This is My Body: What Limits our Use?

October 25, 2010

body worlds adAn exhibition of human bodies has recently come to St. Louis, where I live.  There are not one but two major exhibits of actual human bodies touring the world these days — and they’ve been traveling around for years.  One is called Body Worlds, and the other Bodies: The Exhibition.   The first is under the direction of Gunther von Hagens, the inventor of the process of plastination that preserves the bodies.   The second was spearheaded by von Hagens’ former student/employee (and former friend) Sui Hongjin.

Both of these exhibits have generated ethical discussions wherever they go.  Both exhibits have come under scrutiny because of the uncertain provenance of the bodies.  Bodies: The Exhibition has been more controversial, because the exhibit organizers openly state that their bodies are unclaimed corpses from China.  Von Hagens has been more adamant that his donors were actually donors, who gave written consent, but even his exhibition has been subject to a great deal of controversy (some of it seemingly fostered by von Hagens himself).

The exhibitions have raised some interesting questions about current cultural constructions of “bodies” (constructed as distinct from people), and the ethics of our use of them.  Most of the ethical discussion surrounding the bodies has been focused on the consent of the deceased people who are shown, but there are further questions as well.  Are these bodies still people, in any relevant, ethical sense?  Does it matter if the producers of the exhibitions construct entirely new subjectivities for these bodies , for example, having them play sports that they never played in life?  (For discussion of the construction of subjectivities, see Andrea Fitzpatrick’s interesting work on the photo exhibit The Morgue.) Does it matter that exhibition producers are making millions off of these bodies (estimated 40 million net between 1999 and 2006 alone)?  Does our use of these bodies serve scientific knowledge/education, or is that only partly true — is it also a smokescreen to mask or deflect attention from our attraction to this macabre form of entertainment?  Are there limits on how these bodies should be displayed?  (Can they be shown having sex, for example?)  If they’re not people any more (or not so much, maybe?), are there still limits on how they can be used?

It all makes at least a few of us uncomfortable — visitors, protesters, even employees.  What are the moral criteria by which we can deploy the bodies of others?  As Ronald Grimes points out in his book Deeply Into the Bone: Reinventing Rites of Passage, there has been a cultural-historical process of disaffiliation of the self from the  body of the deceased in the United States over the last 150 years – a process accelerated, Grimes says, in part by the scientific need for cadavers.  Certainly great benefits have come from advances in medicine.  Yet, as the ambivalence surrounding these exhibitions seems to indicate, there is a shadow side of unresolved ethical questions.  Is a human body an object or a subject?  Where would you come down on a scale from one (object) to ten (subject)?

Now, this may seem like an awfully big jump for those of us who do not live in the bookish little cubbyhole of my current research, but all of this makes me wonder: are there limits on how those of us who are Christians can deploy the body of Jesus?  For some of us, the body at Holy Communion is symbolic.  For others it is literal.  Either way, are there ethical restraints on our use of that body, or can we do whatever we want?  Can we display it publicly (during, say, the elevation)?  Can we make a public display of breaking it?  Can we eat it?  Can we store it for later use?  Everybody okay with that?  Does it matter what Jesus might say about all this?  Or does his “written consent” (or at least the reporting of that consent by early Christian communities) effectively remove the constraints on our deployment of his body?  Is it all acceptable, or is there an unresolved, ethical shadow side that remains?

One employee at the Seattle exhibition of Bodies describes how he is haunted by the last figure on the tour, saying:

…Every day after work, I leave haunted by that one stunning specimen—the man with the pecs, the shoulders, the abs. How did he die?…I feel ashamed of myself when I look on his dead body. And when I think about the strategic location of his body—at the end of the tour and beside a sign that says “To See Is to Know”—I feel heartsick. The truth is, we don’t know…We can only wonder.

What do you think?  Would you go to these exhibitions?  Have you gone?

Are there ethical limits associated with the use of Jesus’ body — actual or symbolic?  Do all our uses of his body serve the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity, or are our liturgical uses of that body partly a smokescreen for something else?

One Response to “This is My Body: What Limits our Use?”

  1. Jackie Shaw Says:

    I think I would have to pass on this exhibit. The picture itself is haunting to me. I cannot imagine seeing it in person. I think we are too quick to objectify other humans and their bodies. That objectification of the living body allows people to molest, murder, and maim others. If we take away the humanity, before or after death, we open doors that cannot easily be closed.

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