Virtual / Informational / Digital

Revenants: The Visible Human Project and the Digital Uncanny

Catherine Waldby

School of Humanities, Murdoch University Murdoch WA 6150, Australia

This paper is concerned with the Visible Human Project (VHP), a recent and spectacular innovation in medicine's ability to visualise the human body. The project transforms real human cadavers into three dimensional visual data which can be dissected and animated in the space of the computer screen. The project has commanded a great deal of public attention, and this paper tries to account for the fascination exercised by the project by examining the way that this new biotechnology introduces disturbances into both medical and non-medical understandings of the relationship between life and death. It is argued that the virtual body created by the project cannot be reduced to the technical status of anatomical Atlas granted it within medical discourse. Rather the body exists simultaneously as a rational object of science and an uncanny form of digital existence, located ambiguously in virtual space between the living and the dead.


No domain of experience, no matter how personal or particular, seems immune to translation into data. This is a favourite theme of contemporary cinema, which has dealt recently with the digitalisation of memory (Johnny Mnemonic), of personality (Virtuosity), of personal sensory experience (Strange Days) and of civil identity (The Net). These examples are only the most recent attempts in public culture to make sense of, speculate about and narrativise the-open-ended, unpredictable capacities of digital technologies to render heterogenous domains of phenomena into its own binary terms. In the non-fictional, every day world the digitalisation of everyday life proceeds apace, extending its technical capacities to money, music, photography, television, newspapers, art, the telephone, to our very bodies, which are increasingly understood by medicine as genetic binary data. Moreover, digitalisation does not simply involve the transformation of a series of other objects and technologies; it has also produced a new form of social and imaginative space, generally referred to as cyberspace, whose capacities and possibilities are only just now being explored and realised.

The apparent ability of digitality to transform all domains of life has received further confirmation with the public launching of a digitally recorded human body. I am referring to the Visible Human Project (VHP), a digital anatomical atlas, created by the National Library of Medicine in Maryland, USA. The project reproduces several three dimensional, anatomically "complete" bodies in the space of the computer screen,, bodies which have been rendered into data and which can be transmitted through the internet. These digital reproductions are not produced through clever computer animation but are rather a way of processing and recording real human cadavers and rendering them as visual digital data.

The project's method for recording bodies is as follows. Once a suitable cadaver is located, it is first of all CT (Computed Tomography) scanned and imaged using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), and then cut into four sections and frozen in blue gelatine at - 70 C. When it is suitably solid the sections are fitted into a laser dissection device, a Cyromatrome which shaves very fine slices, between .33 and 1 millimetre thick from the frozen body. Each section of newly exposed surface is then digitally photographed, and further CT scan and MRI images are also made. These three imaging methods are then scanned into a powerful computer, combined according to carefully specified protocols, and a data package prepared which can be downloaded via the internet after payment of a licensing fee.

The data set allows the cross sections to be viewed one by one, displaying the body as a series of flat, symmetrical diagrams of itself [Fig. 1]. The sections can also be restacked, that is the segmented body can be reassembled, to define the body at every location in three dimensional virtual space[ Fig. 2]. This restacking capacity enables unlimited manipulation of the virtual corpse. As one commentator describes it,

The set allows [the body] to be taken apart and put back together. Organs can be isolated, dissected, orbited; sheets of muscle and layers of fat and skin can lift away; and bone structures can offer landmarks for a new kind of leisurely touring (Ellison 1995: 24).

Blood vessels can be isolated and tracked through virtual space, and the body can be opened out in any direction, viewed from any angle and at any level of corporeal depth. The virtual corpse can also be animated, used to model human movement, and hence it can be used for ergonomic research and prosthetics design. It can be used to simulate surgery, and random variables can be introduced to simulate medical emergencies. Attempts are underway to program in elasticity and tissue density, so that the bodies can be used in car crash testing and other simulations of trauma. In other words, the VHP has developed a means of copying many of the characteristics of fleshly bodies into digital space, producing a digital clone of a once living embodied being.

This medical event has proved to be a compelling public spectacle, receiving extensive coverage in the mass media and the more specialist journals, and the internet. Part of this public fascination has centred around the figure of the first person to be digitally recorded in this way. The first corpse selected after a lengthy process was that of a convicted murderer, Joseph Jernigan, who donated his body to science before his execution by lethal injection at the hands of the Texas penal system. Jernigan's corpse has been recently joined by an unnamed Visible Woman and will soon be joined by the Visible Embryo, the first nuclear family in cyberspace.

