Intimate Distances - Fragments for a Phenomenology of Organ Transplantation



Some two years ago, prior to writing this article Francisco Varela was battling with the worsening complications of Hepatitis C which had evolved over the years through cirrhosis, and then to liver cancer, and then to the necessity for a liver transplant. He describes the experience of the transplant and its aftermath in these notes written prior to his death on May 28th, 2001. He uses his own experiences very vividly to make some important phenomenological reflections on post transplantation life, personal identity, embodiment and many other important issues. This is an incomplete version of the text published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, No. 5-7, 2001, pp. 259-71.



Francisco J. Varela
CNRS, Paris, France

Intimate Distances -
Fragments for a Phenomenology of Organ Transplantation


L'intrus n'est pas un autre que moi-meme et l'homme lui-meme. Pas un autre que le meme qui n'en finit pas de s'alterer, a la fois aiguise et epuise, denude et surequipe, intrus dans le monde aussi bien qu'en soi-meme, inquietante poussee de l'etrange, conatus d'une infinte excroissante.
J.L. Nancy, L'intrus[1]


I: 5.00 pm, Day 5

The scene is viewed from the side. The patient is Iying on his half-raised hospital bed. Tubes, sutures and drains cover his body from nose to abdomen. On the other side of the bed, two masked men in surgical outfits look at the screen of a portable scanner. The senior doctor explains and demonstrates rapidly to his apprentice, the probe searching around the right side under the ribs and over the stomach, in sweeping motions. The intern listens raptly, nodding repeatedly. The screen is turned so that the patient can also see it. It is J+5.

I emerged from surgery with the liver of an unknown five days ago. My attention now shifts to the two men as they speak, I follow their conversation and wait expectantly for words directed to me. It is a crucial moment: if the veins and arteries have not taken to their new place, my whole adventure comes to a halt. The graft, from their point of view, represents hardly anything more than a successful fixture. I am short of breath as I pick up the doctor's overheard telegraphic comments: Good portal circulation, no inflammation.... Abruptly he smiles to me and says: 'Tout va bien!' I am now my prostrate body that feels broken up, in bits and pieces, aching from a visible incision that goes from right to left in an arching path, and suddenly bifurcates over the chest right to my sternum, almost immobile from the multiple intubations and perfusions. His reassuring statement oddly makes me feel my liver as a small sphere, as if I am carrying an infant (I remember the pictures of my last son's beating heart in his mother's belly); it is tinged with a light pain, it is definitely present.

In the background, the brokenness of my body beckons me with an infinite fatigue, and a primordial desire to close my eyes and rest for eternity. Yet the screen is a few centimeters away and a simultaneous curiosity perks up unflinchingly. I can see my new liver, inside me. I follow the details: the anastomoses of the cava and the porta veins, the two large hepatic arteries, the II then the III lobule squished one into the other. I travel within, gliding inside and out of the liver capsule, like an animation. I listen with unabashed interest to the explanations to the intern ('Here, look at how best to catch the flow with the Doppler'; it goes swishhh, swishhh now, as histograms display the parameters in charts and line drawings; 'Here is the best way not to miss the hepatic peduncle'; this time the object is lost to me in a sea of grey).

We are looking at the scene from the side, you and I. And yet for me alone is echoed in multiple mirrors of shifting centres each of which I call 'I', each one a subject which feels and suffers, which expects a word, which is redoubled in a scanner's image, a concrete fragment that seems to partake with me of a mixture of intimacy and foreignness.


II: Contingency, Obsolescence

So there it is: some two years ago I received the liver of another human being. An organ came tumbling down a complex social network from a recently dead body to land into my insides in that fateful evening of June 1. My sick liver was cut from its circulatory roots, and the new one snugly fitted in, replacing the vital circulation by laborious suture of veins and arteries. I can thus pronounce a unique statement (with a few hundred people around the world) with all the sense of truth that is given to humans: I have received someone else's organ!

Such an assertion has no echo in the past; human history remains mute. Ten years ago I would have died rapidly from my complications of Hepatitis C, transformed into cirrhosis, then rampantly turned into liver cancer. The surgical procedure is not what creates the novelty of a successful transplant. It is the multiple immunosuppressor drugs that prevent the inevitable rejection. (A code word for a phenomenon specious in itself; we will return to it.) Had it happened in ten more years it would have been a different procedure and my post-transplant life entirely different. I would surely have been another kind of survivor. In the thousands of years of human history, my experience is a speck, a small window of technical contingency in the privileged life of upper-class Europeans.

