Plastination as Biotechnological Immortality and Enhancement
As we saw in the previous section, von Hagens claims that plastina- tion makes accessible the complexity of the body’s interior without the gruesome aspects of death, thus emancipating anatomy from otherwise repulsive responses that the lay public may have towards the sight (smell and feel) of a dead body. Plastination is meant to reveal an unmediated physiological reality, one borne of chemical and aesthetic techniques that combine real, authentic, and intact human bodies with the work of creative anatomy. Yet, we cannot understand the nature of von Hagens’ democratizing project—and more than this, we cannot interrogate von Hagens’ claims to revealing an objective truth about ourselves—without considering the ways in which new biotechnologies exist in close relation to socio-cultural attitudes towards death and health, particularly in the West. Indeed, this is the basis for grasping the sociality of plastinates. If part of the controversy of Body Worlds is that plastination makes the dead body into an ambiguously defined object of both aesthetic and scientific techniques, we may move beyond the dualities and ask, alternatively, how these techniques compel a reconceptualization of death in light of the corporeal possibilities offered through plastination. Plastination does not reveal some biological truth about us, not the truth of death, nor the objective knowledge of an authentic body that was previously exclusive to anatomists. To recall, observers are not meant to think of the death of the person at all. Plastination does, however, sustain a medico-cultural discourse of enhancement and perfectibility that has increasingly been identified as the ultimate end of biotechnological advancements involving the human body (Caplan 2006; Baylis and Robert 2004; Lock 2002).
While biotechnology is a scientific and technical field of research into the technological innovations, modifications, and products derived from and applied to human, animal, and plant tissue (Harris 1992), locating it within a critical sociological framework reveals the ways in which biotechnological advancements are changing the nature of human beings and thus the social and cultural worlds that we occupy. A critical sociology of biotechnology refuses the strict inscription of scientific imperatives—specifically, those that define what is natural, organic, and therefore free from the vagaries of the social world—onto advances involving the human body. By altering the body’s limits and capacities, biotechnologies represent what Brodwin (2000) suggests are “material changes in the objects once deemed outside of human control” (8). As medico-cultural entities, biotechnologies subvert the hermetic domain of the natural, opening up for interpretation, judgement, and technical skill what was formerly inaccessible to the scientific imagination. Merging human with non-human and non-organic material disrupts the distinctions that science upholds and exposes them as contradictions needing to be questioned. Such an understanding requires that we extend our questioning beyond the binary thinking that neglects the crucial intersections between what is natural and what is social, towards a recognition that the plastinates themselves—as objects that reflect a biotechnological capacity to suspend the natural marks of biological death and, by extension, to alter the status of the dead body—possess “social lives” that cannot to be reduced to mere extensions of von Hagens’ scientific imagination (Lock 2002, 315). Thus, plastination effectively intervenes on the finitude of death by presenting the death of the body, too, as a potentially biotechnological event.
Within a critical sociological frame, plastination represents a new corporeality and experiential perception of the human body: the postmortem possibility that we may be immortalized as a plastinate. If, indeed, socio-cultural norms shape and are shaped by biotechnological advancements, we can see that this new corporeality is rooted in contemporary medical and cultural discourses that increasingly view death as a deficiency in the corpus of scientific knowledge and that death, like life, is part of an evolutionary process (Shostak 2006). Von Hagens himself is not immune to attributing such medico-cultural meanings to plastina- tion. For him, with plastination:
Death takes on a new dimension. It gains a certain proximity to reality, which imbues the image of death with a particular reconciliation [...] [Plastination satisfies the notion that] we will not someday disappear into thin air, but instead will achieve a certain immortality through plastination [...] This narcissistic satisfaction acts in a way that grants the body every imaginable form of attention and implies the thought of aesthetically designing the body according to our own values. The body is not just a ‘container of disgusting fluids’, not the devil’s playground for sins of the flesh, as propagated by Christianity, but a ‘stylized cultural happening’. (von Hagens 2005, 272)
Plastinates become social and cultural happenings to the extent that they traverse the spheres of technological innovation and socio-cultural life and thus alter our perception of the human body beyond the biological fact of death. Contrary to his intent to maintain the objectification of the plastinates, von Hagens encourages potential donors to imagine their own “face within”, that unique interior self that is revealed and forever preserved after death (von Hagens 2005, 34). Some observers claim to experience the plastinates as authentic and corporeal embodiments of what is possible after the death of the body, a kind of experience that touches upon the deeply personal, cultural, and religious sentiments that encountering plastinates evoke (see Walter 2004; Hirschauer 2006; vom Lehn 2006; Moore and Brown 2007). There are, for example, donors who welcomed the thought that their plastinated body would grant them a post-mortem identity, a chance to continue to “take part” in the animate world (Charlton et al. in Hirschauer 2006, 35). Others saw in the plastinated body the prospect of being “reincarnated with plastina- tion”, of seeing our bodies in “our truest form” (Moore and Brown 2007). Others still viewed plastination as a means by which they could be “kept company” by the living world after death. Some saw in plastination a gross violation of the human body, a kind of Frankensteinian science that, though it grants immortality, is of a monstrous kind (Moore and Brown 2004). Some saw a moment of discovering “the soul”; others, by contrast, realized that “we truly are just walking and talking meat parcels” (Moore and Brown 2007, 245).
