New paper: “Foucault’s ‘Metabody’” on Psychiatric Power lectures

Mary Beth Mader, Department of Philosophy, 327 Clement Hall, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN 38152, USA.

Foucault’s Metabody,” Journal of Bioethical Enquiry (forthcoming).


The paper treats several ontological questions about certain nineteenth-century and contemporary medical and scientific conceptualizations of hereditary relation. In particular, it considers the account of mid-nineteenth century psychiatric thought given by Foucault in Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973–1974 and Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975. There, Foucault argues that a fantastical conceptual prop, the ‘metabody,’ as he terms it, was implicitly supposed by that period’s psychiatric medicine as a putative ground for psychiatric pathology. After presenting the heart of Foucault’s thought on the ‘metabody,’ the paper investigates the possibility that a contemporary version of a ‘metabody’ may operate today as a conceptual analog of the nineteenth-century psychiatric theory and practice that Foucault began to expose in the texts examined here. It speculates that we might identify a contemporary genetic version of a ‘metabody’ in a particular current conception of the gene as replicator, an item marked by an ambiguous temporal ontology.

Keywords  Philosophy – Ethics – Ontology – Etiology – Heredity – Genetics – Somatization – Metasomatization


New Google Earth controversy in Japan similar to Bowman Expeditions controversy

In this computer screen image taken from the Google Earth software, a feudal map of a village in central Japan from hundreds of years ago, superimposed on a modern street map, is shown. The village is clearly labeled “eta,” an old word for Japan’s outclass of untouchables known as “burakumin.” The word literally means “filthy mass” and is now considered to be a racial slur. The burakumin still face prejudice based on where they live or their ancestors lived, and fear that Google’s software can be used to easily pinpoint the old villages and match them up with modern neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Google Earth)

Google has recently got into trouble with its new Google Earth layers in Japan. Although they’re not providing any new information that wasn’t already out there, the “power of the Google” has brought on a fresh controversy. As always, it’s not about the technology.

I’ve written about these cross-cultural misunderstandings and controversies elsewhere, mostly in reference to the recent controversy in geography concerning community mapping in Oaxaca, Mexico. During the AAG for example there was much discussion about mapping, GIS and indigenous participation and objection around the work of Jerry Dobson and Peter Herlihy of Kansas University–the so-called Bowman Expeditions. (See here for a page of documents concerning the issue.)

One of the main lines of argument centers around the response “we did nothing wrong; we declared our sources of funding; we got local agreement; and our intentions are honorable.” What we’ve learned I think is that the debate is not about those facts per se; or perhaps more exactly that those responses, which might be thought to be controversy-ending in and of themselves, are either insufficient or irrelevant, even if they’re true.

I think I’m satisfied in my own mind that the Bowman Expeditions (regrettable name, as I told Jerry Dobson) did declare their funding from the DoD, were going to make their findings public and not just for the military, and have good intentions (reducing US arrogance and ignorance about foreign cultures, doing what Edward Said called for, ie letting the indigenous speak, and yes I know about Spivak). But once they took DoD funding they opened themselves to the same problems as the Human Terrain System (HTS) has.* It’s also evident that local groups differ one fro another, or even over time (agreements can be given and later withdrawn).

As I say above, the issue comes when two “worlds” come into contact. You can’t just do what is right by your lights, getting your IRBs signed off etc.If this post has any relevance to the blog, and it doesn’t, much, it’s that being-in-the-world (Heidegger), or the practice of freedom (Foucault) is not a set of rules or procedures that can be codified by eg a code of ethics. Who was it who said that the system is unable to account for anything outside the system?

When worlds collide, so to speak, it’s not the technology itself that lies at the heart of the matter, but the worldview, cultural orientations, expectations and histories that matter.

Here for example are some quotes from the story:

The company provided no explanation or historical context, as is common practice in Japan. Its basic stance is that its actions are acceptable because they are legal, one that has angered burakumin leaders.

“If there is an incident because of these maps, and Google is just going to say ‘it’s not our fault’ or ‘it’s down to the user,’ then we have no choice but to conclude that Google’s system itself is a form of prejudice,” said Toru Matsuoka, a member of Japan’s upper house of parliament.

Asked about its stance on the issue, Google responded with a formal statement that “we deeply care about human rights and have no intention to violate them.”

The more issues of this sort there are (and currently we not only have this Google issue, the Bowman Expeditions issue, but also the $10 million lawsuit against Jared Diamond, as well as the ongoing HTS issue) the more calls we will see for “codes of ethics” and indeed HTS-like solutions.

Here’s more. Notice the first quote. The maps come from David Rumsey, a well-known map collector who puts a lot of his collection online for free.

