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The Dead Body as Cabinet of Medical Curiosity: Corpses, Cadavers, and the Human Anatomy Lab

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Abstract:

Whereas the twentieth century taboo against death rendered it “invisible” by mid-century, the twenty-first century has resurrected the dead body as a material and textual corpus visible to all, with corpses and cadavers now popular subjects for discussion, representation, dissection, plastination, and exhibition. Recent studies of the dead body are varied and interdisciplinary: Christine Quigley’s The Corpse: A History (1996) conducts a cultural and anthropological study of the corpse’s significance and treatment in society, whereas humanities professor Albert Howard Carter III recounts his semester spent with cadavers and first-year medical students in his book First Cut: A Season in the Human Anatomy Lab (1997). Six Feet Under (2001) brought the dead body back into the veritable parlor of the living, and also into focus as narrative subject with full visual preparation and presentation in the show, illustrating the cadaver’s literal and narrative function essential in its representation.

Demand for representation of the dead body is exemplified in two picture books published in the last five years about the infamous collection of human remains and corporeal oddities exhibited at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. These cabinets of medical curiosity, comprised originally of items used as teaching tools for medical education, are now one of the most heavily visited tourist sites in the United States and considered a collection of “pathological treasures” housing rare and wondrous objects of human anomaly. The medical and scientific uses of cadavers gained further mainstream popularity with the Mary Roach’s national bestseller Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), along with the controversial, but compelling and highly attended, traveling exhibitions of posed, lifelike, plastinized “actual human bodies” in Our Body: The Universe Within, and Bodyworlds: The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.

This paper examines our mortal fascination with seeing into the interior cabinet of the human body; I look at the dead body as a sort of cabinet of medical curiosity which encloses knowledge of the interior world, housing even the secrets of death and dying—thus raising questions about “normative” bodies or “normative” death. What does it mean to display or view a dead body, and in what ways do we inscribe the bodies of the displayed dead with meaning? Similarly, if we can conceive of the body as a text, then what does it mean in the postmodern era to dissect the dead body, literally or textually? If textual narrative “is a way to explore unusual worlds, even worlds of extremity” then how does the dead body—in whole or part—act as a site of narrative inscription for questions about interiority and death? Lastly, in what way has curiosity about the anatomy of the dead body been aligned with or mimicked common constructions of the Othered body as freakish, with the corpus as object of spectacle? How does the representation of the dead body within a medical or educational forum shape our cultural narrative of death, and alter our perception of life after (or in the midst of) death?
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Association:
Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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http://www.theasa.net


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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245094_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Clifford, Clare Emily. "The Dead Body as Cabinet of Medical Curiosity: Corpses, Cadavers, and the Human Anatomy Lab" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245094_index.html>

APA Citation:

Clifford, C. "The Dead Body as Cabinet of Medical Curiosity: Corpses, Cadavers, and the Human Anatomy Lab" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245094_index.html

Publication Type: Invited Paper
Abstract: Whereas the twentieth century taboo against death rendered it “invisible” by mid-century, the twenty-first century has resurrected the dead body as a material and textual corpus visible to all, with corpses and cadavers now popular subjects for discussion, representation, dissection, plastination, and exhibition. Recent studies of the dead body are varied and interdisciplinary: Christine Quigley’s The Corpse: A History (1996) conducts a cultural and anthropological study of the corpse’s significance and treatment in society, whereas humanities professor Albert Howard Carter III recounts his semester spent with cadavers and first-year medical students in his book First Cut: A Season in the Human Anatomy Lab (1997). Six Feet Under (2001) brought the dead body back into the veritable parlor of the living, and also into focus as narrative subject with full visual preparation and presentation in the show, illustrating the cadaver’s literal and narrative function essential in its representation.

Demand for representation of the dead body is exemplified in two picture books published in the last five years about the infamous collection of human remains and corporeal oddities exhibited at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. These cabinets of medical curiosity, comprised originally of items used as teaching tools for medical education, are now one of the most heavily visited tourist sites in the United States and considered a collection of “pathological treasures” housing rare and wondrous objects of human anomaly. The medical and scientific uses of cadavers gained further mainstream popularity with the Mary Roach’s national bestseller Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), along with the controversial, but compelling and highly attended, traveling exhibitions of posed, lifelike, plastinized “actual human bodies” in Our Body: The Universe Within, and Bodyworlds: The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.

This paper examines our mortal fascination with seeing into the interior cabinet of the human body; I look at the dead body as a sort of cabinet of medical curiosity which encloses knowledge of the interior world, housing even the secrets of death and dying—thus raising questions about “normative” bodies or “normative” death. What does it mean to display or view a dead body, and in what ways do we inscribe the bodies of the displayed dead with meaning? Similarly, if we can conceive of the body as a text, then what does it mean in the postmodern era to dissect the dead body, literally or textually? If textual narrative “is a way to explore unusual worlds, even worlds of extremity” then how does the dead body—in whole or part—act as a site of narrative inscription for questions about interiority and death? Lastly, in what way has curiosity about the anatomy of the dead body been aligned with or mimicked common constructions of the Othered body as freakish, with the corpus as object of spectacle? How does the representation of the dead body within a medical or educational forum shape our cultural narrative of death, and alter our perception of life after (or in the midst of) death?


Similar Titles:
Dead to Rights: dead bodies, ethics, and human rights practice

The Hybrid Cadaver: How Medical Students Engage with the Multiplicity of the Dead Body


 
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