However I think that the controversy immediately suggested by the use of an executed criminal does not explain fully the public fascination exercised by the project. As I stated earlier, digital technologies are currently the objects of intense cultural speculation, and the interest shown in the VHP is in part what Steven Heath (1980) refers to as "machine interest", instances where technologies become, in themselves, objects of cultural attention, over and above their specific products. Heath coined the term to account for the public fascination with early cinema, when the actual content of films was often uninteresting and repetitive. The point of these early demonstrations was not to relay an interesting narrative but to invite wonder at the capacity of a technology to reproduce the world and alter its representation in unprecedented ways. In this sense I think that the VHP's aura derives not only from the gruesome nature of the corpse's dissection, nor from the controversy over the meaning of the subject's consent in such a case. It also derives from interest in the technologies themselves, in the fact that a technology now exists which can transform a fleshly body in real space into a digital body in virtual space.

Hence I am suggesting that public fascination with the VHP, (and I include my own fascination here) is, in part, a fascination with the uses and meanings of this new social and representational space. Virtual space or cyberspace is a still new technocultural product, one whose ramifications and possibilities are only just now being explored and elaborated. As many commentators1 have pointed out, cyberspace has quite unique and unprecedented imaginative possibilities, philosophical implications and ontological consequences, that can only be realised and explored in particular practices. The possible effects of the existence and functions of this new space, and its relationship to everyday "real" space, are open questions. The fact that virtual space has become the locus for digital copies of human bodies seems to introduce new possibilities into how we might think about this relationship.

It seems plausible that public interest in the VHP can also be situated in a history of popular fascination with and anxiety about medicine's technologies for representing and manipulating the human body. Medicine's technological power over our bodies is, as Pete Boss (1986) comments in his essay on medical horror cinema, a potent source of anxiety, anxiety which focuses in particular on the problem of death. Medical technologies have the frightening power to manipulate the distinction between the living and the dead and to treat our bodies as simply matter. Describing this power Boss writes,

Through the image of fully institutionalised modern medicine, hospitals, banks of life-support equipment, the inscrutable terminology, the rigid regime and hierarchy, one's own body rendered alien, regulated, labelled, categorised, rearranged, manipulated, scrutinised and dissected, we experience the powerful and pervasive idea of the subject as defenceless matter becoming integrated into a wider frame of reference in which the institutional and organisational aspects of medicine...focus their conspiratorial attention upon it (Boss 1986: 20).

The digitalisation of human bodies carried out by the VHP constitutes a startling development in medicine's ability to manipulate human bodies. This new ability to "record" a human body through the violence of cyrosection, and to move it from normal everyday space across the screen interface into the domain of virtual space opens up serious questions about both the nature of this space and the ways medicine might use it. These questions have an intense ontological force, in the sense that such techniques involve alterations to our understanding of our bodily limits and location, to our sense of bodily capacities and their openness to medical manipulation.

In what follows I want to try and locate what it is in the spectacle of the VHP which is so compelling, what about it commands our fascination and anxiety. Clearly this is not a question that can be definitively answered, but it seems to me that at least part of its interest resides in the way that it alters or throws into question our sense of the relationship between living and dead bodies and the kinds of spaces they properly inhabit. This relationship is, as I shall discuss in more detail below, understood by medicine as a technical difference in state, but for non-medical interpreters of the VHP the relationship between living and dead bodies carries a heavy affective and mythical significance, a significance which ghosts the meaning of the VHP and gives it the force of the uncanny.

Simulating Life

In moving bodies across the screen interface, the VHP seems to have produced a peculiarly ambiguous bodily and ontological space, a new form of bodily being. The two figures imaged for the project were, in real space, corpses, dead by lethal injection and heart attack respectively. These corpses were dismembered, their flesh effectively destroyed, yet this process results in a recomposed, reanimated body, anatomically complete and intact, in virtual space. These bodies are "eternal", incorruptible data while at the same time with the right modelling software, they look and in many ways behave like real fleshly bodies. They retain the distinctive facial features and bodies of the person copied, (you can see Jernigan's Tattoo), while at the same time they are publicly available "representative" bodies, exemplars of the body as such.

