…/visible_human.html/digital anatomy and the hyper-texted body


…/visible_human.html/digital anatomy and the hyper-texted body


“The NLM [National Library of Medicine] should undertake a first project building a digital image library of volumetric data representing a complete, normal adult male and female. This Visible Human Project will include digitized photographic images for cryosectioning, digital images derived from computerized tomography and digital magnetic resonance images of cadavers.”

– from the NLM website for the Visible Human Project


In 1989, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) established the Visible Human Project (VHP), bringing the peculiarly anachronistic discipline of anatomy into the digital realm of “technoscience.” The general goal of the VHP was to upgrade the analytical procedures and techniques of anatomy and medicine by producing a digitized archive of anatomical data that would be available over the Internet under licensed agreement with the NLM. The proposed applications of this dataset would be for educational purposes (removing the need for cadavers for medical students), diagnostics and training (physicians could perform surgical techniques on virtual bodies before the actual procedure), and physician-patient consultation (both physician and patient could witness a potential surgery). Presently, the VHP has been organized along two main phases. “Phase I” represents the production (scanning and digitizing) of digital images of selected male and female cadavers. For this researchers and technicians working on the VHP have used the cutting-edge techniques of CT (computer tomography – like the X-ray, useful for rendering images of solid materials such as bone), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging – like ultrasound, useful for rendering images more fluid or of moving materials such as internal organs), and cryosectioning (whereby the cadaver is frozen then literally sliced into over a thousand millimeter slices – useful for rendering cross- sectional images of the body). “Phase II” represents the “segmentation, classification, and three-dimensional rendering of the data set,” currently in progress. Visitors to any of the VHP- related research websites or the NLM’s ftp site will find an array of image files organized along the lines of a contemporary anatomy textbook. In addition, current computer animation and rendering programs have made possible the “animating” of these bodies and/or body parts. One of the most prominent results of this project thus far has been the Body Voyage CD-ROM, published by Time-Warner. Body Voyage is an overview of the work done in 1991 at the University of Colorado at Denver under the general direction of Victor Spitzer and David Whitlock. Their subject was Joseph Paul Jerigan, a convicted murderer on death row who had donated his body to science. Body Voyage presents some of the results of this “Visible Man,”whereby the user can variously rotate the whole body or a section of it, “peel” away the skin, internal organs, or skeletal structure, and “fly through” the interior cavities of the torso, head, and pelvis. Work is currently being done on a “Visible Woman” at Stanford University, where, researchers claim, the rendered digital images of the 59 year old woman who had donated her body to science will have a partially functioning digestive system.


For anatomists during the Enlightenment, the dictum “Know Thyself” meant, literally, knowing your body inside and out. Though classical thought had established a study of the physical sciences and the body long before the early modern period, it is generally recognized that Andreas Vesalius’ 1543 text De Humani Corporis Fabrica was influential in ushering in what would become new paradigms for the modern scientific gaze on the body. Vesalian anatomy, though it borrowed and extended much from classical medicine, called for a shift in the relationship between body and text. It did this by emphasizing several things: first, that no text preceded the body; for modern anatomists, instead of relying on the textual authority of antiquity, the body was to be studied (or, we might say, mediated) through the regular practice of dissection. In fact, this practice was to become so regular that numerous “anatomy theaters” sprung up in major European metropolitan areas boasting the most advanced medical universities. The problem of body supply was of course facilitated by the oftentimes uneasy commerce between the scaffold of public execution and the cold order of the dissection table. In the anatomy theaters the body was not only demonstrated but also performed; it became transformed into a universalized sign reflecting back upon each viewer as the uncanny unveiling of their own insides,of a universal, humanistic, corporeal condition. Needless to say,the effects of anatomical practices such as this were both repulsive (the abject horror that one’s inside, one’s innermost core, looked as repulsive as this) and fascinating (the inescapable feeling that one was gaining a secret, even voyeuristic glimpse into what one could never really witness without themselves dying). But the “messiness” of the dissected body didn’t always match up to either classical or early modern anatomical texts. Contemporary critics such as Jonathan Sawday and Andrew Cunningham have outlined this difference as one of the central tensions in early modern anatomy. On the one hand was the “real” body, inside and out, inside out: lifeless, opened up, possibly at some stage of rigor mortis, chaotic, formless, oozing. On the other hand, usually next to the cadaver as a kind of guide for the dissectionist, was the anatomy text (usually a classical source such as Galen): textual, descriptive, organized, classificatory, logistical – in other words, anatomical and physiological. This paradox contributed, in part, to the new ways in which anatomists (keeping in mind parallel developments in artistic representation during the Renaissance – See Stafford 1997) signified the anatomical body in their texts. Vesalius’ text, as with many others, is exemplary in this respect. As Sawday shows (and, at the risk of reducing his complex analysis), the body of modern anatomy was of several kinds: (1) it was, following upon Platonic notions of the body (an inanimate container inhabited by a higher soul), a body-container; it was represented in a lifelike fashion or animated which made it appear as though the body had dissected itself, peeling away its own skin and revealing its internal structures to the viewer. (2) It was also territory and map; tropes of the body’s interior as an “undiscovered territory” marked it out for scientific biocolonization and rational-scientific mappings, with anatomists such as William Harvey and Fallopius marking their anatomical discoveries (the complicated histories over the “discovery” of the clitoris is exemplary in this respect – See Laqueur 1990, Park in Body Parts). (3) With the gradual ascendancy of Cartesianism and mechanistic philosophies, it also became the machine body, an integrative whole composed of smaller, interworking parts, not unlike the geometric internal configurations of the clock (Descartes’ privileged metaphor for the body). What these new modes of representation opened onto was the now familiar technique of “keying mechanisms” and a diagrammatic logic linking text and bodily representation through an elaborate network of planes, charts, and lines (well before such illustrative techniques worked their way into electrical engineering or circuit board design). In this type of history, then, the problematic, troubling, and alluring body of anatomical science confronts a more general and expansive “incitement to discourse.” As Sawday summarizes, following Foucault, “the body – a material object in space – was gradually made available as a model or pattern for any spatial organization of knowledge.”(135)


