New Publication: “Body Worlds’ Plastinates, the Human/Nonhuman Interface, and Feminism”

My article entitled “Body Worlds’ Plastinates, the Human/Nonhuman Interface, and Feminism” was recently published in a special issue on the nonhuman in the journal Feminist Theory, edited Myra J. Hird and Celia Roberts. Body Worlds is an exhibition that displays dissected human bodies that have been preserved by a process called plastination which infuses them with a polymer that purportedly makes them impervious to decay. While the exhibition’s creators claim to display “real human bodies,” because they are made with significant amounts of plastic and other materials, I argue that these exhibits are ambivalently human. But they are also ambivalently nonhuman as they can still engage the spectator in decidedly human, affective encounters. In this way, they signal a grey area in the human/nonhuman duality that underpins much of our economics, politics, and ethics. In this article, I discuss the important implications this has for feminism, which has always grappled with the questions of who should be granted the status of human and what privileges such status should confer.

I thank Dr. Hird and Dr. Roberts for their support in the writing of this article, as well as Dr. Kirsten McAllister and Dr. Zoë Druick, who supervised this research at Simon Fraser University.

I would be very happy to hear any comments readers have regarding this article.

Abstract

Body Worlds is a hugely popular exhibition that claims to offer a reverential and educational experience of the ‘real human body’ through the display of plastinated dead human bodies. However, because they are posed, staged, and composed of significant nonhuman artifice, plastinates are ambivalently ‘real’ as human bodies, let alone ‘real’ as humans. Plastinates are as much nonhuman as human, and neither category fully accounts for them. In this article, I discuss the consequences of this for feminist theory. Approaches in feminist theory that reify, either implicitly or explicitly, a human/nonhuman binary framework are challenged by plastinates. I show that locating plastinates within either ontological category, though not fully accounting for them, enables feminist critiques of the exhibition; however, these categories also paradoxically permit forms of violence with which feminists are typically concerned. In this way, I argue that plastinates force feminist thought to the very interface of the human/nonhuman divide. When applied to Body Worlds, these concepts at best form a heuristic ontological hinge whose angle is determined by ethical and political commitments, illustrating the ways in which key ontologies should be seen as political strategies more or less amenable to feminist goals, but not more or less true. I argue that what lies at the crux of this hinge, in the case of plastinates, is death, and suggest that Body Worlds demands that the interface of death with life become a key feminist concern.

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