In other words their ambiguous state is one of indeterminacy between life and death, between living and dead bodies. These are dead bodies which have nevertheless been preserved from dissolution, corpses which are nevertheless animated, anonymous medical anatomies which retain traces of particular identity and the marks of particular social life. This indeterminacy is not an effect exclusive to the digital "copying" capacities of the VHP but is general to all technologies which record objects, whether medical or non-medical. All have the power to alter our sense of the distinction between life and death. Petchesky (1987) following Barthes, argues that visual technologies like the photograph which "record" scenes, persons and objects always work in a double register. Photography, she writes, carries within it both an empirical and a magical meaning.

Historically, photographic imagery has served not only the uses of scientific rationality - as in medical diagnostics and record keeping - and the tools of bureaucratic rationality...Photographic imagery has also, especially with the...advent of the family album, become a magical source of fetishes that can resurrect the dead or preserve lost love (Petchesky 1987: 269).

If photography's powers of preservation alters our sense of the distinction between life and death and seem to exercise a power of resurrection, the recording capacities of digital visualisation intensify this power by several orders. As Wark (1993) points out, the difference between photographic images and digital images is the difference between an analog and a homolog. Photographic images are traces which point back to a once real event by recording a reduced version of it, a two dimensional pattern of light on emulsion. Digital images like that produced in the VHP are three dimensional simulacra which approximate a visual cloning of the fleshly body, a one-to-one reproduction which effectively substitutes voxels for organic cells. The Visible human Project is a digital replica, rendered in highly "realistic" finish, complete in every anatomical detail. The VHP's mode of representing the body's interior is highly "realistic" in the sense that Cyrosection allows the body's interior to be imaged in light spectra, unlike the ghostly, low resolution spectra involved in most medical modes of visualisation which "see" through the body's tissues and surface. The VHP can reproduces the "look" of the body in the space of the computer screen naturalistically, minimising the sense of an object mediated by technical vision. It appears to be a true copy, a literal replication of the original body. Hence, the powers of preservation and resurrection involved in the digital simulation of the body are of the order not merely of its recording but its reproduction. The fleshly body is no longer a singular, original object but seems to be merely the first in an identical series, whose units can be infinitely reproduced.

The ambiguity around the status of this body is rendered more acute because it is a specific product of virtual space, whose capacities to produce new kinds of objects, to simulate the world, and make up new worlds is only at the beginning of its development. Hence it is a domain whose capacitates and limits are open to speculation; indeed we can only understand it speculatively, rather than retrospectively. One recent line of speculation posits virtual space as the matrix for new forms of life, a locale for what Cubitt (1996) terms postnatural life, the forms of vitality which might come after or instead of natural life. If we examine the rhetoric used in medical texts about the VHP it is clear that, in the biomedical imagination, the digital body demonstrates a form of postnatural life. The VHP is here understood as a kind of living visual text, a simulation of the living body rather than a copy of a corpse.

Digital Eden

The rhetoric used by the VHP team indicates their desire that the figures produced in the project be interpreted as copies of life, and that this digital preservation of the body should be understood as a preservation or reanimation of vitality. The official narrative about the VHP, in which I would include the promotional literature produced by the project, and the scientific journalism literature which has discussed it (Kiernan 1994; Waldorp 1995; Miller 1994; Stix 1993; Holden 1995; Wirthlin 1996 hypertext article) betrays this desire at a number of points. One strand of discourse for example indicates that the VHP can be understood as a form of resurrection or rebirth. While the real bodies in real space are necessarily dead in order that the cyrosection and digitalisation can be carried out, the official narrative implies that the bodies translation into data enables their reanimation, their restoration to a new form of life. So for example, Wirthlin's (1996) hypertext article on the Visible Woman concludes, "The anonymous woman who donated her body to science to be scanned, sliced and digitised, will be reborn many times in the name of science". Science's article about the project states,

Meet the Visible Human. In the real world he was a 39 year old prisoner who was executed by lethal injection in Texas. But now in the virtual world he has been star in the National Library of Medicine's gruesomely fascinating effort to create a comprehensive digital atlas of the human body (Waldorp 1995: 1358).

