Virtual / Informational / Digital

The Visible Human Project: Data into Flesh, Flesh into Data

Catherine Waldby

Communications Studies, Murdoch University

Draft for Wild Biology

"Man makes man in his own image." Norbert Wiener

The relationship between technology and the body is one of the defining concerns of contemporary intellectual and ethical practice in both the sciences and the humanities. It is a concern at the forefront of the much vaunted move from a humanist to a post-humanist theory/normativity of the subject, as bio-technologies make the humanist distinctions between human and machine, nature and culture, and even life and non-life, increasingly difficult to sustain. Projects like IVF, cryogenics, genetic engineering, the Human Genome project, the various productions of digital artificial life, not to mention increased dependence on more and more sophisticated prosthetics, involve the bio-technological manipulation and management of the borders between such distinctions, and the prospect of their eventual redundancy. As Braidotti (1994) points out, the management of living matter has always been a priority for our culture, and the development of these bio-technologies indicate the emergence of new use values for the human body, new forms of knowledge, productivity and exchange, which must always have consequences for the meaning of subjectivity, conditioned as it is by forms of embodiment.

Many of these new techno-bodily economies have developed out of the late twentieth century's conceptualisation of the body as an effect of codes, flesh specified through/as information. The ramifications of this form of specification are only gradually being realised, both in the sciences and the humanities. While the idea of the living body as a system of information is most familiar to us from the field of molecular biology, it has also, perhaps indirectly, conditioned the understanding of the body and its identity in many other domains, from that of science fiction to the disciplines which Fox-Keller (1994) terms "cyberscience" - information theory, cybernetics, operations research and computer science, the sciences which have been responsible for the development of the new digital technologies.

Here I want to focus on one particular, quite startling development which it seems to me summarises and plays out some of the implications of the understanding of the body as data. I am referring to the virtual anatomy "atlas" recently created in the United States, known as the Visible Human Project (VHP). The VHP takes advantage of the ever increasing capacity of supercomputers to deal with large quantities of rich visual data to create, in effect, a three dimensional, visual data "recording" of actual human bodies, whose depth and volume can be completely manipulated in the field of the computer screen. In its own words the project aims to create "complete, anatomically detailed, three dimensional representations of the male and female human body" and to make these representations available as data sets on the internet (National Library of Medicine hyperDOC/November 1994).

The project's method for recording bodies is as follows. First of all a suitable cadaver must be located, one which is free of pathological tissue or prostheses, so that the imaged body can circulate as an example of "normal" that is normative, anatomy1. Once a cadaver is found 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 slices the body into extremely fine cross sections, between .33 and 1 millimetre thick. These sections are each digitally photographed, and further CT scan and MRI images are made of each slice. 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 histological cross sections to be viewed one by one, displaying the body as a series of flat, symmetrical diagrams of itself. The sections can also be restacked to define the body at every location in three dimensional virtual space. This restacking capacity enables unlimited manipulation of the virtual corpse. As one commentator describes it,

The ... data 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 and programmed for simulations of trauma, of human movement, of surgery, providing "interactive total body control and simulation", as the promotional WWW blurb puts it.

The VHP is thus the most recent, and certainly the most exhaustive of medicine's attempts to render the human body visualisable, as the project's name implies. The project's aim of representing the body is of course shared by the whole history of medicine, and one of the intriguing things about the VHP is its status as simultaneously the newest and most spectacular technology for the representation of the body, and an atavistic object that recapitulates within itself an entire history of physio-anatomical technologies, practices and meanings. It realises the three hundred year old anatomical dream of perfect, exhaustive visual access to the body's inherently pathological interior, and of that interior's perfect representation (Stafford 1993). This visual access to the interior is combined with the capacity to simultaneously visualise the body as a totality and a dynamic field of action, a mode of visualisation which Cartwright (1995) identifies as specific to nineteenth and twentieth century physiology, the science of the living body. In short it brings together capacities to simultaneously render the body as surface and depth, action and object, and in the process realises a series of medicine's historical desires - for the body's visibility, for its standardisation, and for mastery over life processes through their simulation.

