December Special Issue Podcast: Transplantation and its Imaginaries

Podcast by Brandy Schillace with Donna McCormack and Magrit Shildrick

The Transplantation and its Imaginaries special issue proposes new understandings of the limits and possible extensions of organ and tissue transplantation that encompass cutting edge interdisciplinary research around biomedicine, philosophy, literature, film and transplantation studies. In our own era, the parameters of human embodiment are highly contested, and it is necessary to think a different future that does not take for granted the wholeness, separation and independence of the (healthy) body. As a discourse of immense power in shaping social expectations and mores, biomedicine in its many branches is a prime site for generating critical rethinking, and we aim to elucidate the impact that biotechnologies can have on how we comprehend the transformative possibilities of varying human embodiment.

Full transcript below bionotes


Dr Donna McCormack, Chancellor’s Fellow and Senior Lecturer. Dr. McCormack’s research is situated at the intersection of post- and anti-colonial studies, queer theory, and the medical humanities. In much of her work she formulates post- and anti-colonial, critical race and queercrip ways of analysing contemporary fiction in order to both critique systems of violence and to open up space for imagining what is possible. Her focus is the body in the context of health and illness and trauma studies. She work across literatures from North Africa, the Caribbean and Canada. I am currently working on a monograph entitled Vital Death: Organ Transplantation in Contemporary Fiction.

Dr Magrit Shildrick, Guest Professor of Gender and Knowledge Production, Stockholm University. Dr. Shildrick joined Stockholm University in 2018, having worked for several years at Tema Genus, the unit for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at Linköping University. She continues grant-aided research, and a long-term research project in Canada around organ transplantation. She has held academic posts in the UK, Ireland, Canada, USA and Australia, and currently also serves as Adjunct Professor of Critical Disability Studies at York University, Toronto, Visiting Professor in the Dept. of Law at UTS, Sydney, and Honorary Research Fellow in Philosophy, University of Liverpool.  She is committed to contesting the taken-for-granted grounds and structures of western humanism.



BRANDY SCHILLACE: Hello, and welcome to the Medical Humanities Podcast, the official podcast of BMJ’s Medical Humanities Journal. We invite you to listen in and join the conversation from global perspectives on health, medicine, and accessibility, to interviews with social justice activists, filmmakers, artists, and academics from around the world. Stay up to date with public discussions that matter to medicine and humanities because life happens at the intersections. [music fades out]

Hello, and welcome back to the Medical Humanities Podcast. Today, I’m very excited to have with me Donna McCormack. She’s going to be talking to us about transplantation and its imaginaries, a special issue that we’re going to be publishing this December. Donna is a Chancellor’s Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Donna, welcome. Thank you for being with us here today.

DONNA MCCORMACK: Thank you, Brandy. I’m very happy to be here.

SCHILLACE: I’m really excited about what you’re putting together in this special issue, and I know that it’s been a long journey. And transplant is something that I’m very interested in as well. I wonder if you could tell our listeners a little bit about how you came to this topic and how you came together working on this idea of transplant and the concept of imaginaries.

MCCORMACK: Yeah. So, I think it emerged from a few different directions. One is I run a project called Transplant Imaginaries, and so have been working on how we might think about, theorize organ transplantation in ways that represent maybe more marginalized ideas, narratives, experiences. And then the other side to it is the Nordic Network for Gender, Body and Health. We hosted a workshop in Copenhagen in 2018, I think, which was specifically on transplantation. And one of the things that we thought that was really important that came out of there was how transplants evolve and the change in dimensions of it. So, we’re maybe more familiar with the solid organ transplants: hearts, livers, etc. But actually, what we’re seeing are more innovative, if you like, or more ways that transplants are now being done. So, we thought, well, actually, there are two important sides. One is these new technologies or these new interventions. And then the other side is which types of artistic forms, expressions are responded to or reimagined in these technologies?

SCHILLACE: One of the things that really interested me about the collection of articles is the fact that some of them use fiction as a way in and a way to explore and explain the experience of transplant, and I wondered if you could say a little bit more about that as well.

MCCORMACK: There are articles specifically on fictional representations and exploring novels, films, and relating this also, to memoirs by people who’ve experienced transplant. So, there is that side of it that is the very kind of cultural analysis, trying to give a record of what’s going on in the world of fiction, and how is it responding? And what is it doing to re-imagine this? So, you have transplants that are not only about human bodies, but are then related to the environments in which they exist and maybe apocalypses and so on.

And then on the other side, we have quite a few dealing with these new technologies: so, uterus transplants, face transplants, and even fecal transplants. So, this very newish development that we’re seeing in transplantation, some of that is very empirically based. So, the one on uterine transplants is looking at and interviewing women about their experiences in terms of finding a donor. So, a very different way of even thinking transplantation. The idea that you would find your own donor, of course, does relate to kidney transplants.

