The Third-World Body Commodified:
Manjula Padmanabhan’s Harvest
Shital Pravinchandra (Cornell University)
This essay offers a reading of Indian writer Manjula Padmanabhan’s dystopian play Harvest (1997) in order to examine the trade in human organs and the commoditization of the third world body that such a trade is predicated upon. Padmanabhan’s play, in which an unemployed Indian man sells the rights to his body parts to a buyer in the United States, pointedly critiques the commoditization of the healthy third-world body, which, thanks to significant advances in transplant medicine, has now become a bank of spare parts for ailing bodies in the first world.
Describing this phenomenon as a case of ‘neo-cannibalism’, anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1998, p.14) notes that wealthy but ailing patients in the first-world are increasingly turning to healthy if poverty-stricken populations of the third-world in order to procure ‘spare’ body parts. It is tempting, at first glance, to read this illicit global economy as yet another example of the exploitation of third-world bodies that global capitalism gives rise to. Scheper-Hughes herself suggests that the trade in human organs is best understood in the context of global capitalism when she points out that the global circuit of organs mirrors the circuit of capital flows in the era of globalisation: ‘from South to North, from Third to First world, from poor to rich, from black and brown to white’ (2002, p.197). And yet, as I argue in my essay, the human organ cannot be equated with other objects produced in the third-world for first-world consumption because the organ is not a product of the labouring third-world body. Unlike the commodity exported from an exploitative third-world sweatshop, the organ is not produced by the third-world body but extracted from it. The organ’s particular characteristic as a product that requires no labour in order to fetch a price provides the key to understanding why third-world 1
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populations are increasingly willing to be preyed upon by first-world organ buyers.
Many theorists writing about global capitalism today have pointed out that first-world economies are increasingly reliant not on production but consumption (Harvey, 2000, Bauman, 1998, and Hardt and Negri, 2004). The workforce of the first-world is ever more disengaged from industrial labour and manufacture either because, in the wake of technological advances, such labour is carried out by non-human means, or alternatively, because human labour is obtained elsewhere. In their drive to multiply profits, first-world economies rely on production sites where labour is ‘cheaper, less assertive, less taxed, more feminised [and] less protected by states and unions’ (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2000, p.295). Typically located in the third-world, such production sites displace human labour to remote geographical locations, allowing for industrial production to become increasingly less visible in the first-world. The first-world, on the other hand, sees a proliferation of service-economies, economies which rely on consumers to purchase increasingly non-material commodities. Yet organ trade does not strictly correspond to this global economic pattern. The organ is indeed a material good originating in the third-world, but it is not the product of labour. It is, rather, a product that can be sold without the expenditure of labour, while promising to generate ‘wealth without production, value without effort’ (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2000, p.313). Undreamt-of amounts of money with little to no labour: this is the particular promise that organ sale extends to the impoverished and disenfranchised populations of the third-world. In order to understand the often irresistible lure of this promise, we must explore not the transformation in the conditions of capitalist production, but rather the transformation in the...