15.5.07

The Digital Body: History of Body Visibility



text by Bojana Kunst
First published in: Digitized Bodies / Virtual Spectacles, ed. Nina Czegledy, Ludwig Museum Budapest, Budapest 2001, p. 13 - 28

Keywords: history of the body, representation of the body, body - machine relationship, visibility of the body, enlightenment anatomy, physiognomy, energy, body as the motor, digital body.

When Gandhi was asked once what he thought of Western civilization, one of his complaints was about modern western medicine. It amazed him that the average Europian was so ready to "hand over the custody of his body to the experts (...) as if it were an appendage (...) for which he bore no responsibility."1 (Pareth, 1989) The mass revival of the body in the art and culture of the last two decades of 20th Century somehow reflects similar problem with the body described in Gandhi's statement; the body became a mere possesion, a condition divorced from the self, even obsolete body, characterized by fake beauty, identity and integrity; fragmentary body, defeated by the advance machinery, thought and evolution. In other words, the body is viewed as something that should be divorced, despised, dissected and finally transformed. We could say that the entire 20th century is marked by a desintegration of the bodily structure, and by the omnipresent awareness of its availability, fragility and profanity. The function of the human body is finnaly reduced to that of a container (Stelarc), a specimen for the analysis of man's evolutionary and physiological potentials (Kac, CAE), a digital matrix, to that of mere material subjected to various operative and techonological transformations (Orlan, Acker).

But we could also understood this phenomena from the historical point of view: as the result of reaching the final point of the dichotomy between the physical and the artificial, which through the history of modernity defined the modes of production of bodily images, shaping of the body visibility, predictability and transparency. The contemporary dissapearing of the borders between life and non-life, organic and technologic, natural and artificial, physical and artificial, which strongly influenced the bodily disintegration and fragmentation in contemporary art and culture, has a long history and its deeply inscribed in our understanding of the physical which was always in modernity inevitably defined and connected with the field of artificial.

From the 17th century, Descartes' definition of the machine animale represents the basic model of the body explanation and sets the basic paradigm governing the modern scientific visibility of the body - the paradigm of the body as mechanism, where the body gains status of a field of knowledge. Mechanism therefore became the demonstration of the bodily operativity and not anymore connected to the divine. In the old myths and religion stories the artificial had a special place: it was the sign for the bordeline body, which turned upside down the relationship between earth and heaven; the place where the fundamental questions on the human relationship with the divine could be placed. When Descartes argumented the analogy between human and the machine, is artificial slowly but firmly moved from the mithology into the middle of the developing scientific thought, understood not as a secret but as a basic mode of operativity, functionality and rational understanding. From this point of wiev the example of the enlightenment anatomists is especially interesting because it is disclosing to us some important seeds of contemporary visibility and understanding of the body in it's relationship to the artificial. An analytical comparison of the 18th century anatomical views with the modern obsession with the fragmentary, dissected body can help us understand the modern crave to uncover the epidermal surface and contemporary dissapearing of the borders between life and non-life.

The status of 18th century anatomists was very much the same as that of sculptors, painters and architects, with an additional, yet essential mission to mediate between science and art. Anatomists were the ones authorized to discover formae in profundis and thus differentiate between the external form and the essence hidden underneath, between the visible and the invisible. "It permitted the artist to observe more than he could conventionally see. He was thus able to represent forms concealed beneath an occluding matter more faithfully, because they were now clear to his mind."2 (Gerdy, 1829) Determined to get to the bottom of the invisible, anatomy was still not an objective science but rather a moral and aesthetic strategy; by means of cutting, dissection, »scientific« explanations of the unknown and obscure, as well as by the measuring, counting and classifying of formae in profundis, it began to introduce the absent, the Other Body. By means of differentiation of layers and visible segments, it established the definition of an ideal body, and clearly indicated the elements that differed from it. The impudent classification was candidly present in anatomical depictions and collections, meant as a visual warning – or rather, as whole museums of such warnings, showing the inexorable connection between life and death, between interior and exterior, between looks, morals and beauty. "Medical inventions can provide good examples for ethics ", wrote the French doctor Pierre Roussel and he adds: "it is impossible for philosophy to determine the moral strength of man without taking into consideration the organization of the body."3 (Roussel, 1775) The then dialectic of one's interior and exterior was that of competence, determined by the Other Body, resulting in a moral process and the establishment of aesthetic principles. The more secrets of the body we uncover, the more empty and artificial it becomes, subjected to systematization, generalization, control and universal anticipation. At this point, we can perhaps understand some of today hardly comprehensible obsessions of the anatomists of that time, who attempted to combine parts of different corpses into most unusual compositions, e.g. Giovanni Aldini., who tried to combine different limbs, heads etc. by means of galvanism. The famous collection of Frederik Ruysch (1638 – 1731), Dutch doctor and artist, is of a similar kind. With a special method of preparation he had himself invented, Ruysch managed to create a fantastic museum of curiosities, mainly consisted of children's dead bodies and their various parts (as Ruysch worked as chief obstetrician in Amsterdam), dressed and placed on silk pillows. Ruysch’s bizarre creations, as well as other images and collections (for example that of anatomical wax figures owned by the Italian doctor Felice Fontana in the 18th century) reveal that, despite the vanishing mysteries of the body, the people of that time were still further from grasping it in its entirety than they thought they were. Furthermore, the dissected body was occupied by the ideal image which subjected it to systhematizations, emptying the content under the epidermal surface in order to substitute it with a generalized image showing the people what their bodies should have been like. It constantly reminded them of the exclusiveness of the ideal, laying the foundation for the body engineering of the future. No wonder that the strong connection between anatomical views and aesthetics gave birth to another branch of « science » - physiognomy - which readily transformed the tension of the sublime into a most vulgar connection between the interior and exterior of the body – the Beautiful Soul and the physical constitution reflecting its ideals.