From this narrow window I must (we must) reflect on and consider an unprecedented event, that no accumulated human reflection and wisdom has ventured into. I take tentative steps, consider everything as only a tentative understanding, a lost cartographer with no maps. Fragments, no systematic analysis. We are left to invent a new way of being human where bodily parts go into each other's bodies, redesigning the landscape of boundaries in the habit of what we are so definitively used to call distinct bodies. Opening up the landscape where we can borrow a piece from another, and soon enough, order it to size by genetically modified animals. One day it will be said: I have a pig's heart. Or from stem cells they will graft a new liver or kidney and preselect the cells that will colonize what was missing in us, in a sort of permanent completion that can be extrapolated beyond imagination, into the obscene. This is the challenge that is offered to us to reflect on through and through, to live up to the challenge, to give us the insight and the lucidity to enter fully into this historical shift.

My life in its contingency mirrors the history of techniques, the growing know-how about human bodies, which knows nothing about the lived-bodies that can and will come from it. Technology, as always, stands as the mediation that reveals the interelatedness of our lives. Contingencies of life that accumulate in the history of body-technologies, from antibiotics, to tailor-made drugs, to genetic engineering. All the more so now that the contingency of life, always at the doorstep of reflection on human destiny, acquires a speed that impinges even on our ability to conceive, to assimilate, to work through the ramifications.

In ten years, these reflections will probably be obsolete, the entire reality of transplantation having changed the scenario from top to bottom; all the work I must do is for a little window of history before it snaps out of focus and we are to re-start anew.


III: Frame, Paradox

As I peer inside me (but which me?) at the other's liver, the medical gesture explodes into a hall of mirrors. These are the points where the transplantation situation can be carried to the sentimental extremes of either having being touched by 'a gift' (from somewhere, from 'life' or 'god'), or else the simplicity of the doctors who remain set at the level of their technical prowess. In between lies the lived phenomenon, that must be drawn out otherwise, in other parameters.

Transplantation creates and happens in a mixed or hybrid space. There are several subjects that are decentred by exchanging body parts; or decentred as the 'team' that makes the technical gesture, or even further, as the distributed network of the National Graft Centre who that fateful day decided it was my turn. At the same time this is an embodied space, where my body (and his/her now dead) are placemarkers, experiencing the bodily indicators of pain and expectation. As if the centre of gravity of the process oscillates between an intimate inside and a dispersed outside of donor, receiver and the 'team'.

We can start with the embodied sentience of the organism, the 'natural' basis for the study of lived events. Sentience, in this sense, has a double value or valence: natural and phenomenal. Natural because sentience stands for the organism and its structural coupling with the environment, manifest in a detailed and empirical sense. It thus includes, without remainder, the biological details of the constitution and explanation of function, an inescapable narrative. Phenomenal, because sentience has as its flip side the immanence of the world of experience and experiencing; it has an inescapably lived dimension that the word organism connotes already. Moreover, that the organism is a sentient and cognitive agent is possible only because we are already conscious, and have an intrinsic intuition of life and its manifestations. It is in this sense that 'life can only be known by life' (Jonas, 1966, p. 91). This intertwining can be grounded on the very origin of life and its world of meaning by the self-producing nature of the living. Given that the scientific tradition has construed the natural as the objective, and thus has made it impossible to see the seamless unity between the natural and the phenomenal by making sure they are kept apart, no 'bridging' or 'putting together' would do the work. The only way is to mobilize here a re-examination of the very basis of modern science. But this gets, all of a sudden, too ambitious.

Exploring the phenomenal side of the organism requires a gesture, a procedure, a phenomenological method, contra the current prejudice that we are all experts on our own experience. Little can be said about this lived dimension without the work that it requires for its deployment. (In a basic sense, this is also close to the recent interest in 'first-person' methods in cognitive science.) And therein resides its paradoxical constitution: our nature is such that this gesture needs cultivation and is not spontaneously forthcoming. This is why it is appropriate to reserve the name of feeling of existence (sentiment d'existence, a term I borrow from Maine de Biran) as the core phenomenon here, the true flip side of sentience.

