Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies and the Transformed Self

These are fundamental issues, touching on the way in which different peoples conceive their relationship to nature, to people, to machines and to God. One may argue that attitudes to questions arising from the new technology of organ transplantation will clarify such differences. But maybe we should just say that we haven’t yet negotiated our relationship to the new biotechnology. We need the keen eye of the ethnographer to point out that transplant technology, whose practitioners think of themselves as relying on proven knowledge, experimental hypothesis and mastery of techniques, is in fact embedded in its own ideology. Transplantation, Sharp writes, ‘rests on a paradoxical set of ideological or moral premises that guide medical conduct, professional outreach efforts, and dominant lay understandings of death, the body and gift giving’. She lists seven premises taken for granted in the transplant world, from master surgeon to donor’s weeping sister or brother. True, they are taken for granted, but there is a tension between them that produces what she calls paradoxes: transplant engineering is a medical miracle; body parts must never be commodified; reusable organs are precious; brain-death criteria are needed to generate transplantable parts; the scarcity of available human organs needs radical solutions; merging different human bodies is a natural progression as we learn how to do it better and better; even as organ transplantation becomes an industry requiring corporate management, dying patients still require absolute compassion and trust. There are many things in Sharp’s book to make you feel uneasy, but if you ask of yourself the questions she asks of the communities she has studied, you may find out a good deal about yourself that you did not know before.

more from Ian Hacking at the LRB here.