The Social Life of Plastinates

Gunther von Hagens, a German anatomist, inventor of plastination, and creator of Body Worlds, suggests that plastinates warrant being understood alongside the history of anatomical art because like the work of his anatomist-artist predecessors, particularly those of the Renaissance, plastinates represent a medium through which “death is brought closer to life” (von Hagens 2005, 262).3 The foremost purpose of using “creative anatomy” in Body Worlds, von Hagens states, is to educate the living on the corporeal conditions which simultaneously enable and restrict their everyday physiological existence. Such instructiveness is achieved by doing away with traditional anatomical methods that rely on artificial models of the body or on wet, formaldehyde-laden cadavers that lay “lifeless” and “gruesome” (to the eyes of the lay public, at least) on dissection tables (von Hagens 2005). Plastination is best known for the aesthetic poses that animate cadavers into lifelike forms. Each unique human condition—to think, to reproduce, to be agile and resilient, and to be vulnerable and diseased—is revealed through a series of intricate exposures of the organs, musculature, bones, and tissues (and even prosthetic devices, to which I will return later) that make possible the movements and biological processes that are rarely visible first-hand to the lay public.

In attempting to place plastinates “back into the living world from which they came”, Von Hagens’ aesthetic sensitivity is enabled by the plastination technique itself (von Hagens 2005, 266). Plastination involves a chemical process by which a cadaver (largely belonging to people who have donated their bodies to the Institute for Plastination4 [IfP]) undergoes a sometimes week-long treatment whereby bodily fluids are replaced by a series of reactive plastics like epoxy resin, polyester resin, and silicone rubber (von Hagens 2005). The body is then cured in large chambers in order to allow the plastics to infuse the body tissue and to prevent decomposition and facilitate malleability, which, prior to plastination, was only made possible by the use of formaldehyde. The novelty is that, unlike cadavers preserved with formaldehyde, plastina- tion maintains the colour and integrity of muscles and organs and, most importantly, produces specimens that stand upright and are both dry and odourless. It is through von Hagens’ capacities as an artist that Body Worlds offers plastinates like The Chess Player, which, with chessboard in hand and brain exposed, is meant to elicit wonder at human contemplation, The Exploded Body, which employs longitudinal “expansion techniques” that enable the viewer to see the complex and compact layering of organs, muscles, and bones that interconnect in the body, or the Reclining Pregnant Woman—one of the most controversial plastinates in the exhibition—which exhibits a foetus in the exposed womb of a woman, effectively juxtaposing birth and death while sparking questions among observers about how she and her child may have died.

For von Hagens and his colleagues at the IfP, donating one’s body for plastination is represented as an altruistic gift to scientific advancement and to the education of the public regarding human anatomy (IfP 2006). The fact that the exhibition deals with something so contentious—quite literally, the public display of bodies flayed with internal structures laid bare— requires a special attention to the change in meaning that bodies undergo once they become matters of plastination. Von Hagens takes it as one of his objectives to demystify the death of the body, to replace the subjective and cultural associations of grief and taboo that accompany death with something that he believes to be more pedagogically productive:

Gestalt plastinates are not objects of mourning; they are instructional specimens. Mourning would interfere with learning; our thoughts would digress. Consequently, I have attempted to make gestalt plastinates appear as lifelike as possible. Freed from the stigma of revulsion, such vital, holistic anatomy thus becomes feasible, with which viewers can be fascinated by its authenticity [sic]. (von Hagens 2005, 262)

As might be expected, von Hagens’ understanding of the ontological significance of the plastinates takes on a characteristically scientific form and, in this way, articulates a desire to make the plastinates thinkable as biological objects of instruction rather than symbols of individual person- hood and death. When donors will their bodies to the IfP and particularly to Body Worlds, they do so with the understanding that the exhibition will reveal nothing of their identities, personal history, or cause of death (except in the less frequent and less contentious cases of plastinates with diseased organs, whereby visitors may deduce that, for example, the cancerous lung contributed to the donor’s death, as is explained below).