The feeling of existence, in itself, can be characterized as having a double valence too. This is expressed as a tension between two simultaneous dimensions: embodied and decentred. Embodied: on the one hand examining experience always takes us a step closer to what seems more intimate, more pertinent, or more existentially close. There is here a link between the felt quality or the possible depth of experience, and the fact that in order to manifest such depth it must be addressed with a method in a sustained exploration. It is this methodological gesture which gives the impression of turning 'inwards' or 'excavating'. What it does, instead, is to bring to the fore the organism's embodiment, the inseparable doublet quality of the body as lived and as functional (natural/phenomenal; Leib/Körper). In other words, it is this double aspect that is the source of depth (the roots of embodiment go through the entire body and extend out into the large environment), as well as its intimacy (we are situated thanks to the feeling-tone and affect that places us where we are and of which the body is the place marker). Decentred: on the other hand, experience is also and at the same time permeated with alterity, with a transcendental side, that is, always and already decentred in relation to the individuality of the organism. This defies the habitual move to see mind and consciousness as inside the head/brain, instead of inseparably enfolded with the experience of others, as if the experience of a liver transplant was a private matter. This inescapable intersubjectivity (the 'team') of mental life shapes us through childhood and social life, and in the transplantation experience takes a tangible form as well. But it is also true in the organism's very embodiment, appearing as the depth of space, of the intrinsically extensible nature of its sentience, especially in exploring the lived body.

These parallel themes serve as the hidden scaffolding for the analysis here. First, the lived body as focus: the intrusion, the alien as flesh, and the always already mobile subject of enunciation and hence the mobility of the lived body's identity. Second, the networks of dissemination playing in unison: the social network of the gift, and the imaginary circles of the images that give this inside a metaphorical concreteness.


IV: Rejection, Temporality.

I've got a foreign liver inside me. Again the question: Which me? Foreign to what? We change all the cells and molecules of a liver every few weeks. It is new again, but not foreign. The foreignness is the unsettledness of the belonging with other organs in the ongoing definition that is an organism. In that sense my old liver was already foreign; it was gradually becoming alien as it ceased to function, corroded by cirrhosis, with no other than a suspended irrigation of islands of cells, which are then left to decay and wither away. Years before the transplant, during a biopsy the surgeon came to see me: 'I saw your liver, it looks very sick'…


… It is not the liver, but the 'team's' strategy, that constitutes the intrusion, for the body-technologies are out of synchronization with the temporality of the welcoming that is our basic condition. The paradox of alterity is a paradox of the timing of hospitality. The body-technologies to address rejection are absurdly simple: disable the ongoing process of identity, weaken the links between the components of the organism. Immunosuppression is, to date, the inescapable lot of transplantation. One starts by special suppressive drugs and massive doses of corticoid (leaving the mind disjointed, hallucinating, and with an obsessive compulsion to repeat certain inner discourses; nights spent in the corticoid desert are certainly a form of hell). As the rejection does not yield, the treatment mounts one step, I am treated with the 'heavy' means as the doctor says. As in napalm warfare, the entire repertoire of immune cells is massively eliminated by a slow injection. (As I felt the effect coming in a few minutes, my whole body was swept by uncontrollable shaking, like an alien possession that left the me [who?] in a limbo of non-existence; looking steadily into my wife's face the only reference point in a disappearing quagmire.)

Complete immunosupression does stop the rejection, but now simply being in the world is a potential intrusion, as the temporality of my somatic identity has been erased for a few days. A new lifestyle of masks, careful watching for the slightest sign of fever, and concern about opening windows, makes the body into a life of withdrawal, its proud movement and agency shrivelled down. In time, the body is allowed to reconstitute; I recover my assurance of my daily embodiment, as the immunosupression is milder. This becomes a life condition. Weakening the links that are the backbone of the temporality of the lived-body, this alteration is experienced as a newly acquired attention to symptoms, as a travelling to destinations of unknown hygiene. Immunosuppression is a walking stick; I feel the world as through an extension.