The VHP is atavistic in another sense too, an unsettling recapitulation of the often grisly history of anatomical knowledge. At time of writing two human bodies have been fully imaged for the project, while a third is in preparation. The first cadaver was made available because a convicted murderer, Joseph Jernigan, donated his body to science before his death by lethal injection at the hands of the Texas penal system. Jernigan has thus become a member of the centuries old fraternity of criminals whose sentence included anatomical dissection after execution (Forbes 1981). Criminalised male bodies have furnished the raw experimental material for the generation of anatomical knowledge since dissection became legal in the seventeenth century, dissection acting in their case as an epistemologically productive form of punishment (Barker 1984). The second cadaver is that of a 59 year old woman, who died less spectacularly of a heart attack. Jernigan and the as yet unnamed woman have been dubbed Adam and Eve by their technicians and the popular science press, the first couple in the virtual garden of cyberspace. The third body will be that of an embryo, constituting the VHP as a kind of digital nuclear family.

The VHP is then a medical object strongly continuous with the history of medical visualisation. Its novelty, and its epistemological and biopolitical significance, lies in the way that this history has been transformed by being taken up in a new economy of representation. This economy is specific to the new digital technologies, with their capacity for visual modelling and simulation, and for the global replication and communication of visual data enabled by the internet.

These technologies effectively render the human body, or more precisely the appearance of the body, into digital information, decomposing the body's fleshly complexity into the simple on/off logic of binary code. The VHP is certainly not the first body to be imaged digitally. Virtual imaging using data from CT scans, positron emission tomography (PET), MRI and sonagraphy have been regularly used for medical diagnosis over the last ten years. The VHP is rather distinguished by its exhaustiveness, its attempt to image two entire bodies in a complete fashion and to circulate them through the internet as standardised diagnostic and pedagogical benchmarks. Cyrosection transforms the depth and opacity of the body into a series of visible planes, of cross sectioned flesh and bone, which can then be made to yield up detailed visual information in light spectra, unlike the ghostly, low resolution spectra involved in MRI, PET and the other modes of visualisation which "see" through the body's tissues and surface. These latter modes of visualisation produce images which have no straightforward relationship to the way the body looks to unaided eyes, and demand considerable interpretive skill and training for technicians and specialists before they can be reliably used for clinical purposes. The VHP however reproduces the "look" of the body in the space of the computer screen much more naturalistically, minimising the sense of an object mediated by technical vision.

In a sense what the VHP attempt to do is create a virtual clone of the body, a visual double which reproduces, perfectly and uncannily, the "look" of the fleshly body as it could only be seen by an unlimited power of vision. Like the fleshly clone which maps cell to cell, the VHP tries to map cell to voxel, to transubstantiate flesh into data, with maximum density and minimum loss of flesh, understood as visual information. The exhaustiveness and high resolution of this mode of imaging means however that the VHP forms an extremely large and unwieldy data set, sign of the body's excess to this mode of technical containment. It requires at least two weeks downloading time and about 50 gigabytes of storage capacity, and can only be completely manipulated by a supercomputer.

This digitalisation of the flesh yields multiple effects in the fields of medical knowledge formation and the biopolitical field of the social that such knowledge regulates. Both an esoteric, scientific and an increasingly popular object, the VHP seems destined to transform ways that medical imaging is used and imagined, and ways that non-scientific subjects consider their own bodies and their relations to bio-technologies. It seems to me that one of the most important bio-political consequences of the VHP is a further development and reinforcement of the conceptualisation of Life, the iconic object of biomedical practice, as an economy of information, or data. This very specific understanding of Life has profound consequences, only a few of which I will be able to take up here. The VHP, as the newest visual text for modelling the living body, plays out a number of these consequences, in particular the desire to manage the human body through its digital simulation.

This form of management, the digital "reproduction" of bodies as a means of specifying the way that bodies work, also locates the VHP as an object of feminist concern. The VHP serves as a demonstration of biomedicine's mastery over technical forms of reproductive power, its ability to replicate bodies through their transformation into code. In this regard it forms one of several new biotechnologies - IVF, cloning - which seek to abstract the power of reproduction from specifically feminine bodies and arrogate it to medical techniques. In what follows I will try and tease out some of the ways that translations of flesh into data condition the meaning of living matter, and some of the feminist and more general bio-political implications of this.

