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Body Worlds is Pornography of the Human Being

Posted on August 25, 2014 at 4:35 PM Comments comments (5)

 When I began teaching philosophy a couple of decades ago, I felt that I ought to be able to speak to the question, “What’s the difference between pornography and art?” A particularly helpful source was Jennifer Jeffers. Prof Jeffers argued that pornography was about the “male gaze” reducing women to “a collection of body parts.”

On that understanding, I have come to think that Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds ® exhibitions are pornographic, reducing the human being to a collection of body parts under a worldview created by a “scientific gaze” of a prevalent sort, namely reductive materialism.

The Milwaukee Public Museum recently concluded its BODY WORLDS & The Cycle of Life exhibition of “More than 200 plastinates—real human specimens preserved through Dr. von Hagens’ invention, the remarkable process called Plastination” (MPM website). Here in southeastern Wisconsin billboards and television commercials featured white-coated physicians urging us to learn more about ourselves by coming to this educational production.

Let’s grant for discussion that BW is educational. The question then is, “What is it educating us to think and to believe?” Let’s also grant that it is scientific, another term that we after the twentieth century is hardly a per se good. The question then is, “But is it good science?”

First, there is the lurking question as to the source of the bodies for the Body Worlds (BW) exhibits. See the ABC news 20/20 report at The actual practice and rationalization of plastinization by BW raises an ethical question, namely, what view of the human being and human society could be used to justify such procedures? What is it educating us and our neighbors and our children to think about human persons?

Second, there is this notion of reductivism and BW’s materialistic scientific gaze. You might gather at first blush that Body Worlds is simply addressing the physical dimension of being human, perhaps in a new and advanced scientific manner. But this is not the case.

On the one hand, according to the Body Worlds Catalog on the Exhibition, exhibiting plastinated human bodies presumes that death is annihilation of the person.

The corpse is no longer a person; its ego ceased to exists at the latest after brain death. … On death, the person comes to an end; he is no longer in this world. He has thus lost his subjective quality and has become an object (251).

Ignoring for the moment the grammatical contradiction and unwittingly ethical disclosure of this quote (the quote insists that the person has ceased to exist while simultaneously referring to the corpse as both an object and as “he”, BW’s presumption of personal annihilation at bodily death is a question-begging claim, to put it mildly. But notice the reduction of the mind-and-body human being (as we experience ourselves and others) to an unanalyzed but conveniently ignored animation of some sort. “If you’re going to make metaphysical pronouncements, let’s see your metaphysical arguments,” we ought to insist.

On the other hand, Body Worlds, to go by its Catalog, adverts to “religious ideas, especially those of the Christians, because they expect re-awakening and resurrection” as if their dismissal constitutes evidence of some sort. BW does not engage the evidential arguments for resurrection or indeed engage in any serious reflection and debate whatever on this lynchpin issue. Instead, it polemicizes.

Admittedly, even a religious person cannot seriously believe that a body rests and sleeps. Even though one usually does not wish to know what happens so precisely: A dead person does not rest, he decays; he does not sleep, he decomposes and disintegrates to dust or is burned to ashes (252).

“Cannot seriously believe” is irrelevant in serious conversations and arguments about who we are and what we ought to do or not do to each other as human beings – or to other person’s bodies after death.

Body Words’ reductive materialism and plastinization project are a problem for all of us. It is not that they are saving us from the Christian doctrine of the resurrection. (They are, after all, tiringly dogmatic in their denial of the individual human being’s continuance after biological death by the circular contention that materialism must be true because according to materialism there can be nothing other than what materialism can account for.)

No, strictly speaking, the problem with Body Worlds is its objectification of the human being as body parts in its (pornographically) entertaining “educational and scientific” sideshow. Clearly, BW is educating us toward a diminished view of who we are as human beings. Remember, not everything that is educational is morally or intellectually good for us. An exhibit can educate people to immerse themselves in pornography and see women as nothing but body parts, as Jeffers explained.

Let me also offer a thought as to why BW’s science is not good science. In one of my undergraduate course in bioethics, I have been requiring a weekly reading and discussion, chapter by chapter, of Eric Cassell’s The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine. Cassell, a practicing and teaching M.D., argues at length that science of the body is utterly insufficient for the practice of medicine in our century. He references Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic and explains,

The great advances of nineteenth-century medicine involved the invasion of the body – gazing to use Fouchault’s terms, into its depths. […] A central task for the twentieth-first century is the discovery of the person … (163, my emphasis)

The science of Body Worlds is, on this account, passé and distracting; it is not the sort of thinking we need in order to pursue our vocations of duty and care for one another. It is merely salacious, a pornography of the human person on display in our public museums for no good reason. Indeed, it may be deleterious to twenty-first century medicine.

What do you think?