V: Touching the Lived Viscera

According to my doctors I cannot feel my liver. There is no innervation for the organ, and the connective capsule surrounding it is left with the old, cirrhotic one. Eppure, I do feel my organ right here, under my ribs, slightly eccentric. It beckons my attention, like a fist that presses my side from the inside, just enough to let me know it is there. Sometimes it stretches and speaks with a tension, which is not quite pain, but makes me move for relief. It is so tangible, stuck like an envelope of the hidden organ. (Interesting: browsing through the internet, I stumbled into a web page addressed to transplantees, displaying a chat room where a dozen people gave the same account: we feel our livers, doctors say we shouldn't.) Such is the presence of the unfeeling liver. Maybe a dis-membered proprioception from the terminals left behind in the hole of my previous liver. And when the new one comes to lodge, as a newcomer lays down to sleep in a warm bed, I imagine those connective tissue membranes that were left there, dangling like the veils of a mummy, senseless, sentient-less. In time (I imagine) they will find their way into the new nooks and crannies of those new cells. They will have become entrapped into new fascia fibres that pull them, carrying them along as lost relatives.

Thus between this me (which one?) that imagines and thinks, and the other I blended into the lost tissue fibres "driven as one by this bottomless desire for integration" we have reached a balance, almost a cooperative agreement. They provide me the basis to dress the fantasies with flesh, and we give him the credit to manifest in this lived body. In phenomenology, the lived body (corps propre) is the hallmark of intimacy wherein I am, wherein I can be. It is not mine, but it is indissociable from me in this single centre of orientation. The intimacy is multiple. It constantly reappears as the lived body disappears into the background, into a transparent mode while I am immersed in the world. And then a pain, an emotional upsetness, a sudden breakdown brings this absent body back to its deeply present presence (Leder, 1991). There is also the touching that brings it out, the feeling of one's own surfaces. In the classical example, one of my hands touching the other is the very paradigm of the self-based experience of intimacy. It is the 'solipsistic' level of the lived body that Husserl finely describes (Husserl, 1952, 43-47).

The touch afforded by the extended surface of one hand over the other, or over other sensitive skin, leads us directly to the experience of the darkened side of the corps propre, the innards, the viscera. Husserl proposes an analysis of 'I feel my heart' (ibid., p. 165). To do so I stretch my palm over the heart region, and press gently. The inner sensation surges up and I close the link between the self that touches itself in the mediation of the distance, the space of the body itself. I touch through a surface. Likewise I can press through, and my fingers can awake in my right side the liver and its boundaries, which show up clearly. I can feel the boundaries up into the ribs and down into the abdomen. The organ responds with a heightened sensation, and in fact with a tinge of pain as if inflamed. (The persistent Hepatitis C virus surely creates a degree of inflammation; I imagine this heightened sensation as also the mediation of those invisible dots of molecular agency which co-exist with my new liver.) All of this is 'given to myself as interdependencies in co-presence' (ibid., p. 166: für mich selbst in Kopräsenz zusammengehörig gegeben).

But, as Derrida remarks incisively, even in the ideal case of hand-to-hand touching this intervening space is already, and constitutively, the presence of the foreign, the other, the distance (Derrida, 2000, Tangent II, pp.l83-208). No exploration of the lived body, even in the 'pure' case of two hands touching, can be conceived as pure self-affection, as an internal feeling that rests on itself alone. There is a heteroaffection that slips in place precisely because of the intervening space:

cette experience est deja hantee, au moins, mais constitutivement hantee, par quelque hetero-affection liee a l'espacement, puis a la spatialite visible: par ou l'intrus, I'hote, un hote desire ou indesire, un autre de secours ou un parasite a rejeter (ibid., p. 205).


The received notion of the solipsistic lived body appears incomplete in this light: it leaves aside the irrepressible presence of the alien. All sensing is an admixture of auto-hetero-affection, which makes the intimacy of the body possible, and visible even when the distance between the touching hand and the viscera is 'mere' skin and bone. But the constitution of the lived body presupposes in its heart the passage through the other as an outside and the Other as horizon. A horizon is not itself an appearance, but is always pre-given, that is, it mediates the relation between what is given and the anticipations of what is possible. This Other lodges the openness to a multiplicity: the image of a scanner of its 'inside', the mounting infection, the gentle touch of friendship, but also the needful absence. It can also be the passage through which the body-technology forces open a wider space by an imposed shift to the body as subject of technique, as Korper, forcing a temporality of foreignness.

Tentative conclusion: it is not the body-technology that introduces the alterity in my lived body as a radical innovation. That technology widens and slips into what is always already there. The alien and the foreign of the transplantation gesture is not a sharp boundary marker for how my body holds its place as the locus of intimacy. Can I then say that the transplant makes me different? As if the propre of my corps was settled and pure? The appropriation of intimacy as interminable, as at the same time possible and impossible.