The Virtual Corpse

I suggested above that the VHP is of such interest to the biomedical establishment because it presents a highly flexible, complex and information rich method for rendering the human body as a demonstrative visual text. Latour (1990) and others argue that this movement from living object to visual text about the object characterises the entire scientific enterprise. Latour contends that the purpose of science is to transform masses of natural objects into standardised trace representations like graphs, tables, formulae, and so on, which summarise objects in ways which are intelligible to scientists, and which can be easily reproduced and manipulated. The object of the scientific gaze is not the natural object but the visual text produced about the object, which does the crucial work of acting as a standardised, cooperative surrogate for the object under consideration. Daston and Galison (1992) term these surrogates "working objects".

Working objects can be atlas images, type specimens, or laboratory processes - any manageable, communal representatives of the sector of nature under investigation. No science can do without such standardised working objects, for unrefined natural objects are too quirkily particular to cooperate in generalisations and comparisons (Daston and Galison 1992: 85).

In this sense anatomy, the science of the body's organisation, is concerned to produce working objects which both visually demonstrate and simplify the individual complexity of the human body. Historically anatomy has been quick to seize upon emerging forms of visual technology to aid this task - moving from the craft technologies of the draughtsman artist to the more "objective" technologies of the camera obscura and the camera. The VHP represents the most recent innovation in these methods for producing anatomical working objects, a dramatic development in what Foucault (1975) calls "the techniques of the corpse", the methods used to extend the medical gaze into the dead body and hence discover the hidden secret of the body's life.

The corpse, rather than the living body, is central to the production of anatomical working objects, and hence to anatomical knowledge more generally. Anatomy, which produces visual texts about the living body's organisation, does so through the analysis of dead bodies, often, as I mentioned earlier, the bodies of dead, male criminals. This paradox is sustainable I would argue because of the way in which biomedicine conceptualises Life. As Foucault (1970) suggests in The Order of Things, the concept of Life reified in biomedical discourse is an historical rather than a natural concept, emerging only in the nineteenth century as the object of the new sciences of biology.

Life is here conceptualised as the force and animation of living bodies, as an abstract, elusive force which exceeds its location in any particular body. Like the forces of magnetism, gravity and entropy found in physics, it can be conceptually abstracted from any particular body which it might animate, and hence can be analysed, quantified and controlled irrespective of these bodies. As Cartwright (1995) puts it,

No longer concerned with the body as such, medicine is interested in isolating life - in regulating and extending it, and in gaining control over death in the process. The observed body came to be viewed as a vehicle, a site of living processes (Cartwright 1995: 82).

At the same time the force of Life is expressed in the organisation of organic matter, just as the forces of physics reside in the organisation of inorganic matter. However the organisation of Life is not to be found on the body's surface but inheres in the relationship between visible surface and concealed depth (Foucault 1970: 228). Consequently, for anatomy, the depth and volume of the living body is an obstacle to its desire to see and analyse the processes of Life. Anatomical dissection seeks to overcome the body's depth and opacity, the "tangible space of the body, which at the same time is that opaque mass in which secrets, invisible lesions, and the very mystery of origins lie hidden" (Foucault 1975: 122).

Thus in order to see the general vivifying principles of the body, in order to open it out in a complete fashion to the analytic gaze of anatomy as a set of visualisable surfaces rather than an opaque volume, the particular body must be dead. A particular body must die in order that biomedicine can see and analyse the organisation of life understood as a biocentric field of force. The bodies visualised by the VHP donate their life force to the visual text.

As Leder (1990) points out, the corpse also lends itself to reductive and quantifiable forms of explanation, that are compatible with the conceptualisation of Life as an abstract quanta of force. The living body is excessive, non-predictable, organised through non-quantifiable forces of meaning and desire, as well as organic drives. Because the living body operates as a subjective, phenomenological and erotic, as well as an organic totality, it defies conceptual dismemberment and reduction. Only the corpse can be treated the uncomplicated object of an analytic logic.

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. Only the corpse seems to render such a project triumphant. The dead body is at last self-contained. It is a sheerly material and predictable thing (Leder 1990: 147).

Hence the corpse is the privileged object of the anatomical gaze, both because it can be readily opened out and reduced to its component parts, its organs, limbs, cells and molecules and because it can be easily interpreted as a simple organic object once caught up in the force field of Life. It lends itself to the production of anatomy's working objects because it is, in itself a simplification of the living body.