Another strand of official discourse represents the project as analogous to the act of Genesis. The two imaged figures as referred to as "Adam" and "Eve" (Wirthlin 1996; Stix 1993) nicknames which where in use within the project before the actual bodies were located and imaged (Stix 1993). True to the biblical narrative, "Adam" was digitalised first, and the rhetoric of the official literature has cast "Eve" as his companion, sent, as it were, by the project to alleviate his solitude. This resort to self-conscious analogies between biblical and medical creation is not exclusive to the VHP but rather, as Myers (1990) points out, "continue[s] a rhetoric of [[medical] popularisation, used at least since the natural theology of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that would associate biological discoveries with traditional accounts of life" (Myers 1990: 61). In the context of the VHP the use of this rhetoric signals the extent to which medicine understands itself to be the master of postnatural life in the virtual garden of Eden, a new domain of representation where new innovations in the simulation of life can be made.

It is clear in this rhetoric that for medicine, its new technical ability to digitally replicate and animate the VHP data bodies involves the production of a form of copied life, the simulation of life. Simulation is a representational capacity specific to the digital visual field - the ability of this field to produce complex, interactive, dynamic, three dimensional models of aspects of the world. It is this representational capacity that makes the VHP such an innovation for medicine, enabling the digital copying of a body which can be programmed to mimic the processes of the living body - a beating heart, blood pressure, tissue density, dynamic movement of the limbs, bruising which can "heal", trauma which can be operated upon.

Simulation is also a form of representation which produces an undecidable confusion between any idea of the real and that which mimics it. To quote Baudrillard,

To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But it is more complicated than that, because simulation is not pretending: "Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms" (Littre). Therefore pretending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the "true" and the "false", the "real" and the "imaginary" (Baudrillard 1994: 3).

It seems to me that the claims made for the VHP and its ability to act as surrogate for the fleshly body in all kinds of clinical, pedagogical and experimental situations depend upon this effect of simulation, a sense that the VHP's mimicry of the fleshly body collapses the distinction between "true body " and "copy", and effectively makes it redundant. Indeed the "copy" enables points of view and forms of manipulation which are impossible in relation to a fleshly body, making it a substantial improvement on the "original" body for purposes of medical vision and imaginative experimentation. For example it allows the construction of "flythroughs" which give the viewer a point of view similar to what one would see from a tiny aircraft flying through the alimentary tract, or a blood vessel.

In simulating a body in this way, the VHP becomes the most recent innovation in medicine's attempts to master the forces of life through the technical reproduction (and perfection) of bodies. Replication of bodies outside of sexuality and maternity represents for medicine the promise of final and complete control over Life, control realised when the force of life can be technically simulated through simulating bodies (Doane 1990; Kember 1996). This desire informs practices like gene cloning and genetic engineering, the Human Genome Project, the attempts to fertilise and nurture embryos in the laboratory, and recent research into the creation of digital artificial life. It is a desire implied in all concepts of the organism which are based on the idea that the body is an effect of genetic codes, because a code is by definition something which can be analysed and reproduced. However the medical claim to have technically simulated a living body in the case of the VHP is only made possible through a series of exclusions which prop up the medical concept of life, which simplify and evacuate it so that it is rendered compatible with the limits of biomedicine's technical mastery. The most obvious exclusion involved in this claim is the exclusion of the fact that the copying process used by the VHP copies a corpse, not a living body. In this sense it copies not life but death. While this seems like an obvious rebuttal of the triumphalist tones of the VHP rhetoric, it is important to remember that the modelling of living bodies through the use of corpses is a practice typical of modern, post-cartesian medicine as a whole. The science of Anatomy, which produces visual models of the living body's organisation, does so through the analysis of dead bodies, the anatomisation of corpses, and doctors receive their first training in the workings of the body through the dissection of corpses. Consequently the use of corpses to model the living body in the VHP points towards a more general and prior medical concept of what is involved in living bodies, and what the real distinctions are between living and dead bodies.

Leder (1990) points out that in many ways the subjective complexity of the living body is a problem for medicine, in the sense that it is difficult to contain the meaning of the living body to that of predictable matter and force.

While the body remains a living ecstasis it is never fully caught in the web of causal explanation... Its movements are responses to a perceived world and a desired future, born of meaning, not just mechanical impingements. This bodily ecstasis constitutes an absence that undermines attempts to analyse the body and to predict and control its responses (Leder 1990: 147).