VI: Transference, Metaphor - An organ is transferred.

If we listen to the Greek roots, we can say it was metaphoros from somewhere into me. The exchange has the logic of a metaphor, of something standing in for something else, a limp piece of tissue packed in ice standing in for a gift of life, it is said. At some point the abstract idea of the transplant becomes specific as the transfer is decided and the metaphor on its way. A new something is standing in, marking the place. One can say that the whole is so impossible to enunciate in its totality that we can grapple with it only as a metaphor, as that which speaks the unsayable and the apophatic.

As I arrived in the hospital after the crucial phone call stating that a donor had been found for me (paradoxical myself, altered as I was by the nearness to death, by a cancer eating up my cells, with a finite horizon for the disappearance of identity), the nurses at the reception, professional and kind, let out: 'It's coming from Marseille, it's an organ in excellent condition.' This mere suggestion is like the skeleton onto which the imagination unleashes the full contents of the transfer-metaphors. (I see a young motorcyclist sprawled next to the autoroute, his brains spread over the tarmac, and the paramedics frantically calling the family to get their authorization for taking the organs. One of a thousand scenarios that go through my mind. I will never know.)

That is, then, the beginning of the relation with my donor, the source of the don. I was not alone any more in my spontaneous representation of myself: there was the donor, that other X whose path had ended one afternoon somewhere in Marseille. Saying that there was a don, also says that there was a gift, according to a received, canonical interpretation. Since Marcel Mauss, a gift is an event-action that belongs to the symbolic order. The key of the gift is its reciprocity: what is given is returned, sealing a pact. The Maussian account of the don has been both refined and contested (Godelier, 1996, Part I). In spite of ever-present refinements, the gift remains a key for the understanding of early human societies. Since then, our modern life has evolved to constitute other social norms, and the gift has become strict exchange or commerce. Gifts exist now in the personal sphere, within our immediate circle, and have lost the power to be the ground of social links.

Was X in Marseille a donor? The core of giving is that one is personally addressed. Once a donation is made in absentia, to a general population, like the philanthropist to a common cause, its nature is profoundly different. The personal touch is lost, replaced by a quality of possibility lacking a direct address. Yet by law the donor is to remain forever anonymous. In its place there is a mediation between the family who authorizes, a complex arrangement put in place over many years by the National Graft Centre for centralization and re-distribution. It so happens that the Graft Centre is located not a block away from my apartment in Paris. During the interminable wait, I used to take walks in front of it, and ponder the almost tangible contingency of my life (if I survived) within this arrangement. Being inscribed on the waiting list is already a matter of decision, done locally by the 'team' to which I was never privy. I trusted my surgeon who seemed to have taken a liking to me (but what is this feeling in the riddle of the acceptance of a life-death?). The local list somewhere reaches a central list, at the Centre where I went for my reflective walks. After months I was requested to carry on me at all times a dedicated portable phone, and to never be far from the hospital. At some point I am told (in confidence, as an aside) that I am on top of the list, but this still depends on the city and blood group, and whether other patients are or are not put ahead, their conditions being more threatening. Weeks without end; every minute the pressure of my portable phone as witness awakening me to the immense fragility of my life and the tenousness of my identity in this tangle of deferred causalities. And then, as the decision is made (will I ever know who or how?), the phone call, the hurried trip to the hospital, the assembling of the medical team, at the end of the day, tired technicians coming after dinner for all-night surgery around that emblematic figure, the chief surgeon.

And in his position as middle man, the surgeon is the only one who knows both the donor's and the recipient's identities. He thus represents a unique link between us, a meta-instance who holds the key to a riddle that must be kept secret by an unbreakable ethical code. This triangle is emblematic of the strength of the imaginary social link that makes the transference possible, and at the same time binds the entire network from donor to recipient in a single stroke, as if joining a total stranger in too short a time to make acquaintance, to welcome, and thus to arrive without clash. In my experience, surgeons are entirely oblivious of their place and role as transferential passageway; it was up to me to deal with the enormous alterity in which I found myself. His business centred on the techne, he has little time to listen to the relentless production of imaginary contents, even after the first weeks and months of the transplant. At best he receives with a nod what the patient says as personal thanks. In the early temporality of the experience, I said, the social imaginary link is intense and gripping. And the longing to find the source of this don of life is clearly present; it feels as ancestral and ancient as the compulsion to bury our dead; it surges forth from roots too old to be conscious. It is here that there is a more appropriate use of the term 'gift' in the anthropological sense. Even as modern Western subjects, we experience, as if in a distant echo, the marks of our ancestors. I found myself spontaneously desiring a reciprocity, to seal a pact with the anonymous donor. In fact, in anthropological studies one constant is the stable nature of the rights of the giver over the gift. This translates on the imaginary level to the presence of the donor in the gift itself, attached to it, and following its transferences. Since gifts are never detached, the links established are of a personal nature, between individuals that engage with one another, and the gift is the representation of their obligations (ibid., pp. 76, 94).