The intent behind donor anonymity is to foster an environment in which visitors may see themselves reflected in the image of the plastinate; we are not to mourn the end of a life lest we neglect to celebrate the vitality of the human form and, more importantly, to receive an implicitly moralistic message about the need to take care of our own bodies through our encounter with plastinates. For von Hagens, this seems achievable only by employing anonymization techniques, such as surgically modifying the mouth and face and changing eye colour using glass eyes, that are meant to sever any remaining ties between the individual donor and the plastinate:

Ensuring anonymity is important for distancing the body from its plastinated counterpart, as it is the only way of ending the sense of reverence surrounding that body, i.e., the sense of personal and emotional attachment to the deceased. (von Hagens 2005, 31)

Visitors to Body Worlds are thus confronted, not unproblematically (Burns 2007; Jones and Whitaker 2007), with plastinates that bear von Hagens’ own signature cards while the backdrop features a series of famous quotations by philosophers, scientists, and anatomists about the nature of life and death and the merits of anatomical investigation, effectively placing von Hagens in a lineage of anatomist-artists like da Vinci and Vesalius.5 While the figure of von Hagens the scientist is foregrounded, visitors are prompted to remember the role of the donors only at the exit of the exhibition, where previous donors are thanked for their contribution to the development of plastination and where prospective donors may consider their own post-mortem fates by signing donation cards that legally will their bodies to the IfP

Contrary to von Hagens’ intentions that plastinates be observed with emotional detachment, visitors continually sought to personalize the subject in the figure of the plastinate, producing one of the most prevalent controversies about the exhibition: that between the objectification and subjectification of plastinates. Those who wished to put a “face” to the plastinate did so not only to satisfy their curiosity about the donor’s cause of death (a pressing question for many, given that Body Worlds primarily exhibits normal rather than diseased anatomy and thus obscures the cause of death) but also to know more about the personal identity of individual donors. As one observer remarked, “I was always aware that they were someone’s father, grandfather, brother, husband..(in Walter 2004, 473). And another:

It is very fascinating how the human body works. But where did these people come from? What kinds of lives did they lead? What did they look like before plastination? It would be interesting to know more about them individually. (in Moore and Brown 2007, 242)

Though von Hagens sees mourning as antithetical to his pedagogical project, some felt a reverent attachment to particular plastinates:

As I looked into this cadaver’s face (The Yoga Lady) I suddenly imagined the woman who once inhabited this body and felt a strong connection to her.

I wondered about her life and felt sad that she had died so young. I have the same sense of connectedness when I look into The Ponderers face, with the contemplative expression. (in Moore and Brown 2007, 242)

Plastinates thus confront visitors as much more ambiguous figures than von Hagens permits—neither clearly subject nor object, neither clearly artistic work nor anatomical specimen, and neither purely organic nor machine-made—a phenomenon that demonstrates the divergent meanings that arise from anatomical specimens that are both aesthetic and anonymous. One observer sees no disjuncture between creative anatomy and offering some level of personalization:

A fascinating merger of science and art! Why not some photos of the people portrayed? Maybe this will humanize the exhibit for those who find it distasteful. Or maybe not. For me photos would add a nice element to the exhibit in providing a glimpse of the personality along with the body. (in Walter 2004, 476)

Evidently, von Hagens’ objective of maintaining the anonymity of donors is betrayed by his equally resolute aesthetic sensibilities involved in creating the plastinates, a technique that, as the above comments suggest, highlights, rather than de-emphasizes, the person within the plastinate. It is these very techniques that incite the viewer’s sense of reverence, mourning, and curiosity.

Beyond the feelings of sadness for the dead body that stood before the viewer, some visitors wondered why the plastinate’s personal identity was—technically, at least—erased, while an imagined identity was imposed upon the body’s plastinated form. As one observer states, “I found it strange that von Hagens’ signature would be there and [sic] little reference to the “person” behind his work. Was the “yoga lady” or the “skateboarder” really a practitioner of these skills?” (in Moore and Brown 2007, 243). Some feminist critics of Body Worlds discuss the particular damage aestheticization does to female plastinates, which are assigned strangely contorted fates. For instance, the Yoga Lady lays with arms raised above her head, propped up only by her hands, while the muscles of her chest and abdomen extend upward towards the viewer and the Reclining Pregnant Woman lays on her side with her head tilted and eyes closed, one hand placed behind her head, while the exposed foetus meets the viewer’s gaze. For these writers, even in death, women’s subjectivity is subsumed under a scientific gaze that both objectifies and typifies women as mere specimens for voyeurism or vehicles for biological reproduction (Stern 2003; Schulte-Sasse 2006).

