Professor Gail Weiss

“Intertwined Identities: Challenges to Bodily Autonomy”


Over the last decade, the international media has devoted increasing attention to operations that separate conjoined twins.  Despite the fairly low odds that a child or adult will survive the operation with all of their vital organs intact, most people fail to question the urgency of being physically separated from one's identical twin.  This is not overly surprising, perhaps, since the physical boundaries of the human body have historically served as both a theoretical and practical means of distinguishing one person from another, as well as one group of people from another (e.g. social bodies, political bodies, etc.).  Both experiences of exteriority as well as interiority are complicated by a conjoined twins’ intimate connection to their sibling's body.  In this paper, I argue that these separation surgeries and the substantial media coverage they provoke provide a respectable medical medium for displaying serious cultural concerns about identity and individuation, concerns that are undoubtedly aggravated by the fact that many people in many parts of the world today have a good chance of dying in hospitals hooked up to machines that regulate the very functioning of their internal organs.  The drive to surgically tear asunder that which was originally joined, I suggest, is motivated in part by a refusal to acknowledge intercorporeality as a basic condition of human existence that doesn’t undermine identity but makes it possible in the first place.