These histories of technologies of the body also become bodies of technology around the turn of the century, where, in European and American medical centers, technologies such as the X-ray, ECG, urinalysis, and blood tests, begin to be regularly implemented in diagnostic procedures. In an analysis of early technologies in the hospital, Joel Howell focuses on the X-ray as a pivotal point that not only restructures health care systems generally, but which also contributes to the production of new ways of imaging and decoding the body. First and foremost was that the use of the X-ray required a reading of the body that was significantly different from the anatomical gaze; it approached the body not under conditions of a radical intimacy or immediacy, but as a variable filter through which certain characteristics for diagnosis could be amplified or brought into view. The X-ray revealed shadows of the body, a dematerialized translucent image that was both exterior and interior compressed into a single negative space of light. It marks the emergence of a host of biomedical technologies (ultrasound, CAT, PET, CT, MRI, etc.) which each require a specific decoding frame to interpret the body. This decoding works doubly, since, on the one hand, it is an approach to the body completely mediated through its production in imaging technologies, and, on the other, it is an assumption of the anatomical body inherited from modern anatomy as a corporeal, organized, mechanistic integral unit. The tensions of a technoculture can be found here, between the body of modern anatomy and the body of postmodern “infomedicine,” and the body of the modern anatomy textbook and the body displayed on multiple scanning monitors are their technological correlatives.

But along with the productive effects of new modes of visualization, the X-ray also takes part of a larger trend in how medicine and health care process the information of the bodies which are diagnosed. With increasing numbers of patients and transferring of records between health care centers, Howell suggests that a type of bio-Taylorism occurs in the standardization of hospitalized bodies. The increasing use of charts, stamps of the body upon which notes could be made, and filing systems of patient records produces a Foucaultian monitoring and regulation – except that what is regulated is the bodies of bio-data (specified along sexual, racial, economic, psychological, and physiological lines – See Foucault 1973) as much as the physical bodies that data refers to. Thus, an informatics of the anatomical and medical body takes place in the use of these technologies of visualization, with the opened body on the operating table, and the various TV monitors and biomonitoring equipment surrounding that body as its main tensive site.


