Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Gray’s Anatomy

Cinematic Life

“My aim then is to trace the history of this reconfiguration of the body through scientific techniques of motion recording and analysis—techniques that were used to put forth a model of the body as a dynamic, distinctly living and moving, system.”

Lisa Cartwright, 4

One of the themes emergent in Lisa Cartwright’s Screening the Body:  Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture is the way in which the ideas of Science, the cinematic, and Life are intertwined. Reading through Cartwright, I found myself continually referring back to a core set of questions:  How is life represented visually? By whom and why? How does the visual construction of life go on to influence popular understandings of the concept?

Although Cartwright decides to focus on the cinematic—a term that has less to do with actual film than a mode of seeing, observing, and projecting—I found myself thinking through how similar functions are performed by science/speculative fiction, natural history museums,  and science journalism as interfaces between scientific communities and the public. For me, the power of these spaces is very much tied to the way in which they allow Life to be visualized and, in so doing, influence the way(s) in which Life can be imagined.

Indeed, the very definition of what constitutes or comprises “life” at any given moment in history—which, I would venture, is not quite the same thing as the notion of being “alive”—has long been tied to what Science has been able to see. In an article for the digital magazine Aeon, Phillip Ball wrote the following about the impact of the microscope in early modern culture:

The 17th-century philosopher Robert Hooke echoed [Aristotole’s] wonder at nature’s invisible intricacy. It was his book, Micrographia (1665), that put microscopy on the map. Crucially, Hooke’s volume was not merely descriptive:  it included large, gorgeous engravings of what he saw through the lens, skilfully prepared by his own hand. The power of these illustrations was impossible to resist. Here were fantastical gardens discovered in mould, snowflakes like fronds of living ice and, most shockingly, insects such as fleas got up in articulated armour like lobsters, and a fly that gazes into the lens with 14,000 little eyes, arranged in perfect order on two hemispheres.

Sketch of a Flea by Robert Hook

Sketch of a Flea by Robert Hook

Although Hooke is a fascinating figure, Ball’s anecdote gestures toward the way in which the visual representation of life forms a key link between the observations of the scientist and the communication of those ideas to others.

Extending Cartwright’s analysis of graphic representations of life, I began to think about the ways in which contemporary culture has elected to represent life in visual media. One branch, I think, is aligned with immersive media and the trend for medical visualizations to become increasingly interactive. Recalling the ways in which the moving image challenged thinking based on microscopy and photography, it seems prudent to consider whether understandings of life will again be reconfigured in the age of 3-D and real-time.

For me, however, it is another form of life’s visual representation that presents a more pervasive and potentially insidious change:  linked with the rise in the “quantified self” that has been mentioned in class, concepts of Life have come to be increasingly characterized, not in terms of motion, but in terms of data streams.

IBM’s “Data Baby” (2010)

Sprint’s “I Am Unlimited” (2012)

I will admit to being particularly upset at the way in which the Sprint ad suggests that “the human experience” can be fully represented by pixels but I do think that it makes a rather interesting visual connection between essences of life and data. On one level, the commercial is fairly upfront about its message to sell consumers on a “truly” unlimited data plan but, watching the ad, I couldn’t help but think about Kara Keeling’s invocation of Deleuze in The Witch’s Flight. Here Deleuze speaks to an analytical framework that attempts to identify the dual manifestations of illusion within the cinematic.

The political challenge for filmmakers, according to Deleuze’s analysis, is to reveal that which has been hidden in the image by rediscovering “everything that has been removed to make [the image] interesting” or by “suppressing many things that have been added to make us believe that we are seeing everything.” (18)

Detail of artery from Gray's Anatomy

Detail of artery from Gray’s Anatomy

There is a certainly a reductive quality in the Sprint ad that simplifies the ambiguous concept of Life down into (less vague?) data. If we ascribe to Deleuze, this process of removal is a restrictive political act that, I think, ultimately constricts the way in which concepts of life can be imagined. Yet, instead of immediately blaming the practice—which seems analogous to the illustrations used in texts like Gray’s Anatomy to help young medical students learn about the body—it seems far more sensible to interrogate why we choose to augment or depress the representation of life in the first place.

Underneath It All

WARNING:  The following contains images that may be considered graphic in nature. As a former Biology student (and Pre-Med at that!), I have spent a number of hours around bodies and studying anatomy but I realize that this desensitization might not exist for everyone. I watched surgeries while eating dinner in college and study horror films (which I realize is not normal). Please proceed at your own risk.

At first glance, the anatomical model to the left (also known as “The Doll,” “Medical Venus,” or simply “Venus) might seem like nothing more than an inspired illustration from the most well-known text of medicine, Gray’s Anatomy. To most modern viewers, the image (and perhaps even the model itself) raise a few eyebrows but is unlikely to elicit a reaction much stronger than that. And why should it? We are a culture that has grown accustomed to watching surgeries on television, witnessed the horrible mutilating effects of war, and even turned death into a spectacle of entertainment. Scores of school children have visited Body Worlds or have been exposed to the Visible Human Project (if you haven’t watched the video, it is well worth the minute). We have also been exposed to a run of “torture porn” movies in the 2000s that included offerings like Saw, Hostel, and Captivity. Although we might engage in a larger discussion about our relationship to the body, it seems evident that we respond to, and use, images of the body quite differently in a modern context. (If there’s any doubt, one only need to look at a flash-based torture game that appeared in 2007, generating much discussion.) Undoubtedly, our relationship to the body has changed over the years—and will likely continue to do so with forays into transhumanism—which makes knowledge of the image’s original context all the more crucial to fully understanding its potential import.

