As the emergence of geopolitical regimes coincide with neoliberal logics the medical body becomes increasingly and alarmingly literal.
We live in a world full of unprecedented commercialisation and consumption of the body.
The following are readily available and comsumed on the medical market:
- facial transplants
- designer blood
- spare kidneys
- cosmetic corrections
Specific tissues are becoming defined as ‘waste’, this is a crucial step in the wealth production process as it ensures the cheap supply of ‘surplus’ of tissue needed for biomedical transformation. Indeed the it follows that knowlegde networks are being supported through hybrid commerical anf community stratergies.
New biotechnologies are making a turn towards markets and capital as a way of obtaining the tissues traditionally assured under the gift-donation system.
Developments in biotechnology enabled blood to be the first truely global tissue ecomony because it could be collected, stored and transported and distribued.
From blood banking to diginatlized gene sequences, this globailty unfolds as a hybrid of micromanaged economic exchanges between biotechnicians, donors, public policy makers, commercial operators and recipients. Bioscience has enabled consumers to envisage health on the back of theor innovations. This demands a large, aging and wealthy population. It is true the illegal organ trade has exploded, bioscience carefully enables the exploitative networks of biopower bewteen rich and poor.
The performance artist, Kan Xuan 1999 attempts to represent the medically commodified body in “Sleep”.
This piece addresses the legacy of postcolonialism and the embodiment of hierarchies of race, ethnicity and gender culture and class within biomedical change. In particular Kan Xuan is questioning Chinese corporeal surplus in late capitalism. This can be linked to the Boby Worlds exhibition which will be explored imminently.
The commerical body : BODY WORLDS
This second half will approach consumption of the medical body from the aestheticised presentation of human anatomy, and the comercial and social value of these ‘art’/’scientific artifacts’ relative to living humans.
Biomedicinces relationship with human surplus, class and neoliberal consumption brings to mind an exhibition I saw recently in the Netherlands called ‘Body Worlds’.
This is a controversial site that puts skinned plasinated bodies on display. The enterprising anatomist, Gunther Von Hagens developed the process of plastination in 1977, which is a process of polymer-impregnation to plastinate human corpses.
The treatment is analogous to perimineralization (the natural process that yields petrified wood). Apart from a scaffolding of tissue all bodily fats and fluid have been replaced with liquid polymers.
Mori noticed that people presented with likenesses of increasing realism respond with increasing empathy, right up to the point where the likenesses are almost real. At that point, people are repulsed. The sudden dip in graphs describing their response gave the phenomenon its name.
It is common for Von Hagen’s human cadavers to evoke feelings of the uncanny, arousing dread and emotional horror. According to Freud (1919), the uncanny is the class that of the terrifying that leads us back to something long known to us for example inevitable death. An essential feature of the uncanny is the feeling of intellectual uncertainty.
For the philosopher Ernst Jentsh, aspects of the uncanny tie into:
“doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate”
There is no doubt that these ill-fitting templates of familiar human forms evoke aspects of the uncanny . Each specimin is posed un an eteranl rigor of normative life, these activites range from yoga poses to enaging in heterosexual sex.
There have been accusations that the bodies are dervived from Chinsese prisoners, despite visitors intererests in the sources of the figures, exhibitors take care to maintian anoonymity. They typically obsure the identities of the bodies by removing features such as tatoos, scars and growths. In addition racaial markers, such as the skin have been altered or removed, revealing what Eric Hayot refers to as:
“Hypernudity of muslce and organ, vein and bone” (Hayot 2009)
While identies are obsured, the figures to participate in heternormaitve gender practices, whereby the ‘able-bodied’ figures are predominantly male, relative to female bodies which participate in typically feminine activites such as growoing babies or demonstating parodoic burlesque positions, such as striking poses and straddleing chairs.
While Von Hagens urges his plastic models are legitimate educational materials, many question whether these figures are useful introductions to anatomy, as a result the anatominst is questioned regrading his respect for death and the intergrity of the human body. In 2014 Berlin banned Von Hagens exhibition on these grounds regarding conflict with the cities burial laws.
Body worlds raises questions regrading the ethics of anatomical display, the debate whether the exhibitions are sources of useful knowldge, or by appealing to spectcular traditions of medical and natural history, museums, conlonial archives and freak shows, the exhibition can be viewed as a cynical means of cadaver entertainment facilitated by the econominc climate produced by neoliberalism.
Accepting either of these viewes, it is undoubltable that the uncanny figures communicate various class and gender hegemonies in line with a medically comodified body, as well as the display of ‘idealised’ bodies- limmited to Chinese anatomy- which appeals to colonialism. Reflecting upon the bio-medical ideologies produced in late capitalism, the exhibition reproduces the status of tissues and the entire human bodies as transactable asethetized commercial objects.