The VHP utilises the corpse in this way too, but it has, through digitalisation and the production of a virtual corpse, overcome the problematic relationship between surface and depth encountered in the fleshly body. Rather than producing flat, sequential images of the corpse in various stages of dissection, as analog technologies like photography, cinema and scientific forms of drawing do, the VHP effectively creates a digital replica, reproduced as rugged data rather than fragile flesh. The cyrosection slices are, as I described earlier, imaged in various spectra and these images are converted into mathematical codes through scanning technology, which allocates a set of quantitative values to different qualities of colour, lightness and darkness, texture, density and so on. Once the data has been scanned into a computer these mathematical codes can be reconstituted as visual text through visual interface software, which reverses the process, transforming quantitative codes into pixels and voxels, the light units of the virtual screen. In this way the "look" of the body can be reformulated in the virtual space of the screen.

Through this conversion of flesh into data the paradoxes of surface and depth, of Life and the violence which medicine must do to see it, are suspended. The VHP data-body can be manipulated in ways which the fleshly body cannot, cooperating seamlessly with the desire to see its interior. The virtual body can be both dismembered and re-membered. The data set can move from individual cyrosections to virtual integrity, each virtual section restacked in order so that a complete body is made up. The integrated body can then be dismembered again, this time according to the logic of classical dissection, where flesh, sinew and bone are laid out in an orderly way using a cursor as a scalpel. One of the primary uses envisaged for the data is simulational dissection for medical students, who will then be able to reformulate their cadaver at will. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, who must suture together mismatched body parts in the clumsy world of physical space and material bodies, the VHP can cleanly dismember and re-member its virtual bodies with a flick of the cursor. While the VHP is produced through an inaugural act of violence, the execution (in Jernigan's case) and cyrosection of the body, the visual text so produced has expunged any trace of violence, that is resistance, from within its frame.

In this dense conversion of flesh into data the VHP creates a parallel realm of virtual anatomy, a controllable world of anatomical demonstration apart from the world of everyday bodily life. As an extremely complex, flexible and information rich working object it acts as a heuristic device, setting out and enabling certain kinds of thought, experimentation, visual projection and fantasy about the operation of the human body and its technical surrogates. This aide-pensee works in this fashion both for the esoteric biomedical imagination and for the public imagination, which is directly addressed by a number of commercial projects - CD-Rom hypertext products which use the VHP data to produce popular visual narratives about the body's interior. The crucial point about this working object for my argument however is that it is simultaneously a visual text of the body and a mathematical structure of data. Methodologically speaking, it is a visual text of the body produced through mathematical structures of data. This has crucial implications, both for the forms of mastery which can be exercised over the VHP and for the concepts of Life which are implicit in it, the concepts of Life it can be used to fantasise and speculate about.

Biodigital Economies

The attractiveness of the VHP for biomedicine derives precisely from the forms of mastery enabled by digital technologies over virtual objects. Because virtual objects are produced through binarisation, the rendering of all qualities as quanta, they are amenable to complex forms of exchange, replication, scale manipulation and transmission only possible when a common code and a standard value are in play. Braidotti (1994) argues that medicine has always strived for forms of representation which standardisation and quantify the body, an argument which recalls Heidegger's (1977) propositions about the scientific world view and its drive to mathematicise its objects. Heidegger suggests that the mathematicisation of nature is a form of conceptual practice which makes the world over as a use value, a set of calculable causes and effects which are amenable to technical intervention and instrumentation.

Braidotti makes an analogy between this mathematicisation of the body and the realm of pornographic representation, describing medicine's standardisations of the body as medical pornography. She defines pornography here as,

a system of representation that reinforces the commercial logic of the market economy. The whole body becomes a visual surface of changeable parts, offered as exchange objects (Braidotti 1994: 25).

In other words medicine seeks to standardise the flesh in order that it can be rendered into a economy, able to be prostheticised along lines which make flesh productive within the terms of our biopolitical order. As Haraway expresses it, the codification of the flesh is a strategy for rendering the body completely within the domain of technical mastery, for forcibly cutting across qualitative differences in bodily meanings and capacities and making them equally available to technical intervention. She writes,

the translation of the world into a problem of coding [is] a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment and exchange (Haraway 1991: 164).