At the same time this kind of containment is necessary if the body is to be understood through scientific causal logic. Leder argues that the resolution of this paradox is brought about through the cartesian compartmentalisation of complex subjectivity into the category of immaterial mind, so that the body is the residual depository of a notion of living matter. Deprived of subjective meaning, the body as matter and the principles of its life force can be understood through scientific, analytic logic. This conceptual resolution was crucial in underpinning the legitimacy and importance of the nascent science of Anatomy, the study of the living body through the dissection of corpses (Barker 1984)

However, as Leder points, the idea of the body's life in Cartesian dualism is produced through the conceptual repression of death, the minimisation of its significance for medical understandings of the living body. As predictable matter the body in cartesian logic is understood on a mechanical model. Descartes likened the body's organic life to that of a clockwork mechanism, where death occurs when the mechanism runs down. This analogy makes death a matter of technical difference in state.

The body's so-called life is modelled according to the workings of an inanimate machine. The body can constitute the place of life only because life itself has been fundamentally conceived according to the lifeless...Dissection of the corpse can provide a method of studying the living body only because the latter is itself a sort of animated corpse (Leder 1990: 143).

Clearly contemporary medicine no longer understands organisms as clockwork mechanisms. However contemporary analogies for the operation of the body are still predominantly technical, the most common global analogy since the 1950s being the body as a cybernetic system of information (Fox-Keller 1994), and medicine is still committed to a cartesian dualist understanding of the body (Grosz 1987). The medical acceptance of the VHP as a surrogate for living bodies in clinical, pedagogical and experimental sites relies upon this reductive idea of what a living body is. If the body's life can be described as animated matter, the technology of the VHP can effectively claim to have cancelled out the effects of death by translating the corpse into the simulational space of the virtual screen, with all its powers of complex animation. The VHP partakes of the general repression of death in medical knowledge of life, providing a complex model for the living body which is precisely a reanimated corpse.

The Digital Uncanny

As reanimated corpses, the figures modelled for the project attract dimensions of meaning quite different from those which operate within biomedical discourse. At issue here is the nature of virtual space itself, and the kinds of meanings and forces it is understood to sustain. For medicine virtual space is effectively a form of clinical or surgical workspace, an Anatomical theatre where the rational ordering and workings of the body can be demonstrated to an audience. In this way it partakes of the dominant interpretation of virtual space, that which Michel Serres (cited in Tomas 1994) refers to as the Euclidean master-space of western work-oriented cultures, the master-space which governs communication and production. As workspace the virtual realm is another productive space of manufacture, experiment and communication, a technical prosthesis which supplements the productive technoscientific space of the public world. As clinical or bioexperimental space it may preserve and resurrect the dead, but it does so through a rationalistic form of technical mastery and the relegation of the meaning of death to a technical distinction, rather than through any form of miraculous power.

However despite medicine's attempts to manage its meaning in favour of this rationalistic interpretation, it seems to me that what is compelling about the VHP is its aura of the uncanny. The subjective and mythical significance of death which is so profoundly repressed in medicine's understandings of the body, returns to ghost the medical presentation of the project. Here I am working not with the strictly Freudian understanding of the uncanny as the return of the repressed of castration but rather with what Freud (1919) singles out in his essay as an important subset of the uncanny - instances where life and death exist in an ambiguous mixture. Such instances include "doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate" (p. 226); the figure of the double, which is both "an energetic denial of the power of death" and a harbinger of death (p. 235) and above all the revenant, the dead who return to living space as ghosts (p. 241). In each case the sense of the uncanny is produced by something familiar which takes on an alien aspect and stalks or haunts the subject. Each involves the ego's relationship with death, a relationship which involves violent but ultimately unsuccessful repression, and each are instances of, to quote from Cixous's rereading of Freud's essay, "death within life, life in death, nonlife in nondeath...a bit too much death in life; a bit too much life in death, at the merging intersection (Cixous 1976: 545).

