Date: 17 March 2011, 6.00pm
Location: Great Woodhouse Room, University House, University of Leeds
This is the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies’ Annual Lecture.
Dr Margrit Shildrick, Reader in Gender Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast
In modernist paradigms, the embodied subject is not only independent of others and wholly human, but bears an identity that is unchanged over time. Many biomedical procedures – pacemakers, donor embryo transfer, pigs’ valves – already unsettle such views, but the insistence that biomedicine intrinsically seeks to restore an originary sense of self is hard to shift. This presentation looks specifically at heart transplantation as an exemplary process that, in potentially disturbing aspects of identity, entails the need for organ recipients to reconceptualise the question ‘Who am I?’.
The paper connects with my current research into the phenomenology of heart transplantation, where the proposition that heart recipients are likely to experience psychic disruption to their sense of self as a result of their bodily transformation is being empirically tested. Heart transplantation is always a life-saving intervention, yet the implications for recipients’ ongoing sense of themselves as unique individuals are relatively undeveloped. From a conventional perspective, results show a clear need to revamp clinic practice to enable recipients to give more open accounts of their actual bodily experiences following transplantation, and indeed to question the limits of what is seen as unproblematically therapeutic; at a more challenging level they indicate the necessity of rethinking the nature of embodied identity. Research confirms that recipients are highly invested in speculating on the identity of donors precisely because they feel that some donor characteristics will carry over, and that almost 80% display distress, either in relation to the donor, to their own identities, or both. The authorised narrative insists that the replacement of a ‘failed’ organ restores the originary self, but the problem is that the post–transplant body is not only prostheticised, but becomes irreducibly hybrid for life: the originary self is irrecoverable.
Could investigating recipients’ own narratives post-transplant give a better understanding of what it means to incorporate an organic prosthesis, or to experience the body as hybrid? Do male and female recipients experience the process differently? I suggest we need to mobilise a different approach to a range of biomedical interventions that fundamentally vary the nature of the body. Both prostheses and transplants show us a destabilisation of the socio-political, legal and ethical categorisation of bodies according to normative epistemologies that create markers such as gender, sex and race. As the body makes novel connections and participates in machinic assemblages of the organic and inorganic, it demands a reimagination of the ideologies of human identity, and a reconfiguration of bioethics.