When constructing or managing a website, it is often helpful to produce a “site map,” a diagram showing how each HTML document is hyper-linked within a single website. This is helpful because it freezes and displaces the intensified temporal experience of the Web onto a static representational diagram showing the sum of all possible links and routes within a website. And, as website design varies, so will site maps; some sites tend to be organized more along a centralized mode, where all hyperlinked pages extend from and return to a central homepage. Others are more dispersed, offering a series of nodal points which act as multiple, parallel main pages, each one then branching off into further subcategorical hyperlinked pages. Still others are more distributed, offering no primary entrypoint and linking each page to several other pages, forming a hyperlinked network. Let’s take either one of the websites of digital anatomy based on the VHP, or better yet, let’s take the VHP’s ftp site. What are its constitutive elements? They are bodies of a particular kind – that is, bodies marked in specific ways. For example, when going to the ftp site for the Visible Man, what a computer user is accessing is, of course, a database. This is obvious but needs to be reiterated. That database is composed of a series of digital image files. Those digital image files are, variously, volumetric, CT, and MRI scan images of the (anonymously presented) cadaver chosen for the Visible Man study. Most often, those images are not of the whole body but of body parts. But, unlike modern (as well as early modern) anatomy texts, where the body divided into parts is divided according to the parameters of biological and anatomical science, the division of the body with the VHP are often of various cross-sectional slices of the body. The partitioning logic of modern anatomy, whereby the body whole is hierarchically broken down into integrated physiological systems (circulatory, respiratory, muscular, reproductive, etc.), organs, tissues, and cells – that logic has been abandoned in the production (but not the epistemological underpinning) of the Visible Man. Instead, with a view towards digital-visual media and the Internet, the body of the VHP is reconstituted along the lines of scanning and surface data most appropriate for digital image processing and digital file standardization (including, most of all, the surface of the body’s interior). Whereas the single organ (a heart, a stomach, an eye) forms the basic structural unit for modern anatomy, the digital anatomy of the VHP endlessly slices through the organs in the compositing of a series of millimeter-thin slices of a part of the body’s geometry. This is a (scientific) body which, on the one hand, assumes the traditional epistemic frame of modern anatomy, but which also, on the other hand, approaches and produces its digital anatomy according to the 3-D modeling and image map geometries of the Web and digital technology generally. This body – prepared, scanned, sliced, photographed, digitized, rendered, animated, modeled, and downloaded – this digital anatomy forms a perverse materialization of the “hyper-texted body” described by Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein in Data Trash:

“Not really the wired body of sci-fi with its mutant designer look, or body flesh with its ghostly reminders of nineteenth- century philosophy, but the hyper-texted body as both: a wired nervous system embedded in living (dedicated) flesh…It does not want to be interfaced to the Net through modems and external software black boxes, but actually wants to be an Internet.“(16)

If we make a site map, then, of the VHP’s ftp site, linking the numerous image (and, soon, animation) files together (that is, linking the various scanned and cross-sectional body images), we get a troubling, ambivalent version of a body asserting the immediacy of gross anatomy as it presents itself in a medium of almost total immateriality. But this “almost” also means that the digital is, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, a tactile medium of constant encoding and decoding, rendering and object-oriented programming. As mentioned earlier, the logic which runs through the VHP and its techniques and procedures, is still that of modern anatomy. Still, however, the NLM is proposing that the VHP will aid in the study of modern anatomy, not fundamentally alter it. But, as any cursory glance at the visual images of CT, MRI, CAT, PET, and other diagnostic technologies will demonstrate, what is at issue is the explicit recoding of the body of medical science and what will come to be culturally understood as a body more generally (this is already a pressing issue with ultrasound, laproscopy, and technologies of reproduction and pregnancy – See Balsamo 1997).

