding of race despite the fact that genetic studies have proved that “race” doesn’t exist in our blood, but rather our culture. As a result, our society is confronted with a similar dilemma: if all people fall into distinct racial categories (there are 5 on the United States Census), and these categories are meant to tell us something about ourselves, what do we make of the people we can’t classify? This is a problem which has been critical to legal discussions of race for hundreds of years. 

Much like hermaphrodites, people of mixed-race backgrounds were also functionally “crime’s offspring.” Laws prohibiting miscegenation made the existence of mixed-race children a topic of contention. What rights should these people have? Should they be entitled to the rights of free, white citizens or should they be stripped of every right, dignity, and freedom that their father might have enjoyed? In many of the Southern states, at the turn of the century, new laws developed to ensure that this confusion would be settled permanently: the introduction of “one-drop” rules, which stated that a person who was found with even one ancestor of “sub-Saharan” descent, they would be considered “black” by the state. 

Thankfully, laws which specifically discriminate against race are now illegal, but the question remains: If we apportion resources, rights, and hierarchy in society based on blood and racial heredity, how can that system continue in an increasingly diverse world? 23andme makes it feasible for us to continue our using our antiquated racist system by providing an exact numerical value to correspond with one’s ethnic background. Where once race was a cultural, political, and social category, now it can be discussed purely scientifically. Jamie King’s genetic data shows her to be 47.4% European and 41.8% East-Asian, for example. It is clear from the way her data is presented that we are meant to read it racially, evidenced by the fact that the data is divided into virtually the same categories as the United States Census’s section on race and ethnicity: European, East-Asian and Native American, Sub-Saharan African, and Western Asian and North African. 

While 23andme advertises itself as a service that bridges gaps between people by showing their commonalities, it actually further cements us in racialized ways of thinking which is politically convenient to the power structure in place. Further, by placing race into an entirely scientific context, it becomes immensely difficult to contradict. In a political context, the concept of race is far more flexible. It is possible for a mixed-race person to say, “I am neither black nor white; I refuse to be identified as one or the other.” In a scientific context, however, it is impossible to contradict the chemical makeup of one’s DNA. 23andme is taking up a charge or mission similar to that of the race scientists of 19th and 20th centuries, dividing people into distinct, unquestionable, and concrete ethnic categories.        

23andme is following an employment of power very similar to the approach deployed by scientists in their 18th century examination of sexuality as well. First, to employ Foucault’s characterization, the company is building “indefinite lines of penetration.” Just as the study of sexuality “expanded, subdivided, and branched out,” while the powers exercised over it “advanced,” and “multiplied its effects,” there seem to be few areas of life, according to the 23andme website, in which one’s unique genetic code is not of critical importance. Included among the traits listed as amenable to testing are constructs as arbitrary as “Misophonia,” “Ice Cream Flavor Preference,” and “Sweet vs Salty.” Even one’s preference for night or day is treated as a matter of blood

When sexuality became an ordering force in human development for science, the issue of child onanism became critically important and treated as an epidemic. Once “these tenuous pleasures,” to use Foucault’s turn of phrase, became an issue of importance, the discursive work began of “constituting them as a secret (forcing them into hiding so as to make possible their discovery) tracing them back to their source, tracking them from their origins to their effects, (and) searching out everything that might cause them or simply enable them to exist.” As a result, the surveillance of children became a parental prerogative. Wherever a child’s sexuality might exist, it became the job of a parent to carefully observe and intervene.

Similarly, 23andme treats the human genome as a secret that, while we are completely unaware, governs our most basic tastes and preferences. As more “truth” is revealed, the more data there is to work with, the more complicated our understanding of genetics becomes, and the more power is given to doctors at 23andme to place people into categories. The result is that, through its discourse, 23andme actually works against the goal of making people see “the commonalities.”

If 23andme clearly exerts power over its customers, then what compels people to subject themselves to it? One of the key elements in the development of the scientia sexualis was and is the use of confession. As Foucault observes, “The truthful confession was inscribed at the heart of the procedures of individualization by power” In the West, one is incited to confess in wide-ranging circumstances: in schools, in court, to spouses, and to parents. 

23andme makes use of its own variety of confession, a genetic confession. Foucault argues that in the West, we are so bombarded by the incitement to confess at all times that we believe there is always some truth in “our most secret nature” that “‘demands’ only to surface” One’s genome does represent a “secret nature,” but the nature of secrets is that one wishes them to remain secret. So, how does one go about inducing a “genetic confession?” As it happens, many of the same tools used to extort a sexual confession are transferable. 