I have another in me, I am partly another, it is commonly said. Some report having acquired new dispositions (to eat meat, to like animals) as a direct manifestation of this spirit that came with the gift. Transplant patients routinely find personal ways to deal with the impasse of the search for the unfindable donor. They go to a cemetery and offer flowers to an unknown grave. Or to a wood and make an offering to the spirit of the deceased donor. It is clear that only a strict regulation of anonymity stops this strong urge from becoming a delicate dealing with the misplaced forms of gratitude-driven obligations. As the days went on, the fantasies began to fade and to lose sense. Having the gift in me did not make me become another in any way that experience could attest with any stability. On the contrary, it was the work (again) of temporality that became central: the welcoming, the acceptance of this new form of alterity in spite of immunosuppression, the imaginary elaboration of this intrusion that was willed and wished, regaining the equilibrium from the brutalness of the technology. The images began to disappear, the sudden emotions for the dead giver gave way to a decentring into a larger field of intersubjectivty.


VII: Offering, Giving

Pointing to the field of intersubjectivity here is also a way of pointing to a shift in our understanding of the gesture of organ donation (so-called). In the statement: I give to you, one follows the long trail of the recognition proper to the gift, which 'primitive' societies manifest so clearly. But here, in the gesture of organ donation, what we are concerned with is more an offering, a passing without exchange or with the hope of receiving back. The offering is not mine "that would bring it into the realm of commerce" but just 'taken' from an open field, from whom or how I do not know. The offer proposes to us that we keep it. In the world of gifts, what is kept and not given, is just as much the key as the exchange. And what is kept is what is sacred, making the gift possible (Weiner, 1992). What I keep as an offering is special; it is to be kept safe. It's yours for keeps. It's to be kept close to you, in the greatest intimacy. We must thus distinguish the gift from the offer, or better the offer within the gift. A gift is an offering when there is, at the heart of the gift, the withdrawal of the gift, the disappearance of its ways of being present (Derrida, 2000, p. 112). The liver I have, then, is not a gift but an offer, a gift which has been 'withdrawn' as such by death, by the law, by the social mediation. It comes to me from nowhere, there is no presence of the donor in it. It arrived for keeps, if only I could keep it. Donors should be called offerers. In the temporality that is proper to accepting and keeping an offer, the imaginary exchanges, which seemed so present in the gift, disappear, are transmuted as part of the constant alterity, the ongoing alterations that are the very nature of this me-ness.


VIII: The Image, the Touch

Modern medical imaging accomplishes what began in the eighteenth century as a desire and a search for illuminating every dark corner, especially for seeing the insides of the human body. Modern man has since been rendered somatically transparent, in gestures that extend into putting into full view not only the hidden but the ultimate microscopical, the DNA fingerprinting, the biochemical profiles, the immune cellular probes and markers. Our times have renewed the visible and the explicit as a preeminent presence, compared with times in which only the rarefied world of pure ideas and Logos was supreme and the image mere appearance (Stafford, 1993).

Increasingly we communicate with images of people, with virtual persons existing as bytes in optical fibre ready for multiple displays. The radiologist looks at his echography machine, not at me. The image becomes the inevitable mediator between my lived intimacy and the dispersed network of the expert medical team for which the images are destined, the larger medical world. I am disseminated in image fragments that count more as the relevant interface than this presence (my lived body then, but again the question of which one?). The image holds the bond at just the right distance: sufficiently close in liking to be a habitual part of my intimacy, sufficiently detachable to introduce a wide space wherein the intrusion of otherness arrives massively every time I go back to the stretcher and raise my shirt, and the probe glides over my abdomen (in these situations, habit has transformed them almost into a self-touching, a tribute to the force of the image: I can feel those black and white patterns on the screen).

