Articulating Potentiality: Notes on the Delineation of the Blank Figure in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Peer Reviewed


Minami Himemiya, "Lancelet's embryo, 4-cell stage." October 19, 2012.

Life science research is continuously engaged in exploring, measuring or limiting potentials for life. The concept of potentiality pervades practices surrounding cells, bodies, and technologies. Based on an ethnographic study of how couples in fertility treatment become donors of embryos to human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research in Denmark, I explore ways of measuring and talking about the potentiality of embryos in the fertility clinic and in interviews with donors in their homes. In the fertility clinic, the embryo suggested for donation to hESC research is defined as waste that cannot be used and therefore is suggested to be put in the bin. The “bin,” thereby, becomes a dominant conceptual framework for claiming the embryo’s nonpotentiality as a biographical life and for making the embryo for donation emerge as a blank figure, the essentially undefined and undetermined element that has potential to  take on any identity but, as yet, has no specific determination. When further exploring how the in vitro fertilization (IVF) couples relate to the potentiality of donated embryos, I argue that the embryo suggested for donation is not experienced as completely blank: traces remain of the embryo’s former identity as a possible biographical life related to its “parents.” To make the embryo blanker—indeed, safely blank—it becomes imperative for the couples to set up boundaries to eliminate the possibility of an unwanted return. Drawing on rubbish theory, kinship theory, and Michel Serres’s concept of the blank figure, I draw attention to the boundary work as well as the trace effects expressed in articulations of potentiality.

Svendsen's essay won the 2011 Cultural Horizon Prize.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on the life sciences. See, for example, Eva Hayward's "Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals" (2010), Heather Paxson's "Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the U.S." (2008), and Deepa Reddy's "Good Gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the Market of Genetic Research" (2007).

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on reproduction and reproductive technologies, including, Elizabeth L. Krause's "Empty Cradles and the Quiet Revolution: Demographic Discourse and Cultural Struggles of Gender, Race, and Class in Italy" (2001), Judith Farquhar's "Technologies of Everyday Life: The Economy of Impotence in Reform China" (1999), and Corrine P. Hayden's "Gender, Genetics, and Generation: Reformulating Biology in Lesbian Kinship" (1995).

Anette Stenslund, "A waste bin from a Danish hospital." October 19, 2012.

About the Author

Mette Svendsen, "Mette Svendsen." October 19, 2012.

Mette N. Svendsen is associate professor at The University of Copenhagen. Her current work concerns the way piglets become raw material in the development of medical treatment for preterm infants. Her work draws from anthropology, science and technology studies, and sociology to explore the complex relationships between laboratory life, clinical practices and the lives of citizens. She has published a number of articles in journals such as Medical Anthropology, Body and Society, Social Science and Medicine, and Social Studies of Science.

Cultural Anthropology's Interview with the Mette Svendsen. Part of the"Ethnographies of Science" Curated Collection.


"Creation of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Lines" by the Australian Stem Cell Centre (ASCC)

Website of the European Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry:

Organizers' Statement from the 2011 Wenner-Gren Symposium "The Anthropology of Potentiality: Exploring the Productivity of the Undefined and Its Interplay with Notions of Humanness in New Medical Practices."

jemsweb, "Place of Conceptions." October 19, 2012 via Flickr.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1) How does the "bin embryo" come into being?  What are the discourses and practices necessary for embryos to be constructed differently in laboratories of stem cell researchers, clinical IVF settings, and in the experiences of donor couples?

2) How does the Danish state and it's welfare policies shape the articulation of waste and potentiality in IVF therapy and human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research?

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