This sense of the uncanny in the figures of the VHP surfaces at one level in repeated analogies made between the project and the most famous account of medicine's desire to copy life through the reanimation of the dead - Shelley's Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus2 . The process of production of the VHP figures recapitulates the narrative of Frankenstein in many ways; like the figures in the VHP the monster is a technically reanimated corpse, reassembled out of dismembered parts, and like the VHP Frankenstein's nameless monster is a medical experiment. The monster is monstrous precisely because its life is so enmeshed in death, it is animated death, an abject form of postnatural life, which finds its state of being intolerable, and which vengefully pursues its creator. The Visible Human Male, [Fig. 2] with its shaved head, bruised, pale flesh encased in wire frames, open wounds demonstrating the anatomical substrate beneath the flesh, seems to share the same abject, Gothic aesthetic as that habitually used to depict the monster. Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus is of course modernity's arch-narrative of the follies of scientific hubris, the story which demonstrates the monstrous forces unleashed by science's desire to technically simulate life. It is also, as many commentators (e.g. Bloom 1965, Gilbert and Gubar 1979) have pointed out an inverted, postlapsarian reading of the Book of Genesis, a parody of the biblical act of creation, Adam as melancholic monster.

If I can argue that the VHP betrays an aura of the uncanny, this is also because virtual space or cyberspace readily sustains a meaning as super-natural space, a meaning which Tomas (1994) and Cubitt (1996) suggest is sequestered within its dominant meaning as rationalistic workspace. Virtual space is, Tomas writes,

the space of Western geometry: the geometry of vision, the road, the building, and the machine. On the other hand this master space is a binary construct, consisting of the everyday social or profane spaces...described in Euclidean terms and sacred or "liminal" spaces. As Victor Turner notes, "for every major social formation there is a dominant mode of public liminality, the subjunctive space/time that is the counterstroke to its pragmatic indicative texture" (Tomas 1994: 34).

Tomas argues that virtual space is rapidly becoming our new mode of liminal space, a space of the improper, of ambiguity and the abject - "of nonbeing, death, or nothingness" which haunts proper identity in social space. Cubitt (1996) takes up a similar position when he designates virtual space as a space of the supernatural, a meaning which arises precisely because digital space is understood as a matrix for new forms of postnatural life. The postnatural refers to forms of life which come after natural life in social/organic space, and Cubitt points out that, while this epithet is readily applied to the concept of artificial life, digital life specific to virtual environments, it also carries within itself the older, traditional understanding of the "afterlife", the mystical and mythical sense of life after death.

[these] postnatures do not supersede of sublate one another, but co-exist in the ways we think about the digital domain. Postnature is not a unified zone, any more than nature itself. With each postnatural vision comes a revision of the natural...each vision persists in the others, and the more a schema is historically embedded and the more it is regarded as outmoded and forgotten, the more it returns as the others (Cubitt 1996: 238).

The supernatural valance of virtual space is articulated in the sense that the screen interface represents a membrane which both separates and connects two different forms of life. In much cyberdiscourse virtual, postnatural life is posited in anodyne or romantic metaphysical terms, where virtual space is the longed for space of spiritual freedom from the body and the locus of a kind of digital immortality. The virtual realm exercises a kind of pull upon subjects in social space, inviting them to merge with the world of the screen. As Heim (1994) puts it,

At the computer interface, the spirit migrates from the body to a world of total representation. Information and images float through the Platonic mind without a grounding in bodily experience...The surrogate life in cyberspace makes flesh feel like a prison, a fall from grace, a sinking descent into a dark, confused reality (75).

This longing to escape from mortality into the data flow gives rise in cyberdiscourse, to the conceit of the "data construct", the digital "recording" of personal essence. A "construct" can be generated by downloading a particular subject's traits, memory, knowledge, into digital data which can, as Stone (1992) puts it, decouple from the originary subject and pursue its own forms of life in cyberspace, a cyborg who inhabits landscapes of pure data. Cubitt (1996) cites Hans Moravec, a fellow of Carnegie Mellon University, who advocates cyrogenics and the downloading of the brain to digital formats as a way to achieve immortality.

