Foucault’s ‘Metabody’


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.

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  1. 1.

    Foucault 2003a, 240: “I would say not that masturbation was transferred to or placed on the moral level of fault. Rather, I would say that we see in this campaign a somatization of masturbation that is, on the order of the doctors, directly linked to the body (or at any rate whose effects are directly linked to the body) even in the discourse and experience of the subjects.” Commentators often overlook that Foucault is interested in experience, most probably for the reason that Foucault consistently refuses specifically phenomenological accounts of experience; this does not prevent him from using the term, and from developing alternative accounts of experience at many points in his work.

  2. 2.

    Foucault 2006, 270–1: “What basically was involved when a mental patient was asked about the illnesses in his family, and when it was carefully noted down if his father has died of apoplexy, if his mother suffered from rheumatism, if his uncle had been an idiot child, and so on? … Of course, it extended the search for certain signs, prodromes, etcetera, to a multi-individual scale, but I think it was above all and essentially a way of making up for the lack of pathological anatomy...”

  3. 3.

    Foucault 2006, 271: “It is a sort of meta-organic substratum, but one which constitutes the true body of the illness. The sick body in the questioning of madness, the sick body one palpates, touches, percusses, sounds and in which one wants to try to find pathological signs, is in reality the body of the entire family; it is, rather, the body constituted by the family and family heredity. Trying to trace heredity therefore means substituting a different body and correlative material for the body of pathological anatomy; it constitutes a meta-individual analogon of the doctor’s organism.” See also, Foucault 2006, 275: “psychiatric questioning constitutes a body through the system of ascriptions of heredity, it gives body to an illness which did not have one;” A reviewer points out the resemblance between this meta-organic substratum and the quasi-transcendental status of “life” in Foucault 1970. Space prevented a discussion of this resemblance. Although there are also significant differences between them, it seems that the notion of an invisible function, as an element of the new understanding of “life” introduced with the advent of the modern empiricities, according to Foucault, shares some features with the logic described here. See especially, the discussion of the organ in general in Foucault 1970, 264–5: “It matters little, after all, that gills and lungs may have a few variables of form, magnitude, or number in common: they resemble one another because they are two varieties of that non-existent, abstract, unreal, unassignable organ, absent from all describable species, yet present in the animal kingdom in its entirety, which serves for respiration in general.”

  4. 4.

    Foucault 2003a, 311, 312, 320. Citing Jean-Pierre Falret’s Des maladies mentales et des asiles d’aliénés. Leçons cliniques et considerations générales, (Paris, 1864), Foucault notes: “the curious notion of ‘condition’ (état) introduced by Falret around 1860–1870 and which is then reformulated a thousand times, mainly in the term mental background (fond psychique).”

  5. 5.

    For Foucault’s thought on more recent developments in genetic science, see Foucault 2008, 227–8.. These pages envision, in the admitted vein of a kind of “science fiction,” the role that the science of modern genetics could play when joined to a neo-liberal economic theory of human capital.. For important work on this topic, see Rose 2006.

  6. 6.

    The relations of these discourses to contemporary psychiatric medicine and to reproductive medicine are not established in this paper, although they clearly are relevant to its general argument. For a comprehensive introduction to evolutionary medicine in general, see Stearns 1999. For recent works in evolutionary psychiatry, see Brune 2008 and McGuire and Troisi 1998.

  7. 7.

    Keller 2002 and many other histories of the gene concept discuss the hypothetical nature of the term “gene” from its start, as well as its ambiguous oscillation between “gene as atom” and “gene as organism,” tied to its multifarious role in the study of both hereditary transmission and embryonic development. Although she discusses the disadvantages of this theoretical ambiguity, she also argues that this incoherence was scientifically productive.

  8. 8.

    I do not address the informational theory of the gene in any detail in this essay. For an illuminating account of the role of the sciences of information in the development of informational conceptions of the gene and genetic science, see Kay 2000. See also the influential Oyama 1985.

  9. 9.

    Dawkins and Hull explicitly attempt to avoid some of the unresolved scientific debates in the rapidly changing field of molecular genetics and its interactions with evolutionary analyses that target higher orders of evolutionary change.

  10. 10.

    Elizabeth A. Lloyd makes this point well in “Normality and Variation: The Human Genome Project and the Ideal Human Type,” originally published in 1994, although without reference to Canguilhem’s work, first published in 1943.


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Further Reading

  1. Foucault, M. 1963. Naissance de la clinique. Paris: PUF.

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  3. Foucault, M. 1994. The birth of the clinic: An archaeology of medical perception. New York: Vintage.

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Many thanks to the Miami University Philosophy Department and graduate students for inviting this work as part of the Linda Singer Memorial Lecture and Faculty Seminar. Special thanks also to Matthew Lexow for insightful comments and research assistance, and to Kate Cregan and Pia Smith for their editorial work.

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Correspondence to Mary Beth Mader.

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Mader, M.B. Foucault’s ‘Metabody’. Bioethical Inquiry 7, 187–203 (2010).

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  • Philosophy
  • Ethics
  • Ontology
  • Etiology
  • Heredity
  • Genetics
  • Somatization
  • Metasomatization