Organ Transplant in Film & Fiction

Organ Transplant

A review of Organ Ensembles: Medicalization, Modernity, and Horror in the 19th and 20th Century Narratives of the Body and its Parts, by Yeesheen Yang.

Using more than twelve literary and film sources Yeesheen Yang provides a cultural history of how organ transplantation is imagined and represented in different and sometimes overlapping ways in novels and films depicting personal narratives of organ donors/recipients, vampire and blood transfusion stories, science fiction literature and film, and journalistic coverage of high profile cases of organ extraction. She then uses a close reading of work in literary criticism, philosophy of modernity and anthropology of the body to argue that the ways state power, medical authority and even popular culture manage the boundary between life and death not only makes organ transfer imaginable and possible but also provides a window into current anxieties about organ harvesting. For example, she shows how extracted bodily parts can heal and make whole or be horrifying and pathological. A thread running through each of the four chapters is how narratives of organ transfer inform us about current understandings of the role of the state in health, the cultural maintenance of gender and family norms, and the politics of defining life and death.

In the first chapter Yang examines 21st century fiction and film such as Michael Bay’s The Island (2004), Pang Brothers’ Jian Gui, Xavier Palud’s The Eye (2008), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Stephen Frear’s Dirty Pretty Things to look at how the mobility of bodily parts between bodies and across national boundaries illuminates the dark side of organ trade and globalization. The interchangeability of body parts is horrifying because is creates new intimacies between strangers and is often constructed on illicit trade or by extracting organs from the poor for rejuvenation of the privileged. Her analysis is multi-layered revealing how violations of somatic and national integrity in these fictions are problematized through accounts of tensions in traditional family structures, heteronormativity, and migration, all of which are tied up in traditional notions of the state. In other words, Yang offers an analysis of how the project of the relentless pursuit of health through biotechnology is underwritten by the project of nation. She expands upon Nicolas Rose’s ideas of the political economy of hope by looking at how the unevenness of donor/recipient is connected to the maintenance of national citizenship and ongoing inequities between nations.

Yang’s second chapter connects the vampire stories of Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Mary E. Braddon’s “The Good Lady Ducayne” (1896) to ideas of the unlimited economic growth in 19th century capitalism. The mobility of blood both in both vampire culture and blood transfusions transforms blood from representing divine right and noble birth into a modern vision of universal accessibility. Blood in the fictionalized world and the culture of the 19th century is imagined as interchangeable and the body is imagined as a machine. She claims that the mechanized, utilitarian view of the body and blood “formed the conditions of possibility under which organ trade (illegal and sanctioned) would flourish” (100).

Future imaginings are central to the third chapter where Yang examines Cold War 1960s science fiction such as Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1991), Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang (1969) and Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil (1970) to look at how the body moves from being imagined as a machine to a vehicle for a brain. In these fictions and others she analyzes, the limits of human biology can be overcome by an imagined biotechnology, indeed the body can be replaced and the brain can be transplanted. Yang shows how the constructions of an official brain death definition makes organ transplantation possible and the anxieties, hopes, and fears about our biotechnical possibilities are a key feature in these science fictions. For example, where there is brain activity (and the body maybe useless) there is hope, organs can be harvested or the brain stored through cryonics. According the Yang, cryonics and organ transplantation are two angles of the same idea of brain death that she examines in more detail in the final chapter.

Chapter four fully engages in ethical debates surrounding the definitions of life and death implicated in organ transplantation. Yang uses the example of vivid journalistic accounts of organ extraction from recently executed prisoners in China. Even though the stories are not completely verifiable, their salience in the media is telling of the power of states to define life and death. She argues that these accounts show that the proper handling of the border between death and life is central to the construction of the modern state. Yang also enters into debates between the followers of Foucault and Agamben about whether life or death is the object of power in governance. For Foucaldians such as Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose who argue that biopower relies on the maintenance of the health of populations, she asks, “whose health?” For followers of Agamben who place emphasis on biopower being centered on the state’s sovereign right to kill, she asks for a more thorough investigation of how death is defined and handled. Yang argues that the state is involved in “death-in-life” or a gray area where individuals such as prisoners on death row or the brain dead are “conceived by the state as beings without political rights to varying degrees, while still being biologically alive (to varying degrees)” (p. 11).

Yang’s research makes an important contribution to growing literature on organ transplantation in cultural history, literary and film criticism, philosophy and anthropology of the body. This work will be of interest to scholars working on the ethics of the rights of states and medical authorities to define life and death and the ethics of the commodification of body parts in the global capitalist medical market. Her reviews of a large range of fiction and film would be useful in developing a syllabus that includes fiction as a window into culture. Literary critics will find that Yang adds a critical and novel perspective to previous literary reviews. Yang also provides a resource for all of us who teach about or are invested in understanding what it is to be human in an era of the globalization of biotechnologies and the hopes we imagine them to bestow.

Lynnette Zahrn King
Department of Anthropology
Michigan State University

Primary Sources

Kazuo Ishiguro. Never Let Me Go. New York: Random House, 2005.
The Eye. Dir. David Moreau and Xavier Palud. Performed by Jessica Alba, Alessandro Nivola, Fernanda Romero. 2008.
Bram Stoker. Dracula. Edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal. London: Norton, 1997.

Dissertation Information

University of California, San Diego. 2012. 193 pp. Primary Advisors: Larissa Heinrich and Yingjin Zhang.

Image: Cornea Transplant. Wikimedia Commons.