Mette N. Svendsen Awarded the 2012 Cultural Horizons Prize

SCA is proud to award the seventh annual Cultural Horizons Prize to Mette N. Svendsen (University of Copenhagen) for her article "Articulating Potentiality: Notes on the Delineation of the Blank Figure in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research" Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 3 (August 2011): 414-37.

This year's doctoral student jury, consisting of Lenore Phillips (U Minnesota), Alessandro Angelini (CUNY), and Yasmin Moll (NYU), writes:

Mette N. Svendsen's essay "Articulating Potentiality: Notes on the Delineation of the Blank Figure in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research" is an outstanding example of ethnographically-grounded and theoretically-driven scholarship. Drawing on medical anthropology and science and technology studies, Svendsen formulates a compelling argument about human embryo donation for stem cell research in contemporary Denmark. More broadly, she explores notions of potentiality and waste that reach beyond these areas of inquiry.

Based on long-term fieldwork in Denmark's largest fertility clinic, Svendsen centers her essay on a simple question: How does the donation of "surplus" embryos for human stem cell research come to be an effortless decision for most IVF couples and the clinicians who work with them? She focuses on the conversations between clinic-workers and donors to trace the emergence of the embryo as a complex site for articulating at times contradictory notions of kinship, morality, individual responsibility and national welfare.

Svendsen s work pushes a long-standing disciplinary interest in the sacred and profane in new directions by looking at the shifting materialities of embryos. She explores the different potentialities at stake for embryos as future humans, future waste or future life-saving therapy and how such differential futures interact with both the material characteristics of the embryo itself and the technological manipulations that make possible the actualization of such futurities. Drawing on French philosopher Michel Serres' notion of the "blank figure," Svendsen argues that an understanding of embryos as things that "can become anything" only acquires moral suasion for IVF couples once the embryo has been emptied of any individual (human) potential. Thus, "boundaries became part of constituting what was articulated as boundless potential."

Svendsen's essay is clearly written, meticulously argued and original in its claims. It exemplifies excellence and innovation in anthropological scholarship, and for this reason we award it the 2011 Cultural Horizons Prize.

About the Cultural Horizons Prize:

The SCA has long been distinguished by having the largest graduate student membership of any section of the AAA. Recognizing that doctoral students are among the most experimentally minded--and often among the best read--of ethnographic writers, this award asks of SCA's graduate student readers, "Who is on your reading horizon?"

This spirit gave rise to the Cultural Horizons Prize, awarded yearly by a jury of doctoral students for the best article appearing in Cultural Anthropology.