Occasionally in one of the check-up visits the clinician asks me to lie down, and he touches my liver region. I experience it as a relief, as return to an embodied presence. The touch reestablishes an older intimacy through his touching hand, touching/ being-touched the paradigm of oneness, me-ness. These gestures are always considered supplementary: only the images and the charts speak the reliable truth, having captured the essence of the story. These body-techniques seem to stand for all that was haptic, tangible and ready-to-hand, now transformed into weightless apparitions. The new body is constantly on the verge of losing its seemingly invincible spatial and temporal structure.

It would be idle to set up an opposition of correct/incorrect between these pervasive images and the contrasting sense of touch, anchored in the lived body. Even in touching, the alterity is constitutive, the image rides on this doubling as a thorough mediation. We witness a push and counterpull between depth and imaginary surfaces that become a new identity in post-transplantation life.


IX: Intimate Distance

From the place where I now write, the old new alterity of the distributed selves has re-acquired its own temporality. But there was, there has been, the encounter with the radical alteration of death, which approached closely over the years, and then finally made its irruption in all the brutality of a night when my chest and abdomen were laid open. It was done; I was not there, drowned in anaesthetics (which I? certainly there was presence, I suffered). The descent was slow. First, waiting in a room; then getting undressed and covered with a hospital gown; then naked under a sheet so that the nurse could shave me entirely in a form of nudity that seemed to reach me under the skin. Then transferred to a wheeling stretcher, parked in the surgical room, shaking from cold and fear as nurses made conversation. The anaesthetist comes, takes the perfusion tube and perfunctorily injects the first wave of anaesthetic. I have a minute or so to let anything that was left of me go as if in an involuntary flight. Never had I felt more acutely my fragile ontology, the impossibility of grasping onto anything, a living dot suspended in a space that goes so beyond anything representable. The utter loneliness for which there is no utterance. Deprived of any intimacy, nothing left but gaping gap for intrusion.

Then they opened me up, cut the circulation, replaced it by machines, took the organ from an ice pack, and proceeded to rebuild me again back into a normal body. Or that is what they say. Awakening into my new state, I see that the night when death travelled through my open body is to remain indelibly. It is there each time somebody looks at my torso, and I see their eyes darting quickly down to check the trace that crosses from side to side and up the chest with suture point (with big stitches, like a sack of merchandise). It's death's trace, which never lets me slip by this memory that is not a memory, but rather a feeling of recognition of its presence, of an inevitable guest whose movements are way beyond anything within my reach. From then on the trace of death has set its own agenda, its own rhythm to my life. I have, in fact, become another never entirely re-done after being so meticulously undone.


X: Which Life?

The life retaken, is taken differently, forever changed (but to whom shall we attribute this change?) by a triple movement: the one that led to being on the waiting list; the one that led to an organ to be transferred; and the one that leads me into my present condition. This is the living reality of transplantation, my entire identity grazed profoundly by the opening to death, sutured back and left to function in the world with a 'new' life. Soon the traces of the last movement began to enter my life as multiple foreignness. There is first and foremost the drug treatments, which are prescribed in quantities and taken by grammes per day, and that mark the temporality of the day, of travel always present in its medicine bags, bulky and obtrusive. Then the drugs themselves. The cortisone and immunosuppressors, which induce a diabetes needing careful checking three or four times a day. The effect on the stomach, producing sometimes uncontrollable diarrhoea that in all its undignified presence overtakes my life. And of course the repetitive medical controls, the enzyme levels to keep track of, the overload of the kidneys to verify. The virus is, we all knew it, still with me, and we know it to be back in full action, the most mysterious of my foreignness, degrading the new liver. It must also be suppressed and controlled. It is an imaginary circle: I am back from where I started from, intertwined with these amazing dots whose molecular structures I sometimes contemplate in awe of their twisted proteins and minute RNA. But the only known antiviral treatment is inteferon, an immunitary stimulant, which produces a permanent feeling of fatigue as if one has a budding cold. In fact, for effectiveness it must be a bi-therapy with ribavirine, which leads to anaemia. Oddly, the immunosupression to avoid rejection is exactly a counter move to interferon, so that the body is pushed on opposite sides at the same time. (A constant paradox: immunosuppressed to avoid rejection; immunostimulated to avoid the virus. A telling metonymy of my condition). There is also the return to the hospital for a sudden explosion of viral activity, for the accumulation of liquid around the liver that needs extensive examinations. Changing symptoms that emerge and subside.... Echographies; weight control; blood samples so often my veins seem to expect the needles.