It is important to remember here that the NLM’s impetus for supporting the VHP was not necessarily in the interests of anatomical science, but, rather, “it foresaw a coming era where NLM’s bibliographic and factual database services would be complemented by libraries of digital images, distributed over high speed computer networks and by high capacity physical media.” In other words, the primary concern or issue behind the VHP is as much about informatics as it is about anatomy. Although the main, underlying organizational logic of the VHP websites and ftp sites is modern anatomy (where a searchable database is geared towards users with some knowledge of anatomy and physiology), there is also an anatomical reorganization based on the technologies and techniques involved in the production of the VHP anatomies. This occurs in the Visible Man ftp site, where many of the sections are classified according to changes in the cryosectioning (slicing) techniques (“change in field of view,” “change in slice spacing,” etc.). As a networked, hyper-texted body, the digital anatomies of the VHP act as ftp corporealities: they are dispersed over a network (at various ftp sites, websites, etc.), they communicate through data transmission (ftp), file reproduction (downloading), and they gesture through image rendering and the morphological tendencies of animated .GIFs and Java. The digital anatomy of the VHP body uses corporeality in the way that the Internet makes use of metaphors of a web, a mesh, or a grid. Digital anatomy doesn’t so much have body parts as it has or is constituted by discrete binary files. As with all digital files, the binary code does not refer to the image it codes for as a signifier (as with modern linguistics); the binary code constituting the standardized, transmissible, reproducible digital image is indissociable from that image. This is not the body-language relationship of modern or early modern anatomy, where text names, points to, maps out, and is generally descriptive of the arbitrary body-referent. The binary code informing the body of digital anatomy makes explicit and materializes Foucault’s suggestion that the relation between discourse-language and the body-materiality is one of docility, a “technology” of bodily production. Change the code, and you change (render docile) the body hardwired as that code. This is the strange indissociability and distinctness of the digital image: the binary code doesn’t “signify” a body separate from it, yet the unintelligible string of data and the image on the screen are, in some important way, distinct from each other. The indissociability and distinctness of the digital image is taken further with the VHP body. As a project which, first, encodes the body/cadaver of modern anatomy into a series of digital files, and second, organizes and distributes those files over the Internet into an anatomical informatics, the VHP takes the digital body beyond representation or it renders and embodies representation. Though a number of the images on some of the VHP websites are renderings and models based on VHP data, the dataset of the Visible Man and Visible Woman are not representations in the traditional sense of the term. They are, rather, informatic equivalents of the dissected, fleshy body of modern anatomy. Those CT and MRI scans are not exactly image-representations of the body, but nor are they the “body itself.” As with modern anatomy (and with early modern anatomy, despite its emphasis on dissection), there is no diagrammatic, representational, logic of intelligibility with digital anatomy; the direct scanning of cross-sectional parts of the cadavers simply translates (and reconstitutes) the body in a networked context. This is a significant process in the mediation of bodies over the Internet (other examples might include CU-SeeMe, RealVideo), because it moves from the graphic design, photographic, print-based logic of the layout (where the image forms part of an integrated spatialized grid), to a project of not only directly encoding the body, but embedding it within the Internet as well. What a computer user sees in the CT scans is a reconstituted body in parallel to the cadavers which formed the “raw material” for that digital translation process.


Based in New York and performing as a digital arts collective since 1991, Floating Point Unit has consistently investigated the dystopias, ambiguities, and possibilities of the hyper-texted body and electric flesh. Their installations, work for the Web, and multimedia performances constellate the body as preceded by digital media and networked into the electric public spaces of real-time webcast performances. In particular, their ongoing project “Body Without Organs” addresses the strange, intermediary, and often affective situations of bodies transmitted in real-time over the Web. Using CU-SeeMe (a Web-based software conferencing program which enables users to interact through chat lines and video feeds in real-time through a “reflector site”) as their main performative extension, FPU addresses the critical and ambiguous dissatisfaction with the “natural” body expressed by Antonin Artaud – a project whose goal was, for Artaud, to “make human anatomy dance at last.” Let’s insert a short file here, then, on Artaud’s body as framed by FPU’s digital performativity.


Here, then, is a compressed ASCII-file fragment on Artaud’s body; an anatomy, marked by psychosis, electroshock, spectacle, and the black magic of words. It was Artaud’s conviction that the human body (considered through established scientific-psychological discourses) was “badly constructed.” In his early writings dealing with his visions of a “theater of cruelty,” Artaud elaborated an obsessive utilization of tropes of electricity and neurophysiology in referring to his re-configured, re-constructed version of a “body without organs.” This means taking directly Artaud’s assertion that “electricity is a body,” as well as a conception of the body as a kind of “electric charge.” The usage of such terms, however metaphorical they may be read, are incessantly inscribed by Artaud as part of and in the “thickness” of the surface of the body itself. But it is precisely such tensions (between the flesh and language, between thought and discourse, between neural nets and the organs) which open an articulated site within the surface of Artaud’s new body, revealing complicated anxieties concerning the organs, bodily fluids, sexual activity, as well as the general psycho-scientific discourses inscribing the body. Though Artaud’s phrase “the body without organs” has become his most recognized engagement with the body (in Deleuze & Guattari, and, more recently, in the Critical Art Ensemble), Artaud actually uses several terms to describe slightly different aspects of his new body – some are strategic borrowings from anatomy (terminology denoting the nervous system, “marrow,” “bone,” “flesh”) and others denoting forms of electricity (“lightning,” “battery,” “charge”). Provisionally, we might say that Artaud despises gross anatomy, or better, Artaud had become intensely and ambivalently dissatisfied with anatomy and physiology as naturalized, hegemonic body-discourses: the organs, the genitals, the digestive and excretory functions, and the inert meat of the internal anatomy were all to be exorcised, their potential energies re-routed and re-signified (especially in the case of erotic activity) towards a physiology designed to reorder and rearrange the body on a critical and “affective plane.” “Nothing but a fine Nerve Meter,” Artaud states in a passage from an early work. An anatomy not of the nervous system per se, but of the physical and physiological dynamics emanating from the intensive sensory field of the nervous system: bone marrow, flesh, synapses, electric biochemical signals and “mental pathways” in the flesh. Through this electrifying of the body (first and foremost for Artaud, of his own body – darkly marked by hospitalization and psychiatry), Artaud constantly and with agility pulls away from either reassertions of the body natural (that is, the body defined by the biological sciences) or the techno-theological allure of the matrix body. One of the primary threads running through Artaud’s writings on performance is a notion of the ritualized, performing body as a set of dynamic, gestural “hieroglyphics” occupying space; language not signifying the body but embodied. The Theater of Cruelty was to be a fully immersive, enframed, multimedia occasion for emotive-physiological rendering, and it is this uneasy combination (mediation reflexively occasioning affect) that equally frames Artaud’s elaborate struggle to reconstitute himself through his body, piece by piece. So then, Artaud’s project for reconstructing his body might be taken as an anatomical-electrical site map. Artaud again: “This instantaneous classification of things in the cells of the mind, not so much in their logical order as in their emotional or affective order.”


