The medieval Italian poet Dante creates a macabre vision of twisted bodies, divided and rent asunder, as a manifestation in the flesh of the deforming consequences of sin. In Body Worlds, a new exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Natural Science, the German scientist Gunther von Hagens has discovered a new means of providing anatomy lessons to the multitudes – cuts, slices and dissections of "real" human bodies, preserved through a process called plastination.
The impression left on viewers will likely be as memorable as Dante's imaginative journey among the dead. The question is whether it has substantive educational value – or is merely feeding our inordinate taste for the macabre while masquerading as science education.
The exhibit features corpses, disembodied organs and partial specimens, and a series of preserved embryos, kept intact through polymer preservation, or "plastination." The process not only allows for preservation, but it also enables bodies to be kept intact and upright. This serves the end of displaying a wide variety of carvings, angles of perception, and artful juxtapositions of body parts.
The process lends itself to theatricality. Whereas Dante bluntly describes an individual with "his bowels and guts dangling between his legs," Gunther von Hagens gives us the "Jumping Dancer." His body is presented so as to stress flexed \muscles, but we get so much more than that. Dr. von Hagens has lifted the "back of the trunk," from the body and let it dangle behind the body, so that the back "opens downward" and the brain nearly straddles the floor.
Of course, there are lots of educational tidbits provided via commentaries accompanying each anatomical specimen. Indeed, the exhibit's promoters speak of "raising awareness" about health problems.
"The Smoker" stands erect with blackened lung and cancer stick in hand. Interviews with those who have seen the exhibit in other cities repeatedly focus on the potential educational value of seeing the blackened lungs, which reveal the evils of smoking.
This is education through shock treatment of course, and the longevity of the "scared straight" strategy is questionable. Moreover, looking at the damaged lung does not translate for observers into any sort of informed grasp of the physiological processes involved – that is, into actual scientific knowledge.
The impulse of some scientists to praise the exhibit for its pedagogical value indicates how desperate science educators are to find ways to interest an ignorant and indifferent citizenry to the necessity and significance of scientific knowledge. Science currently shows up in the media mostly having to do with fear of imminent disaster, E. coli outbreaks or global warming. And when Hollywood tries to dramatize scientific intelligence, it almost always ends up stressing the deranged lives attending the work of genius.
Dr. von Hagens' touring show of human bodies is likely to exacerbate the public image problem for scientists. Indeed, Body Worlds is in certain unhappy respects quite well suited to our popular culture. We are awash in morbid fascination with vivisected bodies: from the explicit medical and forensic gore of ER and CSI through graphic depictions of radical reconstructive surgeries on Nip/Tuck , and on to the box-office popularity of barbaric horror films, from Saw to Hostel.
It is awfully easy in our culture to forget that the bodies depicted on screen and elsewhere being slashed, mangled or otherwise violated belong to human beings. To get the expected thrill of shocking novelty, jaded viewers must be presented with ever more ghastly and excessive acts of violence. The more desensitized we become to depictions of violence against the body, the more indifferent we risk becoming to individual humanity. In our cultural climate, it is not surprising that Body Worlds receives nothing than a shrug from most Americans.
Let's be honest: The draw of Body Worlds is not its promise to instruct the masses on how the human body looks and functions underneath the skin. We could do that with very sophisticated artificial models, but it's unlikely such an exhibit would cause much of a sensation, or (therefore) be an attraction.
No, the exhibit's equivocation about "real bodies" discloses its real agenda: to present flayed, disemboweled and deconstructed humans, while using a pedagogical and pseudo-scientific rationale to disarm moral squeamishness.
The exhibit's prominently displayed quotations from philosophers, poets and theologians seek to drape the grotesqueries in an air of high-minded contemplation. But occasionally, if unintentionally, they point out problems with the exhibit. A quotation from philosopher Immanuel Kant is laughably out of place: "That man can be conscious of himself in his contemplation raises him infinitely above all other living creatures."
But this exhibit is not about who we are as personal, self-conscious beings; it is about what we are as biological beings. Indeed, the exhibit is explicitly against the raising of the "who" question.
An explanatory note states that the "persons, identities, ages, and causes of death" are not supplied because the focus of the exhibit is on "physical being" and not on personal information. That saddles us with a severely truncated account of death that walls off the properly human element entirely.
For reflective viewers, that question cannot be fully suppressed. It arises in the shock of recognition that the corpse we are currently examining with such detached curiosity was once a human being.
The exhibit's promoters position it as a sort of avant-garde phenomenon that helps the public overcome antiquated taboos that inhibit the advancement of learning. They're right to think that revulsion is not, all by itself, a sufficient guide in matters of ethics.
After all, there are still some ignorant folks who find interracial marriage disgusting, but their subjective emotions tell us nothing about the morality of interracial marriage. Similarly, merely saying that Body Worlds disgusts you does not determine its moral status.
But this goes both ways. Merely asserting that one is engaging in the laudatory practice of overcoming taboos about the proper use of dead bodies does not make it, in fact, laudatory. One might equally claim that hard-core pornography can educate viewers about sex by reducing sex to the manipulation of body parts stripped of any larger human significance.
The problem with death in our culture is not that we have taboos about it, but that we lack a rich language for articulating the experience and its meaning. It's hard to see how Body Worlds will help solve that problem. Indeed, what is on display is not the mystery of death, but the reduction of bodies to inert plasticized parts displayed for viewers – a pornography of the dead human body.
Body Worlds brings us face to face with something, but it will leave us mute and inarticulate – the very image of what we behold.