The Transplant Imaginary and Its Postcolonial Hauntings

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Abstract

Transplant imaginaries evoke the often unspeakable histories that haunt organ transplantation. As Avery Gordon intimates, such hauntings open up the possibility of getting close to the silenced or unspoken experiences that blur the distinctions between one’s own body and that of an other, “the dead and the living, the past and the present”. In his philosophical reflections on his own experience of a heart transplant, Jean-Luc Nancy describes how his failing heart was the site and source of intrusion: “My heart became my stranger: strange precisely because it was inside. The strangeness could only come from outside because it surged up first on the inside” (Nancy 2008, 163-164). The imminent failure of his heart called for its extrusion as it no longer maintained the self and was thus potentially deadly to the self. Intrusion of a sense of otherness comes not from the outside – as is commonly figured in relation to medical interventions and, of course, migration across borders. Rather his own heart came to feel – as in came to be experienced as – other, strange and dangerous. Survival was only possible through the introduction to the self of this supposedly alien object: a heart that belonged to an other. An other’s heart that was strange to the self was thus willingly taken into his body and yet still lived as an intrusion, as a crossing of the hitherto immutable border between self and other. Nancy’s sense of self and of relationality with this other is simultaneously intimate and strange. He is of the other without being other, and still his self, and yet an altered post-transplant self. The other is integral to and constitutive of a sense of (a post-transplant) self, yet absent and ever elusive. Here, the other is a haunting presence, simultaneously dead and alive, of the self and the other, and proximal and distant. For Nancy, transplantation evokes concerns regarding ethical responsibility and relationality through difference. I want to expand on Nancy’s reference to racialized, sexed and national difference by examining Malika Mokeddem’s formulation of organ transplantation as implanting in the recipient “seeds of strangeness, of difference”. In so doing, I suggest that what it means to move organs from one body to another is intimately tied to anxieties concerning migrations across not only bodily boundaries but also national borders. It is the suturing of transplantation to anxieties around otherness and difference that I am concerned with in this article. More specifically, I am interested in how narratives of organ transplantation evoke broader socio-political and ethical concerns around encounters between self and other. Particularly, how they engage the contemporary issue of migration, raising questions about how bodily differences are produced as hierarchical. I explore organ transplantation and its associated socio-political problematics to examine how both national narratives and transplant teams demand a normative structure of time and selfhood. Indeed, I argue that transplantation and migration disrupt linear temporalities and the dominant notion of selfhood as an individual and disembodied state. Haunted by histories that the post-independent nation tries to silence and by the presence of an organ that is a reminder of the absence of the donor, national narratives and organ recipients coincide to convey a disruption, a “seething presence” (Gordon 2008, 8), that will not allow the self or the nation to continue on as if the past could be forgotten. Indeed, I address what it means to remember that which is absent, and analyse how a haunting absence – what Mokeddem (1998, 65) calls a “presenceabsence” – is a form of remembering anonymous, silenced and unspoken histories. In other words, I argue that in a shared cultural imaginary, organ donation is a nexus for the problematics of embodied difference across national and individual boundaries and a haunting absence reminding us of what we do not want to, refuse to or cannot remember. The focus of this chapter is what could be described as a transplant imaginary.

In so doing, I suggest that what it means to move organs from one body to another is intimately tied to anxieties concerning migrations across not only bodily boundaries but also national borders. It is the suturing of transplantation to anxieties around otherness and difference that I am concerned with in this article. More specifically, I am interested in how narratives of organ transplantation evoke broader socio-political and ethical concerns around encounters between self and other. Particularly, how they engage the contemporary issue of migration, raising questions about how bodily differences are produced as hierarchical. I explore organ transplantation and its associated socio-political problematics to examine how both national narratives and transplant teams demand a normative structure of time and selfhood. Indeed, I argue that transplantation and migration disrupt linear temporalities and the dominant notion of selfhood as an individual and disembodied state. Haunted by histories that the post-independent nation tries to silence and by the presence of an organ that is a reminder of the absence of the donor, national narratives and organ recipients coincide to convey a disruption, a “seething presence” (Gordon 2008, 8), that will not allow the self or the nation to continue on as if the past could be forgotten. Indeed, I address what it means to remember that which is absent, and analyse how a haunting absence – what Mokeddem (1998, 65) calls a “presenceabsence” – is a form of remembering anonymous, silenced and unspoken histories.2 In other words, I argue that in a shared cultural imaginary, organ donation is a nexus for the problematics of embodied difference across national and individual boundaries and a haunting absence reminding us of what we do not want to, refuse to or cannot remember. The focus of this chapter is what could be described as a transplant imaginary.

To a certain extent such a concept is inseparable from a broader scientific or biotechnological imaginary. Anneke Smelik (2010, 10) describes how the scientific imaginary raises “critical and ethical issues about contemporary science”, specifically concerning “new technologies in science” (ibid., 10-11). Jackie Stacey argues in The Cinematic Life of the Gene that “the genetic imaginary constitutes a set of very tangible anxieties surrounding the reconfiguration of the human body” (Stacey 2010, 8). She adds that this genetic landscape could be described as “the mise-en-scène of these anxieties, a fantasy landscape inhabited by artificial bodies that disturb the conventional teleologies of gender, reproduction, racialization and heterosexual kinship” (ibid.). I also follow on from Lisa Cartwright’s Screening the Body where she examines how fictional texts are “a part of the social apparatus through which Western science and medicine shaped and built the life they studied” (Cartwright 1995, xvii). However, while I agree with Cartwright and Stacey that cinematic technologies are the very means through which technologies of life emerge and I concur with Smelik that the scientific imaginary interrogates what it means to be human, natural, embodied and technological, I also want to suggest that a transplant imaginary evokes very specific ethical questions about migration, inequalities and postcolonial histories. Indeed, I would add that the transplant imaginary is concerned with the temporality of both the nation and the body. That is, a haunted time, where “what we normally exclude, or banish, or, more commonly, … never even notice” (Gordon 2008, 24-25), is that which we are forced or compelled to engage with, to get close to and to perhaps remember in its partial or complete immateriality.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBodily Exchanges, Bioethics and Border Crossing
Subtitle of host publicationPerspectives on Giving, Selling and Sharing Bodies
EditorsErik Malmqvist, Kristin Zeiler
Place of PublicationLondon
Chapter9
Pages135–152
Number of pages18
Edition1
ISBN (Electronic)9781315717760
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Keywords

  • unspeakable histories
  • organ transplantation

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