Feminist Theory 12 (2):165-181 (2011)

Rebecca Scott
William Rainey Harper College
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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DOI 10.1177/1464700111404246
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