Body Worlds and the Social Life of the Plastinated Body: Considerations on the Biotechnology of Plastination

Elisabeth Rondinelli


Since it was launched in Japan in the mid-1990s, Body Worlds: An Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies1 has attracted 35 million people worldwide (IfP 2012), making it the most popular travelling exhibition in history and the most significant modern event to bring human anatomy to public view. In Canada, Body Worlds was attended by approximately 500,000 people in Toronto in 2006, over 250,000 in Montreal in 2007, over 270,000 in Edmonton in 2008, and over 200,000 in Calgary in 2010.2 With its introduction of the scientific “art” of plastination—a preservation technique whereby cadavers are injected with plastic and which renders the body malleable, odourless, and invulnerable to decomposition—Body Worlds has set out to “democratize anatomy” and, in so doing, proclaims to minimize the gap between the privileges of scientific

E. Rondinelli (*)

Department of Sociology, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada © The Author(s) 2017

F. Kurasawa (ed.), Interrogating the Social,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59948-9_9

knowledge and people’s everyday understanding of their biological and existential selves (Global Health Nexus 2004).

In this chapter, I use the framework of critical sociology to examine competing definitions of plastinates that arose in the years following the popular reception of Body Worlds. The commitment within critical sociology to denaturalize and reveal the socio-cultural construction of established institutions allows us to turn our attention to the long-standing dichotomy between the natural world and the social world and, in particular, to identify a variety of positions that demonstrate the tension between the autonomy of the scientific imperatives of Body Worlds and the socio-cultural meanings that are ascribed to plastinates in the public debates. Two controversies are particularly illustrative of this tension. The first concerns the simultaneous objectification and subjectification of plastinates, a controversy over defining the plastinates either as anonymous, instructional specimens or as embodiments of a personal identity and life lived. As is shown, despite the organizers’ attempts to frame Body Worlds as a scientific event that offers the lay public an opportunity to encounter the dead body with some level of anatomical detachment, the aesthetic display of plastinates creates the conditions for the public to imbue them with subjectivity and personhood. The second, and related, controversy involves the juxtaposition between the plastinates as authentic and pedagogical forays into the human body and the plastinates as overly aestheticized displays of the dead whose value extends no further than entertainment and spectacle. In this case, the debates are concerned with the extent to which the art of plastinates impedes their scientific value and undermines their ethical worth.

Though the popularity of the exhibition itself has waned over recent years, I want to examine the continuing significance of plastination as a socio-cultural and technological phenomenon that offers a new corporeality and experiential perception of the human body, one that is capable of acquiring a post-mortem identity through biotechnological practices that allow the body to “live on” in plastinated form. I therefore argue that plastination need not be understood as a strictly scientific or ethical question. Rather, in a move that attests to the significance of the critical sociological project of maintaining—rather than artificially separating—the analytical tensions between objectivity and subjectivity, on one hand, and science and art, on the other, I suggest that plastination reflects broader biotechnological developments that promise immortality and herald a new phase in the evolution of death. A critical sociology of the biotechnology of plastination, then, interrogates the limits of the natural and the social in order to reflect on the ways in which the ascent of biotechnology necessitates the blurring of the boundaries between them. As we reflect, in this section of the book, on the notion of “practicing culture”, critical sociology offers a framework for understanding how we collectively make sense of the future of the human body given the new possibilities on offer with the advancement of biotechnology. That is, while plastination is constructed as a forum in which the public may discover the intricacies of their own bodies without the gruesome aspects of illness or death, it may also be regarded as a cultural commentary that has death at its centre, a demonstration of the biotechnological manipulability of the body’s form, and, by extension, the changing nature of how we intervene on death and achieve post-mortem “health”.

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