This standardisation ensures that, as Braidotti discusses, body parts and bodily substances can be exchanged in practices like organ donation and trade, and IVF technologies, and flesh can be replicated, at least theoretically, without recourse to the other, the body of the mother. 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. A fully realised techno-economy of the body would bypass sexual reproduction altogether, proceeding through commodified forms of replication (Baudrillard 1994).

In the case of the VHP the flesh has been standardised and quantified according to the logic of digital code, and hence the visual text of the VHP is a productive working object for biomedical knowledge precisely because of these "economic" qualities - the ability to be replicated, rapidly transmitted, dismembered, circulated, that is available to all digital objects in the global digital communication infrastructure. Some of the knowledge effects of these abilities include:

1. Replication - as a digital data set the virtual corpse can be perfectly replicated without loss of quality. Just as in the biomedical imagination a fleshly body can be "cloned" through the activation of its organic DNA information, so too can the virtual body be cloned, because it is specified through digital information. This ability to be infinitely reproduced ensures that different teams of scientists can work on the data set secure in the knowledge that their sets are absolute standardisations, each a perfect replica of the other. This perfect standardisation is highly desirable within the framework of biomedical practice because it facilitates medical pedagogy and the formation of professional knowledges more generally. It allows for example, for standardised notions of normalcy and pathology to be disseminated throughout the medical profession. One of the uses envisaged for the data set is as a diagnostic benchmark for images of healthy tissue, which can be used in pathology labs and clinics throughout the world as a point of comparison with histological sections of unhealthy tissue.

2. Transmission - The VHP is a data-body which can be transmitted and downloaded via the technologies of the internet to computers at any point on the globe. This compatibility clearly lends the VHP to international forms of commercial and academic collaboration. In enables research teams to collaborate on the same object in different locations, and to pool and combine experimental results.

3. Segmentation - the traditional anatomical practice of analysing bodies into their component parts can also be simulated on the virtual body. Visual digital data can be infinitely segmented without loss of quality, and consequently different segments of the data-body can be treated as detachable modules which can be worked on independently by research teams. This subdivision of the data has proved a very popular attribute, with a team at Stony Brook specialising in the colon and another at the University of Pennsylvania producing an interactive knee program. In this way the VHP can be segmented according to the traditional concepts of the body's organisation represented by the existing anatomical subdisciplines, but it seems to me that the infinite plasticity of the visual data, its endless ability to be manipulated and opened out, might contribute to new concepts of anatomical organisation that exceed such mechanical subdivisions.


Each of these effects of digital economy makes the VHP a working object around which new forms of pedagogical, commercial and collaborative knowledge relations can be formed. The most important digital effect of the VHP however resides in the simulational and modelling capacities of digital visual data. The VHP data-set is not an inert working object but something more like a field of anatomical, simulational possibility. The operation of the VHP involves not only the "visual data" derived from the body but also its manipulation in the virtual space of the screen. The VHP is an object whose heuristic value derives from the particular ability of virtual space itself to be manipulated. It is not so much the representation of a body in space as a representation of virtual bodily space, rendered as a depth and volume which can be moved through and refigured at will. As a digital visual object the VHP also exploits the peculiar flexibility of computer imaging. As Wark (1993) notes digital images have the quality of limitless mutability without loss of information density. They can be repeatedly changed, modified and manipulated without a loss of quality and without limits.

These qualities of virtual vision make the VHP a peculiarly potent, propositional mode of visualising the body. As a virtual body it takes on all the attributes of the speculative, imaginative and experimental medium which is virtual space. It also takes on the quality of a perfectly mastered body, a body which complies with the whim of the operator who presides over the space of the screen. As Edwards notes, the space of the virtual screen is a micro-world, a surrogate world under the control of the programmer. The world of the screen, like the world of a chess game, sets out complexity and non-predictability within strictly confined parameters. It creates the conditions for very complex, yet nonetheless simplified, working objects.

Problems of simulation are essentially problems of representation - of creating symbolic entities with properties and rules of interaction that correspond to real entities and their interactions...Computer simulations nature partial, internally consistent but externally incomplete; this is the significance of the term "micro-world". Every micro-world has a unique ontological and epistemological structure, simpler than that of the world it represents. Computer programs are thus intellectually useful and emotionally appealing for the same reason: they create worlds without irrelevant or unwanted complexity (Edwards 1990: 109).