This idea of virtual postnatural life clearly owes a debt to older Christian notions of the soul's immortality after the death of the body, and to the cartesian dualism which enables medical rhetoric to claim the VHP as a simulation of life. The VHP however effects a series of reversals on this anodyne scenario. The longing to cross the interface into virtual space involves a longing to abandon the body as the bearer of mortality, as that which dies. As a number of feminist commentators have notes, (Sofia?, Springer) the fantasy of the construct, with its longing to abandon the body and merge with the matrix is simply the latest version of an old masculinist dream of overcoming the body, of a definition of freedom which is grounded in the transcendence of the flesh and the overcoming of death and its limitations through the immortality of a personal essence or soul. The VHP however precisely reverses the relationship between obsolete body and recorded mind. If it is a construct it is an abject construct, a recording of the flesh. Furthermore the figures recorded for the project have not crossed into virtual, supernatural space because of their desire, but have been forcibly sent there as objects of medical mastery. In Jernigan's case his transformation into data is also effectively an extension of juridical control over his body. His digital fate can be readily regarded as a continuation of his original incarceration and execution. Like those criminals sentenced to be "executed and anatomised" in the 18th and 19th centuries (Forbes 1981), his punishment has extended beyond execution to perpetual anatomisation and mastery by others. Consequently, if the membrane between virtual space and real space is permeable, and if in this case it maps itself onto the limit which distinguishes the living from the dead, it is not difficult to attribute the VHP figures with the desire to "cross back" out of the virtual space of dissection to which they have been forcibly committed. As figures who seem caught between life and death, they can enact the return of the repressed which produces the figure of the revenant, the ghost which exists in an intolerable liminal space between death and life. As Cixous writes,

what renders [the ghost] intolerable is not so much that it is an announcement of death nor even the proof that death exists...What is intolerable is that the ghost erases the limit between the two states, neither alive nor dead; passing through, the dead man returns in the manner of the Repressed. It is his coming back which makes the ghost what he is, just as it is the return of the repressed that inscribes the repression (Cixous 1976: 543).

Each time the VHP data bodies are summonsed from the data banks they seem to me to carry this sense of latent force, the desire to cross back from the space of digital afterlife to which they have been committed by that repression which marks the biomedical imagination. And after all, if a body can be rendered into data and thus cross the interface into the digital afterlife, what prevents the process from effecting some form of reversal, the digital revenant who rematerialises in real space. The spectacle of cyberspace summoned up by the VHP is not one we wish to enter and merge with the data, but rather one which seems to menace us as the space of a new form of death-in-life, a new and horrifying destination for our own failing bodies, and from which such bodies might return in altered and uncanny form.


New biotechnologies aim to make the living body more productive, more manipulable, more transparent, to manage and intensify the forces of life. But in doing so they necessarily become the objects of both terror and fascination, promising the prosthetic enhancement of our bodies at the expense of their invasion and technical reorganisation, and their vulnerability to medicine's often violent epistemophilia. Any change in the intensity and organisation of living flesh also affects the cultural meaning of death, its place in the social imagination. While medicine tries to treat life and death as mutually exclusive terms they are, of course relational, so that shifts in the meaning of one will necessarily affect the other.

The VHP is the most recent and most spectacular of medicine's technologies to model and manage the living body, a technology which will yield multiple benefits for prosthetics, the planning of surgery, ergonomics, medical pedagogy and other sciences of the body. The rhetoric of the project and its aesthetics - its rendering of the body's interior into a hard edged, incorruptible and well defined space, devoid of the visceral ambiguity and sticky body fluids of the fleshly, living body - serve to erase the project's debt to mortality. Nevertheless it is, I have argued, ghosted by the spectacle of death which medicine tries to repress, as the sign of its mastery over life.

The space of the virtual can be simultaneously a rationalistic workspace and a site for the supernatural, and the affect and interest produced by the VHP seems to me to depend upon this double effect, our sense that we are witnessing both a technical and a mythic spectacle of death. It is a visual text which plays out anxieties about the effects that new technologies might have upon the meaning and location of death, understood as a subjective and mythic phenomenon rather than a technical distinction. In doing so it offers the possibility of a critique of medicine's triumphalist claims to extend its mastery of life at the expense of death, to treat life and death as mutually exclusive binaries where developments in the technical mastery of life necessarily involve the further expulsion of death, its relegation to a residual status.


The author would like to thank Thomas Schiemann and the staff at the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science in Medicine at the University Hospital Eppendorf, Hamburg for their generosity in demonstrating the Visible Human Project to me. This research was supported by a grant from the School of Humanities and the Women's Mentoring Project, Murdoch University.


1 . See for example Wark (1993), Stone (1992) and the authors in Bendikt (ed.) (1994).

2 . This analogy is made in Kember (1996), the only scholarly article that I have found at time of writing which mentions the VHP. More importantly it is an analogy made spontaneously by a diverse range of people (students, administrative staff, other academics, journalists) with whom I have discussed the project.

New: 30 August, 1996 | Now: 11 May, 2015