Body Worlds exhibit
But when it comes to death, isn’t it always a spectacle?
Not when it hits close to home.
On February 26th, the Pentagon announced that it will be lifting the media ban on images of soldiers’ coffins as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan, so long as the affected families agree to the pictures. Photos of military coffins and wounded soldiers had been common during the Vietnam War; perhaps as a preemptive measure for avoiding the unpopularization of the war, George Bush imposed the ban on coffin pictures in 1991 just in time for the first Gulf War.
It may be arguable whether explicit pictures of the dead have a significant effect on the public’s opinion, but we may reason that coming face-to-face with lifeless and broken human bodies does make death and war more graspable and tangible realities. So in the name of boosting the collective morale and faith in the government, best to keep those bodies hidden.
Vietnam War, photo by Larry Burrows
… Yet we merrily flock into movie theatres, armed with popcorn and Maltesers to watch people get their heads sawed off, and we candidly dispense 22 dollars for the right to get up-close and personal with disemboweled, dissected and dismembered human corpses.
Men, women, and children of all ages, casually flirted with the corpses on display at the Body Worlds exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre in 2005, and even I was surprised at my own desinvolture before this cadaveric carnival. I even found myself fascinated with the pregnant lady’s exposed fetus like a pried open apricot , and the fat man’s sliced epidermis like large slices of bacon.
Under most circumstances, mutilated human bodies do not make for particularly appealing visual stimuli because they force us to face the reality of death, violence, war and pain. But with a little alchemy of the mind – and of the body too, by turning the the body’s water and fat into plastic – we are seemingly able to bend our notions of what we find tolerable, and distort and contort the dead to pleasure, turning the stuff of nightmares into truly original pieces of art… or even into the stuff of dreams. For those who prefer their corpses served dry, the Dream of Eternal Life in Italy offers a cadaveric feast lighter on the eyes and more removed, temporally, from our reality.
Oetzi, on display at the Dream of Eternal Life exhibit
So how can we be simultaneously so blase and so concerned over our dead bodies?
It seems that our levels of involvement in matters of pain-infliction and death have everything to do with how and who we identify with. The amount of empathy we choose to mobilize appears to depend on the degree of connection we feel and what the context of this connection is. We relate to primates when it comes to invasive medical testing on Great Apes, but when it comes to war and torture, we squeeze the realm of living things that we connect with further and our empathy gets limited to our human kin. On the other hand, when it’s rape we are talking about, we (mostly) reduce the empathy pool by half. And when it comes to the dead, it seems we are mostly bothered when we can relate to them by a temporal or familiarity relationship (blood connection, friendship, people we’ve seen on TV, newspapers or heard about), or if the circumstances of their deaths somehow hit home.
Pictures of coffins of dead soldiers? That hits home. Anonymous dancing cadavers? Not so much.
… and for this reason I strongly suspect I will carry on flirting with the contorted dead but cringing at the flag-covered coffins …