Thus the foreignness of the grafted liver is less and less focused. The body itself has become a constant, ongoing source of foreignness altering itself as in echo, touching every sphere of my waking life. This is the life that I have survived for, not a coming back to where I was (but I was already alienated by the disease for long years, and before seems distant and abstract). A life with its own temporality to put together and live with the multiple manipulation that technology demands (once again the historical contingency of the body-technologies: in ten years more I would have been some other kind of survivor). Compensation to the decompensations that multiply in a hall of mirrors. The suffering varies from one person to the next in its extremes. The phenomenon rests: transplantation has made the body a fertile ground of opposed, coincidental intrusions.

Transplantation is never in the past, then. It produces an inflexion in life that keeps an open reminder from the trace of the scar altering my settledness, bringing up death's trace. It is my horizon, an existential space where I adapt slowly, this time as the guest of that which I did not arrange, like a guest of nobody's creation. This time, the foreign has made me the guest, the alteration has given me back a belonging I did not remember. The transplant ex-poses me, ex-ports me in a new totality. The expression of it all, I know, eludes me, makes me face a twilight language. Nancy goes further:

Je le sens bien, c'est beacoup plus fort que'une sensation: jamais l'etrangete de ma propre identite, qui me fut pourtant si vive, ne m'a touche avec cette acuite. 'Je' est devenu clairement l'index formel d'un enchamement inverifiable et impalpable. Entre moi et moi, il y eut toujours de l'espace-temps: mais a present il y a ltouverture d'une incision, et l'irreconciliable d'une irmnunite contrarie (Nancy, 2000, p.36).


XI: Inconclusion

Old themes from phenomenology have reappeared throughout this analysis: the lived body and its exploration, the unalienable alterity of our lives, the key ground of temporality, body-technologies and ethics. Yet these classical themes re-appear under a new light, perhaps even pushed to an extreme that both sharpens them and moves beyond their initial scope. The radical novelty pushes our analysis into new steps. Perhaps we are all (the growing numbers that have entered into the sphere of this transference) 'les commencements d'une mutation' (Nancy, 2000, p. 43). I can see it: all of us in a near future being described as the early stages of a mankind where alterity and intimacy have been expanded to the point of recursive interpenetration. Where the body technologies will and can redesign the boundaries ever more rapidly, for a human being which will be 'intrus dans le monde aussi bien que dans soi-meme' as the epigraph says; we would do well to consider every sentence of it. It is this urgency that drives this examination of the ancient ethos of the human will to power re-expressed as transplantation. Even if my own window is narrow in time and fragmented in understanding. Somewhere we need to give death back its rights.



Derrida, Jacques (2000), Le toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy (Paris: Galilee).

Godelier, Maurice (1996), L'Enigme du don (Paris: Fayard).

Husserl, Edmund (1952), Ideen zu einer reinen Phainomenologie und phanomenologischen Philosophie. Zweites Buch: Phainomenologische Untersuchungen zur Konstitution, ed. w. siemel' Husserliana Vol. III (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff).

Jonas, H. (1966), The Phenomenon of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Leder, Drew (1991), The Absent Body (Chicago: university of Chicago Press). Nancy, Jean-Luc (2000), L'Intrus (Paris: Galilee).

Stafford, Barbara (1993), Body Criticism: Imagining the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press).

Varela, F and Cohen, A. (1989), ~Le corps evocateur: une relecture de l'immunite', Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse, 40, Automne, pp. 193-213.

Varela, F and Coutinho, A. (1991), 'Second generation immune networks,' Immunology Today, 12, pp.159-67.

Weiner, A. (1992), Inalienable Possesions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving (Berkeley: university of Califomia Press).



************* Editor's Addendum On May 28, 2001, Francisco J. Varela passed away at his home in Paris. He died calm and at peace, in the loving embrace of his family.




 1 Jean-Luc Nancy (2000), p. 45. This brief but profound text is, I believe, the only extant attempt to grapple head-on philosophically with transplantation from a lived perspective. The impact of Nancy's work is present throughout my own exploration here. ---------------------- 
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