Part of the image’s significance comes from it’s appearance in a culture that generally did not have a sufficient working knowledge of the body by today’s standards, with medical professionals also suffering a shortage of cadavers to study (which in turn led to an interesting panic regarding body snatching and consequentially resulted in a different relationship between people and dead bodies). The anatomical doll pictured above appeared as part of an exhibit in the Imperiale Regio Museo di Fisica e Storia Naturale (nicknamed La Specola), one of the few natural history museums open to the public at the time. This crucial piece of information allows historical researchers to immediately gain a sense of the model’s importance for, through it, knowledge of the body began to spread throughout the masses and its depiction would forever be inscribed onto visual culture.

Also important, however, is the female nature of the body, which itself reflected a then-fascination with women in Science. Take, for example, the notion that the Venus lay ensconced in a room full of uteruses and we immediately gain more information about the significance of the image above:  in rather straightforward terms, the male scientist fascination with the female body and process of reproduction becomes evident. Although a more detailed discussion is warranted, this interest spoke to developments in the Enlightenment that began a systematic study of Nature, wresting way its secrets through the development of empirical modes of inquiry. Women, long aligned with Nature through religion (an additional point to be made here is that in its early incarnations, the clear demarcations between fields that we see today did not exist, meaning that scientists were also philosophers and religious practitioners) were therefore objects to be understood as males sought to once again peer further into the unknown. This understanding of the original image is reinforced when one contrasts it with its male counterparts from the same exhibit, revealing two noticeable differences. First, the female figure possesses skin, hair, and lips, which serve as reminders of the body’s femininity and humanity. Second, the male body remains intact, while the female body has been ruptured/opened to reveal its secrets. The male body, it seems, had nothing to hide. Moreover, the position of the female model is somewhat evocative, with its arched back, pursed lips, and visual similarity to Snow White in her coffin, which undoubtedly speaks to the posing of women’s bodies and how such forms were intended to be consumed.

Thus, the fascination with women’s bodies—and the mystery they conveyed—manifested in the physical placement of the models on display at La Specola, both in terms of distribution and posture. In short, comprehension of the museum’s layout helps one to understand not only the relative significance of the image above, but also speaks more generally to the role that women’s bodies held in 19th-century Italy, with the implications of this positioning resounding throughout Western history. (As a brief side note, this touches upon another area of interest for me with horror films of the 20th century:  slasher films veiled an impulse to “know” women, with the phrase “I want to see/feel your insides” being one of my absolute favorites as it spoke to the psychosexual component of serial killers while continuing the trend established above. Additionally, we also witness a rise in movies wherein females give birth to demon spawn (e.g. The Omen), are possessed by male forces (e.g., The Exorcist), and are also shown as objects of inquiry for men who also seek to “know” women through science (e.g., Poltergeist). Recall the interactivity with the Venus and we begin to sense a thematic continuity between the renegotiation of women’s bodies, the manipulation of women’s bodies, and knowledge. For some additional writings on this, La Specola, and the television show Caprica, please refer to a previous entry on my blog.)

This differential treatment of bodies continues to exist today, with the aforementioned Saw providing a pertinent (and graphic) example. Compare the image of a female victim to the right with that of the (male) antagonist Jigsaw below. Although the situational context of these images differ, with the bodies’ death states providing commentary on  the respective characters, both bodies are featured with exposed chests in a manner similar to the Venus depicted at the outset of this piece. Extensive discussion is beyond the scope of this writing, but I would like to mention that an interesting—and potentially productive—sort of triangulation occurs when one compares the images of the past/present female figures (the latter of whom is caught in an “angel” trap) with each other and with that of the past/present male figures. Understanding these images as points in a constellation helps one to see interesting themes:  for example, as opposed to the 19th-century practice (i.e, past male), the image of Jigsaw (i.e., present male) cut open is intended to humanize the body, suggesting that although he masterminded incredibly detailed traps his body was also fragile and susceptible to breakdown. Jigsaw’s body, then, presents some overlap with Venus (i.e., past female) particularly when one considers that Jigsaw’s body plays host to a wax-covered audiotape—in the modern interpretation, it seems that the male body is also capable of harboring secrets.

Ultimately, a more detailed understanding of the original image would flush out its implications for the public of Italy in the 19th century and also look more broadly at the depictions of women, considering how “invasive practices” were not just limited to surgery. La Specola’s position as a state-sponsored institution also has implications for the socio-historical context for the image that should also be investigated. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, scholars should endeavor to understand the Medical Venus as not just reflective of cultural practice but also seek to ascertain how its presence (along with other models and the museum as a whole) provided new opportunities for thought, expression, and cultivation of bodies at the time.