The Visible Human Project: Life and death in cyberspace

Sagittal view of the visible human. Photo: Callista images. Courtesy Cultura Creative/Alamy Stock Photo
Sagittal view of the visible human. Photo: Callista images. Courtesy Cultura Creative/Alamy Stock Photo

The Visible Human Project, which first made its public appearance in 1994, is an innovation in medicine’s ability to picture bodily interiors, and its iconography has commanded an extraordinary degree of mass media, as well as scientific attention. It has featured in every mass circulation magazine from Time to Wired, been the subject of numerous radio and television programs in Australia, the USA and Europe, and has over one hundred websites devoted to it. In 1995–96 a gallery exhibition in Japan juxtaposed images from the project with Da Vinci's anatomical drawings, and Life Magazine recently ran a 40-page visual spread on the project which did the same, self-consciously locating the project’s imagery somewhere between art, science and mass culture.

In one sense this degree of public attention is not surprising. The membrane between medicine’s visual culture and popular visual culture has always been a permeable one. From the moment when the barber-surgeons of renaissance Europe made the new practice of anatomical dissection a public event, to the contemporary use of foetal ultrasound images as baby’s first portrait, medicine’s technical ability to represent the body's interior has compelled public fascination and been subject to forms of popular appropriation. The fanfare around the Visible Human Project partakes of this long history of interpenetration of the medical with the popular, but the high pitch of this attention singles it out. Why has it commanded such centrality in recent public culture? What does it have to say about public interest in, and anxieties about, biomedicine and its powers?

The Visible Human Project (VHP) is a visualisation technique developed by the National Medical Library in Baltimore for transforming human cadavers into three-dimensional, virtual anatomy atlases. It creates, 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.

The Visible Human Project, a slice from the Visible Male. Courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine
The Visible Human Project, a slice from the Visible Male. Courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine

The project’s method for recording bodies is as follows. Once a suitable 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. These sections are each photographed, and further CT scan and MRI also 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 cross sections to be viewed in themselves but they can also be restacked to reformulate the body’s integrity, with the appearance of mass, volume, solidity, surface and depth, which can be rotated and viewed from any angle. This restacking capacity enables unlimited manipulation of the virtual corpse. Organs can be isolated and rotated, blood vessels can be traversed from inside, different depths in the body can be represented topographically, the skin can be peeled back, and the skeleton can be excised. 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 miniaturised spacecraft. The virtual cadaver can also be animated and programmed to simulate vital functions like breathing and blood circulation.

It is then an extraordinary visual text, one which combines medical knowledge with all the virtuosic capacities for volumetric rendering and simulation enabled by the digitisation of visual information. For medicine it will serve as a three-dimensional anatomical text, able to be integrated with all the other computer imaging data that contemporary medicine now relies upon for diagnosis and surgery and useful for the training of doctors in the new techniques of screen mediated practice.

The Visible Human Project, a slice from the Visible Male. Courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine
The Visible Human Project, a slice from the Visible Male. Courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine

Its peculiar frisson as object of public culture arises I think because it is a visual text produced through the violent rendering of real and particular human bodies. Two bodies have been imaged in this way to date. The first was that of a convicted murderer, Joseph Jernigan, who donated his body to science before his execution by lethal injection in a Texas prison. The second was a 59-year-old woman, described as “a housewife” who died more prosaicly of a heart attack, and who remains anonymous. Most of the public attention has centred on Jernigan, in part because his figure offers a more detailed identity and a stock narrative of masculine crime and punishment upon which a story can be hung.

This use of real bodies to produce anatomical text is, of course, not new, and cadavers are donated every day to medical schools for dissection. The peculiar interest and anxiety produced by the spectacle of the bodies imaged for the VHP arises, I think, from the way it positions these bodies at the intersection of two relatively new domains of scientific, technical development, the intersection of new biotechnologies with the still largely unknown terrain of cyberspace. One of the recurrent observations made in the popular media about Jernigan, is that he has “crossed over” from the normal everyday world of material objects into the ghostly world of digital objects. This idea is a very complex one, and points towards the intersection I have described, and so I want to tease out some of its implications.

First of all it implies that the project is not merely a technique for the production of images but that it is a recording of a particular person, a recording of identity, in the same sense that a CD records a particular performance of a symphony, capturing moments of sound forever. To think of the VHP as a recording of a human body is quite accurate in a technical sense, but as Barthes observes in Camera Lucida, all recording technologies have a kind of magical or sacred dimension to them. The photograph for example, is both a scientific technology for making accurate and objective recordings of objects and a magical technology which can preserve the dead, and capture the object of desire.