But still, the idea that you might ask your mother for her uterus raises a whole different set of questions than those of us who deal with solid organ transplants, you know, we might be more focused on life, death. What do they mean? When do they end? When do they begin? Whereas these are about the desire to reproduce, the desire to have children, the desire to experience periods, and so on. So, it does raise, in many ways, a very different set of questions than what we’ve seen in the earlier literature on transplants, with still some relation to that, of course.

SCHILLACE: I’m especially interested in the uterine transplants. I think that it opens up new spaces for discussion, particularly when we’re considering the LGBTQ community and the, you know, just all of the new developments that’ve happened that’ve changed the conversation around transplant.

The other thing that I found interesting is just how involved community really is in this understanding that an organ transplant is always a kind of conversation. It’s always involving more than one body. And I know that that line can be sometimes interesting to explore.

MCCORMACK: Yeah. I mean, that’s yeah, it’s a fascinating question, and that’s definitely something I deal with in my article. I’m very much interested in how the body border directly relates to the community border so that the two are no longer experienced or understood as separate. So, the representation of a body is also a representation of how we live as a community. And for me, what you see in fiction is very much that these are about tensions that are to do with capitalism. They’re to do with colonialism. They’re to do with violence against people of color, against queers, against disabled people. So, you have this socio-cultural anxiety that you see in fiction on transplantation that asks us, “How does this biotechnology relate to these histories of violence and what’s going on in the present moment?”

So, that, to me, is the really fascinating side where we can no longer think of biomedicine as an abstract idea that deals with individual bodies. Actually, it’s situated in these very kind of capitalist hierarchies, these historical oppressions, violence. So, that’s where community has come into it.

And I think also, we could probably say that that relates to some of the other articles about different community responses to transplantation, about whether our bodies should stay whole, about that our bodies belong to the community, or they belong to an afterlife. So, we have articles that deal with these tensions where Western medicine requires that we be willing to open our bodily border. But actually, the community might say, “Well, what happens then, in the afterlife,” for example. Or, “What happens? How am I then responsible to this person from whom I get this organ?” And there are a number of articles that address those issues as well.

SCHILLACE: This is so fascinating. I’ve come across, more than once in my historical studies, points about afterlife and transplant. And it was a particular curiosity about people having amputations, even at one point, that they should have all of their body parts. And I think on one hand, sometimes we can look at that and think it’s not important. But in fact, it is very important, and it’s culturally significant. And how do you allay those fears? And how do you handle it when it’s your loved one’s organs in someone else’s body, when you’re listening to a heartbeat that might be your child’s heart, but is in another person? And the responsibility. I think it’s fascinating that you’re covering that ground.

I’d like to ask then, as we’re approaching this incredibly diverse series of papers for this special issue, what would you like readers to walk away with? What do you think is the most salient and interesting, important points that you’d like them to leave this special issue with?

MCCORMACK: Not a small question! [laughs] I think that one important thing that readers should take away from it is that there are diverse responses to transplantation, that there’s not one single universal good that is transplantation. Actually, there are lots of difficulties, there are lots of tensions, and they might be community specific. They might be specific to an individual. But those issues, problems, tensions, they have to be integral to the biomedical practice of transplantation. They can’t be seen as that which is the social, the cultural, the political. Actually, all of those are embedded in this technology, and therefore, I would want readers to consider, what is it that we can do to facilitate support, improve transplantation as a practice?

SCHILLACE: Before we finish out our time here today, I’m really interested in a lot of the work that you do, and you’ve done some fascinating projects. Your different focus, your areas of focus, and also your output, really impressive. And I was wondering, could you tell us what’s next for you? What do you think you’re going to work on next? Tell us where the, where is this research going, and where do you see the future?

MCCORMACK: Yeah! [chuckles] I can tell you I’m actually trying to put a book together at the moment, so I’m deep in that. And I am trying to still work on these ideas, like you were just saying, Brandy, about how queer crip, it’s a methodology for thinking through anti-racism, anticolonial resistance. So, I’m trying to tease out those forms of resistance and re-imagining that still relate to organ transplants and biotechnologies and how we might think about the individual and the collective body. And within that, talking about these ideas that often circulate around transplants. How do we define death? What does that mean? Who lives on? What does it mean to have parts of bodies that live on? So, trying to link these very visceral bodily parts and experiences to these ideas around how might we continue to fight for social justice, to stop the repetition of violence, and what kind of worlds are possible?

SCHILLACE: I know our readers are going to get so much out of this. As you know, we really focus a lot on social justice, disability issues, and LGBTQ movements, and the rights of minorities. And so, the fact that you’ve taken this look at transplant science and the various, the things that surround it, the context that surrounds that, including capitalism, is just really meaningful. And so, I can’t wait for our readers to get ahold of it. It is publishing in December, so you guys can get it. We have the blog as well. If you go to the blog, you’ll be able to read content about the articles and also hear a little bit from the articles, from the authors talking about their work. So, so pleased to have you on Donna. And as always, we have a transcript that will be attached to this podcast. So again, thank all of you for joining us and being part of the Medical Humanities conversation. [theme music returns]


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