One of the foremost of these tools is encapsulated in what Foucault calls the postulate of general diffuse causality.  In the case of sexuality, it means thatthe limitless dangers that sex carried with it justified the exhaustive character of the inquisition to which it was subjected” In the brave new world of genetics, for every report that 23andme completes, there are sixty-five subreports, detailing one’s predisposition to certain diseases, one’s likelihood of being a carrier of certain genetic conditions, and even information about the gene-specific effects of caffeine and alcohol consumption

23andme also induces confessions through Foucault’s “principle of intrinsic latency.” By listing hundreds of traits, all alleged to be revealed by our genetics, an impression is created that without knowing one’s genetic code, one is missing out on the chance to become a fuller person. There is immense pleasure in uncovering something about oneself, unknown before, which Foucault refers to as the “pleasure of analysis.” It is clear, from the testimonials on the website, that customers of 23andme are experiencing a similar pleasure in unveiling their own genetic secrets: “When the results came in, it felt like opening a present;” “I felt extremely empowered;” “It answers questions you didn’t even know you had.” I think this last claim is especially indicative of the “whole web of discourse” which is rapidly sprawling over, expanding on, and enveloping the genes of every person.

But all of the above only tangentially addresses a more fundamental question: why this new technique of power might have been developed and what purpose it ultimately serves. From beyond the grave, Foucault would credit biopower, in which the state’s ancient right to “take life or to let live” is replaced by a power “to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.” This form of power results inevitably, Foucault believes, when methods of power and knowledge are able to exercise a “relative control over life,” meaning that death is avoidable to an extent that it has never been before. 

At that point, it becomes far more advantageous, for power and for capital, to condition people to cultivate both the ideal body for work, through what he calls the discipline of anatomo-politics, as well as the ideal social structure to optimize production, created via a bio-political regulatory regime. Sex became an ideal point of penetration into people’s personal lives “as a means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species.” Genetics represents a similar point of access to both the individual body and its social counterpart. 

23andme invades the anatomo-politics of the human body by ascribing norms to its shape and size and by prescribing new lifestyles to combat health risks.  The service is especially insidious, however, when it comes to its impact on bio-politics. While it does make some positive contributions to the health of the social body, e.g. by identifying carriers of genetic diseases, thereby allowing parents to be more wary of the risks of having children, the data which it collects is hazardous and the ways it’s used are thoughtless and conservative. 

Sleepy gene indeed. The lowly nucleotide apotheosized, and given opposable thumbs, too…

Out of the ten million customers who have purchased a product from 23andme, 80% have opted-in to participate in research. According to the “About Us” page of its website, one individual contributes to “200 different research studies” on average. Not only does its presentation of results compel people to view themselves in antiquated racial and other inappropriate categories, but it also allows those in power to do the same with the support of statistically overwhelming masses of collective, aggregated data. 

The rapidity of growth for this company and the growing interest from governments in its research potential (including two 2016 NIH multi-year grants) are evidence that the study of genetics is exhibiting a pattern of growth and invasiveness similar to that of sexuality, as understood by Foucault. The scientia sexualis took desire as its object, and from this intimate feature of life, rended human beings into categories: gay, straight, bisexual, etc. Further, by placing it into scientific discourse, these categories became truth. 

When the “sodomite” was a political category only, his actions were relevant to his treatment by the law. However, following the development of sexuality, Foucault argues, “the sodomite” became merely a temporary, colloqual aberration; the homosexual was now a species. Even now that homosexuality is legal, we are still trapped in a language of norms and deviance, enforced by our scientific understanding of sexuality. How are we ever to escape this? More importantly, can we prevent the same from happening to our genes as happened to our sex? 

The emergence of services like 23andme as well as its peer companies is clearly a facet of biopower.  Will our racial categories, too, become scientific and permanent? Today a person has the choice to reveal their DNA or to keep it to themselves. Will this always be the case? Will the blueprints of our bodies be the final secrets we forfeit?  If the rallying point against the deployment of sexuality as a means of control ought to be “bodies and pleasures,” how ought we combat the deployment of genetics as a further form of oppression?

 

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Poitiers, France–the birthplace of Foucault, M. To see more of the most beautiful buildings in the city, click the pic…

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