Von Hagens relates the object/subject controversy to the public’s inability (or perhaps more accurately, unwillingness) to achieve the scientifically prescribed detachment of person and body:

Apparently the design potential of our bodies is limited—beyond the given anatomical structure—by deeply rooted constraints about ourselves. Although I can create interspaces to facilitate viewing at will, nevertheless my imagination is subject to very limited tolerances should the body be regarded as a whole.6 (von Hagens 2005, 268)

Yet, even in bioethical debates about Body Worlds, in which objectivity and emotional detachment are taken as necessary standards to which all scientific inquiry must be held, we see another prevalent controversy: that which aligns art with spectacle and science with education. Bioethical debates largely concern themselves with the proper place of such an exhibition, asking whether it is legitimate, ethical, and pedagogically sound to aesthetically display human corpses under the auspices of educating the lay public (Burns 2007; Wassersug 2007; Barilan 2006). For those who critique the exhibition, questions of legitimacy revolve around whether Body Worlds proves itself as a properly scientific endeavour and, in this way, legitimacy is conferred according to the extent to which art is subordinated to science. A characteristic response comes from Lawrence Burns (2007),7 who suggests that the dignity of donors and, by extension, the legitimacy of the exhibition is jeopardized as long as the latter’s goals remain unclear. Burns argues that the ethical concerns caused by aestheticization could be addressed by seeking “less morally contentious alternatives”—like the use of partial-body plastinates rather than whole- body plastinates as though dignity can be recovered by displaying parts of bodies which, presumably, facilitates anatomical detachment—so that the “educational goal unambiguously predominates over the competing artistic, entertainment, and commercial goals” (Burns 2007, 12). Others ask what becomes of human dignity when those who donate their bodies for plastination are agreeing to undergo such extensive biochemical treatment for the sake of spectacle and to remain anonymous throughout the process, a kind of conduct which is seen as a grotesque departure from more traditional practices related to the dead (Allen 2007; Hibbs 2007). Allen, for instance, wonders how certain events, such as urban development on forgotten cemeteries and the displacement of the dead after Hurricane Katrina, are seen by the public as violations of the dead, but in the case of Body Worlds, questions of dignity and defilement are subsumed by art and entertainment in what she calls “moral madness” (Allen 2005). In this formulation, plastination is a platform for aesthetic prowess, not a technique that may serve a scientific, and therefore educational, purpose.

Though they take different positions on the scientific and artistic merit of plastinates, von Hagens and the bioethicists share some similarities. Both effectively reinforce the representation of science, especially anatomical science, as necessarily impervious to the social world with which it engages and thus appraise plastinates according to the extent that they act as tools of anatomical investigation and knowledge transmission. For Burns, the use of partial-body plastinates limits the plastinator’s artistic ambitions and thus positions plastinates as educational specimens, and for Allen, the use of aesthetic techniques in plastination discounts them altogether as educational. These positions evaluate the ethical worth of plastinates according to precepts of clinical detachment that, although meant to address the alleged indignities of the exhibition, ultimately cannot be sustained considering the controversies over the meaning of plas- tinates in the public sphere. We saw that von Hagens’ use of aesthetic and biochemical techniques to achieve this goal emphasizes the hybridity of the plastinates, thus reproducing the tension between subjectivity and objectivity that characterizes the visitor’s response to plastinates. As we can see from the viewers’ comments, the public cannot limit their perception of plastinates to mere anatomical specimens and, for this reason, the attachment of person and plastinate is revealed as a relationship that cannot simply be technically severed (Hirschauer 2006). Although visitors are asked to respect the anonymity of donors, they wonder about the life that specific donors lived and whether the latter practised the acts that they are forever captured performing; although visitors are meant to approach plastinates as universal anatomical models, they largely do not reconcile donor anonymity with the knowledge that what they have before them is a dead body that has, through the plastination process, evaded the normal biological course of, and cultural practices associated with, death.8