The metaphor of the machine was reflected in the specific kind of physical training which, by means of its mechanic psychology, allured to a dialectics between a person's internal and external features. The elaborate system of this dialectics was first shattered in the 19th century. Operativity and predictability, the modes establishing the analogy between the body and machines, were replaced by a unity of opposites, an elusiveness that blurred the boundaries between the living and the non-living, the internal and the external. Predictable causality and operative order gave way to complex, automated systems, energetic motors, immaterial devices. As opposed to the enlightenment, the romanticism and the early 19th century no longer had insight into the operation of machines. Machines no longer evoked the reassuring feeling of predictability – that of a universal order dwelling beneath a machine’s delusive surface. Artificial structure grew into an enormous system characterized by elusiveness and unpredictability, and familiar to people only by effects. Through the 19th century, the body was increasingly confronted with various mechanisms that interfered with its ways of operation, transformed its muscular mass, rhythm and energy, demanded an adaptation to a new functionality and forms, and essentially influenced the production of bodily images. The body was to face new challenges – those of energy and dynamic engines. New representation modes - like energy, electricity, kinetics- were introduced into the medical practice (which replaced morbid theatrality of the anatomy lesson) and were followed later by different devices which all were there to measure body's invisible movement, pulsations, energy, ryhtems. But the most influential techniques which shatered the borders of body's visibility were certainly X-rays, followed later in the 20th century by sofisticated digital modes of representation - CET, PET, the digital visualisation of the cell, atom, genom, etc. 4

Of course, the moral aspects of anatomy and the energetic notion of the body as the motor (which had it's own neurotic morality based on the enthropy and exhaustion) have long been substituted by objective and analitical scientific methods. But I would agree with Stafford that several inductive patterns still remain - as part of contemporary digital, scientific, technological and aesthetic views of the body.5 (Stafford, 1991) It is true of course, that with the discovery of X-rays, there have been a radical change of the depicting and decoding of the human body and of producing the moral meanings: the body is no longer approached by the intimacy (or morbidity) of direct physical contact, which disclosed us it's operativity and correspondance or non-correspondance with the universal order. The tactility of the anatomy lesson is surpassed with clean technological filters where the image of the body is created by means of computers and technology; and therefore transmuted into a dematerialised graph, matrix, shadow, combination of colors and stripes, hyper-texts.6 The weak body of the matrix and binary codes no longer succumbs to laws of physics, but primarily to administrative and social regulation, statistics, and cognitive enthusiasm. But the main problem is the same - the image of the body always remains based on a generalization, systematization and artificiality.

Despite the fact that modern medicine, science and art present the body as a mere reconstruction, with the organism transformed into codes and heaps of binary files, we can still trace a remnant of the old views originating in the age of Enlightenment, when, for the first time in history, "we gained an access to the information - through the methodic autopsy procedure"7 (Stafford, 1991) According to Stafford, modern people still believe that, by the observation of visual characteristics, they can discover something about the very essence of man, even more, we seem to believe that, by means of further combinations of these characteristics, we can compose an »ideal« human being (for example, by means of genetics), and one fit for the new challenges set to its survival by technology. The judgements of the body remain those acquired by looking into its interior; furthermore, the body turned inside out is becoming a document of identification and an insurance chip. In the future, it will probably play an important part in job interviews, family planing, the predicting of one's predisposition to disease or crime and the evaluation of one's genetic material etc. Today, high technology provides the same illusion as that of the microscope in the age of Enlightenment, providing a wonderful ability of magnification - and the illusion that we can in fact catch sight of the invisible, flawless information net, the virtual and statistical field of the ideal body.