Hence, while for medicine the VHP is an ingenious means of creating an informationally dense anatomical atlas, it is also an uncanny copy, a quite identifiable digital double of a person who once lived and breathed in normal social space, and who has now been transubstantiated into data and moved into virtual space. In this sense the VHP serves as a visual text for developments going on elsewhere in medicine and biotechnologies, for developments like the Human Genome Project which promises to exhaustively sequence all the genes in the human body, including possible genes for “gayness”, for aggression, and all the other domains of experience which genetics claims to explain. On the more speculative fringes of neurology, cybernetics and psychology, scientists like Hans are carrying out research into the digitisation of personality, the creation of data avatars which can download our memories and traits and find immortal existence in the virtual world.

The Visible Human Project, A slice from the Visible Female. Courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine
The Visible Human Project, A slice from the Visible Female. Courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine

In Jernigan’s case the idea that his identity and body have been recorded heightens the sense that his digitisation is a continuation of his punishment. He may have crossed out of normal space into virtual space, but in his case it seems like an extension of his incarceration. Medical technologies have a long historical association with punishment and torture, insofar as the subjects of anatomical dissection were frequently executed criminals, murderers sentenced to the double infamy of execution and anatomisation. This is a history which the VHP neatly recapitulates, and much of the popular rhetoric around Jernigan has presented his strange fate as a drama of crime, punishment and redemption through digitisation. At the same time it presents us with a frightening spectacle of medicine’s institutional power, and its horrifying capacity to treat human bodies as simply matter to be technically worked over and manipulated for its own interests. This applies to the process of producing the VHP figures but even (or especially) in their digitised forms they are fully mastered bodies, existing only to be dismembered again and again.

As incorruptible and eternal data, the VHP also raises the question of mortality, and much of its fascination derives I think from the ambiguous state of the VHP figures. If medicine now understands life as information and bodies as systems of code, what is the status of the VHP figures? They may be copies of cadavers but because they have “crossed over” into virtual space it is difficult to resist the idea that they exist in some new kind of afterlife, an idea evident even in the official National Library of Medicine rhetoric around the VHP which refers to the figures as Adam and Eve. The figures have been literally “reanimated” by medical ingenuity, to be used as surrogates for living bodies in many research and pedagogical contexts within medicine, so it seems to me that medicine shares in the sense of their ambiguity.

Normal head, 3D CT scan. Side view 3D model of a person’s head using X-ray computed tomography (CT) data from the Visible Human Project. Courtesy Science Photo Library/Alamy
Normal head, 3D CT scan. Side view 3D model of a person’s head using X-ray computed tomography (CT) data from the Visible Human Project. Courtesy Science Photo Library/Alamy

Caught somewhere between the living and the dead, the VHP figures point towards virtual space as the space of the postnatural, a term which simultaneously connotes the power of the new biotechnologies and old ideas of the supernatural. On the one hand, the term designates the new forms of life being developed at the intersection of the organic and the informational, forms which include genetically engineered life forms like the Onco-mouse and the artificial life programs which exist in purely digital environments. On the other, it necessarily connotes the older, traditional understanding of the “afterlife” the mystical and mythical sense of life after death. While virtual space is commonly understood as simply another rational workspace, it also generates extensive fantasies of life after the death or abandonment of the body, fantasies evident in for example William Gibson's fiction, which clearly play upon older Christian notions of the immortal soul.

While the official rhetoric around the VHP plays on the first, futuristic meaning of the postnatural, it seems to me that at least part of the public fascination with the VHP derives from the second meaning. The digitisation of the figures for the project testifies to the fact that the division between the real world and the virtual world is able to be transgressed, it is a relative, not an absolute division. The screen both separates us from the virtual world and links us to it, working like a threshold rather than a barrier. If in this case the screen maps onto the barrier which separates the living from the (un)dead, those who have gone to a postnatural life, the figures imaged for the project become revenants, the first digital ghosts to haunt us from the spectral, virtual world.

So the public fascination with the VHP seems to me to arise from the way it serves as a potent visual text for speculation about the new forms and limits of life and death which new medical biotechnologies bring into being. These 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. The figures imaged for the VHP are so compelling because their fate indicates a possible future for our own failing bodies.

The Visual Human Project, composite image of human anatomy. Photo: Cultura Creative/Alamy
The Visual Human Project, composite image of human anatomy. Photo: Cultura Creative/Alamy

 

Catherine Waldby teaches in Communications and Cultural Studies at Murdoch University. Her book, Informatic Bodies: The Visible Human Project and Posthuman Medicine, is to be published by Routledge.

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