Just as the corpse excludes complexity from the biomedical model of Life, so too does the VHP. The VHP presents a virtual body which is fully contained within the parameters of biomedical imaging and explanatory frameworks, and which is hence fully cooperative as a clinical, commercial and experimental object. It is a model of the body and corporeal space in the sense that a model is a systematic visual field which is consistent in its own terms, a field from which all heterogeneity, non-predicability and qualitative difference has been excluded.

These qualities of controlled complexity and detailed mastery enable new and highly complex forms of bodily modelling to be enacted. Current practices or future proposals include surgical simulations, with randomly introduced complications for the training of medical students; the modelling of war wounds for military research; use by radiologists to plan cancer therapy and surgeons to plot the path of a bullet before surgical intervention; and the creation of diagnostic models for sports injuries. The VHP will also be used to create complex models of human movement, useful for the design of prosthetics, ergonomic furniture and tools, athletics training programs, and the like. Another form of simulation involves the production of animation "fly-throughs", that is animations which represent the body as a terrain, above and through which the virtual point of view moves as if in a miniature spacecraft.

The VHP's modelling capacity is, it seems to me, of central interest in assessing the biopolitical effects generated by this mode of visualisation. The power of virtual space to model a complex virtual world has profound implications in all domains of knowledge for the engendering and management of the real. Wark (1993) indicates the particular abilities of virtual images to anticipate and lay out realisable models, using architecture as his example.

an interactive, walk-through model may simulate a building prior to its construction. This may not sound like much: so could a drawing or plan. But drawings or plans, like photographs, are surfaces...[Computer graphics are] more than a mere surface, it is a mathematical structure, which in this instance could be drawing, plan and model all in one, in anticipation of the referent building which has yet to be built. More than an analog, it is a homolog. Where one might plan a building, build it and photograph it, in that logical order, one can now plan a building, computer-graph it, and then build it - having disturbed the logical order of sign and referent (Wark 1993: 145).

Simulations, as Baudrillard (1994) notoriously argues, make the real over in their own image, force its compliance2. In the realm of biomedicine a forced compliance of bodies with their medical representations is arguably the very methodology of medicine, its means of effecting cures and therapies. The purpose of working objects for clinical medicine is to visually specify the distinctions between normal and pathological bodies and to use these visual texts as diagnostic and prognostic models, to which particular fleshly bodies are made to conform (Waldby 1996). One of the most important uses proposed for the VHP is that of clinical benchmark to act as a universal visual norm of the body's organisation which can be disseminated in medical schools, clinics and laboratories.

To put it slightly differently, the VHP is such an attractive working object for medicine because of the complex ways it can simulate the organisation of the living body, a capacity which allows medicine to both refine its own technical interventions into fleshly bodies and to use the VHP in more speculative ways as an experimental object. And it can do this because it is both a detailed visual text and a complex digital, that is mathematical, structure which is open to unlimited forms of manipulation within the space of the screen. Its modelling of the body involves programming in various kinds of limits and contingencies - simulated densities of bone and tissue, random fluctuations in blood flow and pressure, and so on. They are nevertheless limits which work within the terms of the program, rather than limits which arise out of the non-predictability and non-systematicity of embodied subjectivities. While the program programs in qualitative differences they can never have the excessive effects of differences among and within embodied subjects; differences of resistance and idiosyncrasy, of the personal meaning of illness and its psychosomatic consequences, of the abjection and vulnerable mortality of fleshly bodies. While the VHP seems to take sexual difference into account through its treatment of both a man's and a woman's body, at the level of the technology's operation this gesture to difference seems to me to be effectively negated by its elimination of heterogeneity as such.


In this aspect as a mathematically coded visual text the VHP does not merely illustrate the operation of the living body as biomedicine understands it. Rather it enacts within its own technology the organisation of Life as data, which can be abstracted from the individual body and be transmitted to and reformulated at another site. Here I am following some arguments made by Cartwright (1995) and Diprose and Vasseleu (1991) who in different ways demonstrate that the technical modes that biomedicine uses to illustrate the processes of Life are themselves constitutive of this Life. They suggest that the conventional distinction between living matter and the technical models of Life that science creates to model it is precisely what enables biomedicine to generate material effects in living matter while seeming only to illustrate or analyse them. This power of demonstration underpins medicine's manipulation of "life itself", the purposive motivation of matter.