What we see is an image, with its aesthetic qualities preserved as a decyphering system of lines, vectors, geometric shapes, and colours. The generalisation is even furthered by cybernetic worlds creating bodies of data by means of classifications, differentiations and data input. The striving towards the artificial has marked the entire modern history of the body, reaching its bizarre climax in plastic surgery and commercial genetics, a practical outcome of constant studies of physical characteristics deviating from the ideal body - and a practical transfer of artistic strategies (colour, point, line) to the body by means of scalpels. With the introduction of plastic surgery, aesthetic becomes an applicative science studying the possibilities of commercially fooling the dialectic of one's exterior and interior, in order to create the ideal and successful body by means of tactile incisions.

The recent exhibition of corpses and body parts by Gunther von Hagens in Vienna, the dissected animals in formalin by Damien Hirst, the continuous plastic operations of Orlan and Elisabeth Dyn, the biogenetic experiments of Eduardo Kac and numerous other phenomena indicate that the anatomical passion of man has again been reignited. This time, however, it is no longer a privilege of a developing branch of science, but more or less an artistic attempt to mercilessly expose and eradicate the remaining mysteries of the body. The disclosure is no longer meant as a mysterious allegory, a warning and moral classification as was the case with the anatomical artist of the Enlightement. The fragmentary and dissected body is a modern metaphore representing the most direct threat to the problematic normative depiction of the body as a whole, disclosing its fragile and paradoxical potentiality. It reveals the paradoxical, manipulative and epistemologically complicated character of modern generalizations as well as the illusion of the depiction of the body as a whole, which, unfortunately, is still considered as the aim of physical transformation. Modern man has successfully overcome the phantazmatic moral classifications created in the 18th century, but only to substitute them for a world without secrets, naked flesh, epidermal sacks, creation of doubles and clones, and genetic legitimation turned inside out.

In this sense, it is present as a scandal which, rightly advocates the profanity and disclosure of the body. It is the radicality of the strategy that most clearly reflects the problematic character of ideal images and shows that the understanding of our bodies and ourselves has entered a new dimension: especcialy with a possibility to realize a desire to destroy our current biological design and replace it with a more advanced form. The result expected from these radical strategies is a non-suffering, post-human body, we could also say a cyborg. But this is non-painfull utopia just on the first sight. Quite the contrary, there should be a strong awarennes that every body is created by painful modifications and endless fights inside the body itself (my body is my battleground, says Barbara Kruger in the famous poster from the eighties). The body turns into an elusive field of dislocation, refecting several characteristics of the cyborg as described by Haraway; it is strongly committed to "partiality, irony, intimacy and corruptness; a utopia in constant opposition, robbed of all innocence."8 (Haraway, 1991) It can no longer be grasped as a totality or be seen in the mirror to show us the reflection of Apollo (the ideal body). Instead, the totality of the body is present as a contrast, fragment, a diffused net, as the stability of the unstable which constantly challenges its boundaries, and the questions of the body's as a whole are emerging directly from the pain of the incision.



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1. Pareth B. 1989. Gandhi's Political Philosophy. London: Macmillian, p. 26.

2. Gerdy P. N. 1829. Anatomie des formes extérieures du corps humains, aplliqué a la peinture, a la sculpture et a la chirugie. In Stafford B. M. 1991. Body Criticism, Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 54.

3. Roussel P. 1775. Système physique et moral de la femme, ou tableau philosophique de la constitution, de l'état organique, de témperament, des moeurs & des fonctions propres au sexe. Quoted in: Schiebinger L: Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy. In Gallagher C. & Laqueur T., ed. 1987. The Making of Modern Body. Berkeley & Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, p. 68.

4. An important contribution to the invention of new instruments was already that of the enlightenment medicine; their instruments, however, were devised a different view upon the body. Enlightenment studies were focussed upon the relation between bodily and psychic substances - the phantasm of an invisible soul which could be read or detected by those entitled. Governing the human body were animalic vapour, mystic spirits, unpredictable gasses, electric pneuma, currents of animal magnetism which could determine the functioning of the body and soul, or result from the universal soul - a concept which, due to Messner, was widely popular among the aristocracy of the late 18th century. Medical instruments of the 19th century, however, graphically presented individual bodies (or persons), physical and life lines of their functioning, expectation and efficiency, as well as their rhythmic pulsation in relation to space and time.

5. Stafford B. M. 1991. Body Criticism, Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

6. On this problem wrote Eugene Thacker. In Thacker E. Digital Anatomy and the Hyper-Texted Body. Nettime Archive: www.factory.org./nettime/.

7. Stafford B. M. 1991. Body Criticism, Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 145.
With detailed anatomical depicitons of male and female bodies, the CD-ROM Visible Human Project could be viewed as a digital Fontana’s theatre, with the corporealities functioning as nets (different ftp pages), data accumulations, transfers and animations. According to E. Thacker, “digital anatomy does not represent parts of the body, but a variety of binary files.” In: Thacker E. Digital Anatomy and the Hyper-Texted Body. Nettime Archive: www.factory.org./nettime/.

8. Haraway Donna J. 1991. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, pp. 148 - 249.

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