“This is a classic example of Google outsourcing the risk and appropriating the benefit of their investment,” said David Vaile, executive director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Center at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

The maps in question are part of a larger collection of Japanese maps owned by the University of California at Berkeley. Their digital versions are overseen by David Rumsey, a collector in the U.S. who has more than 100,000 historical maps of his own. He hosts more than 1,000 historical Japanese maps as part of a massive, English-language online archive he runs, and says he has never had a complaint.

It was Rumsey who worked with Google to post the maps in its software, and who was responsible for removing the references to the buraku villages. He said he preferred to leave them untouched as historical documents, but decided to change them after the search company told him of the complaints from Tokyo.

“We tend to think of maps as factual, like a satellite picture, but maps are never neutral, they always have a certain point of view,” he said.

* Incidentally I met and had a long conversation with two geographers in the HTS at the AAG meetings. I don’t think we agreed on things, but they were open to dialog, not secretive, gave me their names etc. I would like to see a dialog on this in geography, perhaps at next year’s AAG meetings in DC.

Thomas Flynn lecture

Thomas Flynn, a professor of philosophy at Emory University here in Atlanta, will be lecturing on Foucault and Hadot on Thursday at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI.

More info:

Thursday, Feb. 21
3:30pm, Commons Lecture Hall
Calvin College, MI

“Philosophy as a Way of Life: Foucault and Hadot”

Flynn has a piece in our book and is author of a 2-volume study of Foucault and Sartre.

Sex and ethics: Nussbaum vs. Foucault

From Bosphorus Reflections:

Michel Foucault and Martha Nussbaum covered some similar territory with regard to the ehtics of the Ancient world with regard to desire, sexuality, eros and love. In Foucault’s case, this was work towards the end of his life in Hermeneutics of the Subject, Uses of Pleasure, and Care of the Self (the last two were volumes two and three of History of Sexuality). In Nussbaum’s case, this was the work that really made her name: Fragility of Goodness and Therapy of Desire.

Comparisons of the two are not very frequent. Foucault tends to be best known amongst literary theorists; Nussbaum is known to philosophers (particularly those working in Ancient Philosophy, Philosophy and Literature, and Ethics) and also to people in legal and political theory. There would be great benefits in more philosophers reading Foucault, there would also be benefits in cultural theorists reading Nussbaum.


Foucault was an irresponsible provocateur, Nussbaum is the New Engşand moralist. Clearly Nussbaum is the greater scholar of Antiquity, by a very long way, but she is not convincing when she tries to criticise Foucault for emphasising the distance between Antique ethics and general theories of obligation. It is important that at this time Foucault was developing a more nuanced view of different types of political regime. In all cases he was trying to learn from Antiquity how politics always refers to particularistic sovereignty.

Anthropology, secrecy, and ethics

Inside HigherEd:

With debate over the role of anthropologists in aiding the military machine a theme threading through their annual meeting, scholars voted Friday to demand that the American Anthropological Association reinstate strict language from its 1971 code of ethics prohibiting secret research. Members at the meeting – who, for the second time in about 30 years and the second year in a row constituted a quorum in excess of the required 250 — also voted overwhelmingly to oppose “any covert or overt U.S. military action against Iran.”

The language anthropologists want reinstated on secrecy – which, the resolution’s sponsor affirmed would apply to anthropologists doing work for corporations too – stipulates that “no reports should be provided to sponsors that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied.”

But Friday’s vote only strengthens a recommendation contained in a new report from the AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities, which suggests that the membership or ethics committee “should consider” reinstating those same sections (1.g, 2.a, 3.a, and 6) of the 1971 code. The report centers on whether the association’s ethical standards bar ties to the military or intelligence agencies. The commission’s short answer: Not necessarily, although more scrutiny is needed.

While there is certainly room for discussion about these important issues and people may take different positions, the vote highlights once again that disciplines such as Anthropology and Sociology take them seriously. Once again we have to ask why the AAG does not engage them as well?

New Paper: Foucault, Marxism and the Cuban Revolution: Historical and Contemporary Reflections

New paper by Sam Binkley:

Foucault, Marxism and the Cuban Revolution: Historical and Contemporary Reflections

This article relates central themes of Marxist and Foucauldian thought to the intellectual and political legacy of the Cuban Revolution. Against the backdrop of a reading of Foucault’s relationship to the revolutionary left, it is argued that Marxist theoretical discourse on guerrilla struggle (as articulated by Mao, Guevara and others) provide an intriguing case for bio-political struggle. In the case of the Cuban revolution, an ethics of self-transformation appears in which new ways of living and practicing life are cultivated in opposition to sedimentations of state power. Moreover, in addition to this historical case, a discussion is offered of the reception of Foucault’s work in contemporary Cuba, through an analysis of the published proceedings of a conference on Foucault held at the University of Havana in 1999. Here, Foucault’s thought is appropriated as part of an effort to revitalize Cuban socialism itself. 

In Rethinking Marxism.