The controversies rooted in the object/subject and science/art dichotomies are not new but fall in line with those that have characterized the anatomical sciences since the Enlightenment. Because they have posited the human body as a source of unlimited knowledge about physiology and pathology, the anatomical sciences have long employed rhetorical and cultural strategies, like those of von Hagens, that objectify the body from the person who once inhabited it; in this way, anatomy takes up the scientific imperative of clinical detachment par excellence. Yet, the experimental nature of anatomical investigation has meant that its practitioners have sought to suppress the loathsome work of dissecting human flesh by making their discoveries palatable and pedagogical through artistic visual representations of their findings, a tradition which dates back to da Vinci’s anatomical drawings of the fifteenth century (Berkowitz 2011). We see the complexities associated with this endeavour in studies that demonstrate how, for instance, the lines between subject and object are blurred when medical students—just like the lay public—contemplate the identity of their anatomical specimen, a phenomenon that has led to the incorporation within medical classrooms of educational material that allows students to reflect on the humanistic status of the cadaver and its relationship to patient care (Lella and Pawluch 1988; Robbins et al. 2008-2009). The lines separating the scientific and the artistic are also blurred when wax anatomical models meant for pedagogical purposes are bought up by private collectors in art auctions (van Dijck 2001).

Therefore, anatomy exists in a liminal space between the taboos and anxieties that accompany the dissection of the human body, on one hand, and the promise of self-knowledge through scientific inquiry into the body, on the other. It subjugates flesh to the pursuit of scientific knowledge but also aestheticizes that flesh in an attempt to negotiate the potentially disturbing encounter one has with a dead human body. The difference is that Body Worlds aesthetically displays real human bodies, with unique physical features and post-mortem identities, to the public and to experts alike, and thus plastinates cannot be entirely explained as contemporary extensions of anatomical drawings and wax models. It is precisely because plastinates are defined by their physical, social, cultural, and aesthetic qualities that we can see the necessity of a critical sociological project of interrogating the limits of the dichotomy between subjectivity and objectivity, and the binary oppositions that align science with education and art with spectacle. Both strands of thought presuppose the necessity of dichotomous thinking—whether it be in the interests of preserving human dignity or ensuring pedagogical primacy—without asking what may be created out of a newly formed juncture between them and how such a juncture may be more telling for us analytically than the unreflexive reproduction of the myth of scientific autonomy.

Critical sociology’s commitment to the denaturalization of binary oppositions shows that plastinates actually disrupt the lines between subject and object, science and art, and life and death by animating and making visible that which should, in death, be inanimate and invisible. Despite the fact that von Hagens seeks to legitimate his practices by grounding them in scientific presuppositions about what is ethically permissible and pedagogically sound, the experience of encountering such aestheticized organic-technological hybrids points towards the need to reconfigure the categories through which the significance of plastination is defined (Haraway 1991). The division between subject and object seems especially unsustainable in Body Worlds precisely because the (whole body) plastinate meets the public as no other anatomical model has—upright, colourful, vitalized, and whole, yet always in uneasy relation to its flayed and chemically treated corporeality, that is, to the certainty that the person within the plastinate experienced death and that this body was “revived” in its plastinated form. It is therefore insufficient to interpret Body Worlds purely on the basis of its scientific or artistic merit, or to disaggregate the body from the person in order to legitimate the instrumentalization and manipulation of the human body, or even to rest on the assumption that the meaning of plastinates remains ambiguous. Rather, in a move that attests to the significance of a critical sociology of biotechnology and the capacity to question the boundaries between the natural and the social, we may see the plastinates as effectively re-socialized—literally brought

“back into the living world from which they came”—in a setting that conceives a union of anatomical innovation and socio-cultural life. The plastinate, like biotechnology more generally, is social to the extent that it traverses the spheres of organic material, cultural norms, and technological capacities and, for this reason, is imbued with conflicting meanings by its very groundedness in both scientific and socio-cultural milieu.

Members of the public did see themselves in the image of the plasti- nate but not necessarily in the way that von Hagens had hoped. It may be said, instead, that members of the public were often curious about the subject within the plastinate because they read onto the plastinated body a narrative about the technological possibilities of their own postmortem fates—a narrative that eschews the marks of death (and as we see, the injuries of life) and permits the dead body to remain, immortal, in the animate world.

In the following section, I explore the idea of a critical sociology of biotechnology further to delve into the nature of the biotechnologies used in creating the plastinates and how these techniques inform their technocultural significance: that plastinates are simultaneously a reminder of what we are capable of biotechnologically (enhancement and perfection) and a cultural representation of how we may re-envision the mortality of the human body, particularly through a technological means of transcendence.

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