Keeping this electrical anatomy of Artaud in mind, it is no surprise to see FPU utilizing Artaud’s bodies with webcasting technologies. If an earlier (that is, a few years ago) notion of the Web body was pictured as the obsolescent, transfixed, hacker’s body, and if even more recent discussions of MUDs have envisioned a culturally-transcendent, genderless, avatar body, current real-time video technologies (CU-SeeMe, RealVideo) often present live-feed bodies which encourage the habit of ignoring the ways in which they are video-distorted, inadvertently pixellated, and delayed by transmission and download times. In other words, following upon the technotopic rhetoric which still very much informs the Web, MUDs, and Web-based software advertising, the push towards real-time media on the Web has followed the trend of incorporating and embedding the philosophical relics of presence into the data packets of mediation. FPU’s website never lets the user forget the layers of media tactility which inform contemporary digital culture; their use of the computer as an aesthetic (using broken Macintosh menu bars as hyperlinks, employing desktop windows-within-windows, making a hard-edge aesthetic of RGB pixels) always diffracts the user as situated in relation to the intimacy of digital technology. In FPU’s “Body Without Organs” performances, bodies of “remote participants” are publicly encouraged to sensuously interact and transmit themselves as a strange, hybridized, even uncanny body forms on the screen. This body is, first and foremost, an assembled collection of CU-SeeMe windows (each window transmitting video-feeds of a remote user logged in to that reflector site) – it is therefore a body that only take shape, or becomes digital embodied, as it is encoded. A window displays a head with eyes closed, another window shows a close-up of an open mouth, another a close-up of a nipple, another an indistinct, sloping surface of flesh. As these combinatory body parts are transmitted, they are decoded as either RGB or grayscale images, oftentimes shown as fragmented, pixellated still-shots as the body-image downloads. If the VHP’s hypertexted body is a digital anatomy database encoding the thoroughness of the anatomical gaze, FPU’s performative-digital BwO is a hypertexted body encoded by multiple remote participants on several planes: first, it establishes the indissociability of the body from the intimacy of mediating technologies (and here the discourse of mediation ceases to be useful); remote participants must articulate a relation between their body and a video-input camera, as well as a relationship between that encoded data packet body and the multiple formation taking place on the reflector site. Secondly, remote participants must also approach their bodies in the way their gestures and movements transmit (perform) over the Web. Because Web video is, in many ways, still in its developmental stages, live-feeds can be by turns surprisingly smooth or unpredictably jittery, resulting in a data-transmission rhythm that must directly interface with remote participant’s bodies. These reconfigurings of the body-technology interface forms an assemblage of new digital anatomies, where bodies are strategically and experimentally digitized, transmitted, and remotely displayed – here the hyper-texted body is not so much an archived database of images as it elaborates and extends a process of digital embodiment. One of the main issues behind FPU’s use of real-time feeds in “Body without Organs” is attempting to recode the configurations of the body-technology relationship over the Web – not as instances of techno-topianism of real bodies collectively mediated by technology, but rather as inquiries, experiments, and nodal points for asking how embodiment is occasioned through technology (or, how the digital is embodied).


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Eugene Thacker teaches technology & culture at Rutgers University, and is currently working on a dissertation dealing with the technoscientific body. He is involved in multimedia performance, and his current projects for the web can be viewed at: http://gsa.rutgers.edu/maldoror/.