In science, various forms of 'calculated error' are employed to help conceptualise the separate sphere of physical reality. These 'calculated errors' are used as figurative substitutions in the sense that objects and images which are not actually part of the matter being described are substituted in its place... Technical animation, used to convey physical mechanisms, can be included in the practice of 'calculated error' or substitution of alternative material to convey the ideas of science...The animation is regarded as no more than a formal demonstration of matter or mechanisms to which both it and its supporting commentary refer...Thus, scientific animation relies on the distinction between the metaphoric "illusion of life" it generates and the elsewhere 'real-live' action which is its subject matter (Diprose and Vasseleu 1991: 148-9).

Diprose and Vasseleu go on to suggest that this separation of "life" and the "illusion of life" is not sustainable, because biomedicine's imaging practices do not leave the fleshly body untouched, but rather exercise prosthetic effects. Such biotechnologies are implicated in the constitution of material bodies and hence of the forms that material Life, bodily motivation and motility, can take. If we accept that medicine's demonstrative texts exercise such constitutive effects, it follows that the VHP is not merely a screen through which speculations about the organisation of the living body can be entertained. Rather it is in itself a simulation of Life, where the force of Life is understood as transmittable code.

Translations of bodies into transmittable code clearly yields medicine new and flexible protocols for intervention into living bodies. It motivates the developing practices of tele-medicine and tele-surgery, terms which designate a range of diagnostic and interventionist practices where the patient is at one site and the doctor or surgeon is at another, their encounter mediated by complex visual and haptic communications technologies which transmit symptoms, vital signs, visual access and surgical procedures as data.

Reciprocally, if the force of Life is understood as informational code, the program of Life itself can be rewritten. Data can be manipulated and transubstantiated into flesh, a conceit which informs the growing number of biotechnologies which seek to manipulate genetic code - those of recombinant DNA, nucleotide sequencing, polymerase chain reaction and the like. The bio-technical manipulation of genetic codes treats organic bodies as fields of simulation. They become objects for technical forms of replication, doubling, segmentation, hybridisation and "morphing", producing species like the onco-mouse through rewriting part of its code. In these capacities the virtual corpse anticipates medicine's desire for more productive, modular, flexible and compliant bodies, whose reproduction can be rerouted away from the uncertainties and resistances of feminine sexuality and maternity, and towards the reliable procedures of the laboratory. As Braidotti (1994) states, any technique which seeks to replicate living matter involves the effacement of the maternal body as point of origin, even when, in practice, no technique has been able to dispense with maternal bodies completely.

For me the significance of the VHP considered as a biopolitical object arises from its lending a mode of visualisation to the conceit. Its limitless capacity to decompose and recompose the virtual corpse lend it to biomedical fantasising about human life and Life in general as an informational economy which can be animated, reproduced, written and rewritten, through biomedical management. It is, to extend Braidotti's claim, an icon of medical pornography. It is a field of visual fantasisation which plays out certain forms of mastery over a completely compliant, imaginary body, whose morphology has no integrity of its own, but is completely at the disposal of the master.


I would like to thank Ien Ang, Alec Mchoul, Elizabeth Wilson, and Peter Stuart for their help and comments. This research was supported by a grant from the School of Humanities, Murdoch University. The staff at the Department of Computer Sciences at Australian National University, Brian Molinari, Paul Mackerras and David Hawking were extremely generous with their time and expertise in demonstrating the VHP to me.


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1. I have argued elsewhere that concepts of normalcy in biomedicine always carry normative weight. For an extensive treatment of the relationship between the normal and the normative see Waldby (1996), chapter two.

2. The strict Baudrillardian concept of the simulacra is that of a self-authorising, replicatable model, copies without originals, which owe no debt to a referent. However to take this general argument about simulacra and deploy it in the case of the VHP seems to me to miss a serious ethical and political point. The point is, that the VHP could not have been inaugurated without the sacrifice of a life, Jernigan's life in this instance. In this case the representation's precedence over the referent is bought through the murder and dismemberment of the referent, a murder which underwrites the representation's claims to the status of digital homolog. The circulation and exchange of virtual anatomies has only been made possible by taking life from a fleshly anatomy.

New: 15 May, 1996 | Now: 11 May, 2015