Harvard Presentation, “Imagineering Geneatopia”

Presented at The Ways of Knowing: Graduate Conference on Religion, October 25-26, 2013. Science, 
Religion, and Culture at Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

"Imagineering Geneatopia: Genomic Heterotopias and Biologized Blackness in the 
PBS African American Lives Series"

From 2006 to 2008, PBS broadcasted the African American Lives series and Finding Oprah’s Roots, 
documentaries about root-seeking that animated the genealogical hopes and enacted the genetic 
anxieties of black U.S.-born celebrities. African American Lives promised to reveal “who you 
really are” for this select group by tracing their matrilineal and patrilineal DNA estimates 
back to ethnic tribal groups on the African continent. This presentation examines how these 
documentaries recall, repeat, and reconfigure already established notions of blackness and 
gene-ideologies through the construction of genomic heterotopias or geneatopias.

I use the term geneatopia to describe a spectacular, mythic compilation and enactment of images and 
narratives of genes, race, origins, and place. Geneatopia extends Foucault’s notion of heterotopias 
as counter-sites in which “real sites … are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted” to 
media representations of racialized identities within genomic imaginaries. Imagineering geneatopia 
is the combining of media techniques, such as narration, cinematography, and music, with the 
deployment of recognizable subtexts, such as racial difference, inverted hierarchies of race, tropes 
of diaspora and Africa as Motherland, and Alex Haley's Roots.

The underlying ideological implication of geneatopias lies in how ideas of race as a biological 
concept are framed and naturalized through popular ‘imagenations’ of genomics. I use frame analysis 
to identify six categories for biologized blackness that are present in the African American Lives 
series: genetic post-racialism, genetic nativism, transnational biocitizenship, genetic passing, 
the 'risk' of rootlessness (of not knowing genetic origins), and predestined greatness based on genetic 
inheritance (a type of spiritualized genetic essentialism). I argue that geneatopias are not only 
heterotopic sites (often compensatory and contradictory) that promise to provide genealogical legitimacy, 
genetic authenticity or ancestral proof; they are also integral to the ways of knowing direct-to-consumer 
DNA ancestry testing and personal genomic histories as “new technologies of race”.
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