Plastination offers immortality in a way much more familiar—and appealing, as indicated by the fact that the IfP is no longer accepting donations as of the time of this writing—than other forms of biotechnological immortality, such as those offered through human cell culture, like HeLa cells, which provide a post-mortem existence only outside of the physical context of the body (Landecker 2007). Living on as plastinates, we keep our form, our “face within”. Even our genetic individuality is preserved, as the donor brochure promises. But by what means does plastination offer an alternative kind of post-mortem fate? In addressing this question, we need to take seriously von Hagens’ assertion that in plastination, “what we do with a real human body today will show what we can achieve in the future using genetic engineering” (von Hagens in McGovern 2002, 46). Like genetic engineering, plastination intervenes in the impermanence of the body. The crucial difference, however, is that unlike such therapeutic biotechnologies, which are oriented towards the fragilities of living bodies by seeking cures for disease and the roots of genetic disorders, plastination begins its work only at the moment of death. This is what designates plastination as a new corporeality. Plastination does not seek to cure or alleviate symptoms. It does not investigate the origins of human disorders. Rather, it provides the post-mortem possibility for a technological means to transcend the loathsome aspects of death. It thus fits more closely alongside enhancement biotechnologies, which serve to improve and, many argue, perfect human capacities as well as surpass the body’s physiological and cognitive limits (Buchanan 2011; Sandel 2007). In short, it may be said that plastination enhances, even perfects, the human capacity to die.
More than the desire for immortality or for the memorialization of the body in its plastinated form, plastination grants an enhanced corporeality—more than a mere “lifelike” quality—and, in this way, exemplifies the technological possibilities available for the human body, both dead and alive (Rothman and Rothman 2003). In the longitudinally Exploded Body, for example, the joints of the elbows and knees are equipped with hinges to facilitate the observer’s ability to return the (almost three- yard-long) body to its original form. The coupling of implantation with plastination is intensified in the Orthopaedic Body, a plastinate almost completely recreated with internal and external prostheses: the body has an artificial shoulder, elbow, hip, and metal knee, while the outside of the body is furnished with braces for broken bones, a pacemaker, and a prosthetic replacement for a broken jaw. With such an extreme display of the body’s manipulability, we need not wonder why some of the plastinates garnered so much criticism.
Yet, the sociological importance of plastinates like the Exploded Body and the Orthopaedic Body is that they epitomize the meaning of a “stylized cultural happening”, of bodies designed “according to our own values”. With the modern emphasis on scientific progress, values about and perceptions of corporeality have become more and more mediated through the ideals of prolonging life and, to this end, of gearing biotechnological advancements towards the socio-cultural values associated with health (Lock 2002). Health not only becomes an ideal achieved by biotechnological means but also a notion completely transformed given the coupling of the body and biotechnologies. The values by which the plastinate is created make health a moral imperative. This is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than the Autopsy Body, a plastinate of a 77-year-old man who died of heart failure. After performing a public autopsy on the body,9 von
Hagens went on to show that beyond the tragedy of death brought on by the actions of a man who smoked, ate, and drank alcohol in excess, the body could still be remade to look “like a splendid Renaissance sculpture” (IfP). After plastination, the family of the man was invited to view the body and, according to the IfP, “they were deeply moved, for in death their father seemed to embody the vitality and health that eluded him all his life” (IfP). While the Autopsy Body demonstrates how the plastinated post-mortem body can erase the deadly habits that led a man to suffer heart failure, other plastinated body parts are meant specifically to convey a moral message about the pursuit of health. The juxtaposition of a set of diseased lungs alongside healthy lungs is intended to persuade visitors to throw out their cigarettes in the bucket placed beside them; a stillborn baby with foetal alcohol syndrome is placed beside the organs damaged by alcoholism. It is interesting that, only in this context, von Hagens sets aside the anonymity of donors in order to convey to the public what may become of their health and given the Autopsy Body, what science can achieve despite their bad habits.
One visitor’s comment touches upon how the social life of plastinates is wrought by the intersection of socio-cultural understandings of health, biotechnology, and the body: ‘[...] on the philosophical side, this is laughing at Death, as saying: “nevertheless, despite your cruel grasp, we humans defeated you by being of some good use to others by looking alive and teaching’” (in Moore and Brown 2007, 245). This death-defying sentiment culminates most remarkably in von Hagens’ plans to fashion a postmortem “superhuman” (IfP n.d), a project meant to “identify and correct the significant design flaws in human anatomy” (IfP 2012). Seemingly inspired by the art of juxtaposition, von Hagens appealed for a terminally ill patient to donate his or her body for plastination and to agree to be remade a “landmark human” in death, with the help of von Hagens and a team of biologists, surgeons, and mechanical engineers. The proposal calls for an almost complete transformation of the patient’s body, including a plan to rearrange the trachea and oesophagus to limit windpipe obstructions, to install a “double heart” or a “backup heart” to accompany the reconstruction of the coronary arteries, to increase the number of ribs to protect internal organs, to create backward-bending knees to lessen joint strain, and even to create a retractable penis. The plan is to “pave the way for a more healthy, capable and longer-living body” (IfP 2012), a project less about a democratizing display of an authentic biological self than a commentary on what may become of the human body given a few more years of biotechnological intervention on the body’s weaknesses.