Afterlife, but not as we know it: medicine, technology and the body resurrected

Natalia Lizama

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Abstract

This thesis contends that technologically-derived resurrections of human bodies and bodily fragments can be viewed as indicative of a 'post-biological' ontology. Drawing from examples in which human bodies are resurrected, both figuratively and actually, this thesis puts forward the term 'post-biological subject' as an ideological framework for conceptualising the reconfiguration of human ontology that results from various medical technologies that 'resurrect' the human body. In this instance, the term 'postbiological', borrowed from Hans Moravec who uses it denote a future in which human being is radically disembodied and resurrected within a digital realm, is used somewhat ironically: where Moravec imagines an afterlife in which the body is discarded as so much 'meat', the post-biological afterlife of the body in this thesis centres around a form of corporeal resurrection. Corpses, living organs and excreta may all be resurrected, some of them in digital format, yet this kind of resurrection departs radically from the disembodied spiritual bliss imagined in many conceptualisations of resurrection. The post-biological subject resists ontological delineation and problematises boundaries defining self and other, living and dead, and human and nonhuman and is fraught with a number of cultural anxieties about its unique ontological status. These concerns are analysed in the context of a number of phenomena, including melancholy, horror, monstrosity and the uncanny, all of which similarly indicate an anxious fixation with human ontology. The purpose of discussing post-biological bodies in relation to phenomena such as melancholy or the uncanny is not to reinstate as ideological frameworks the psychoanalytic models from which these concepts are derived, but rather to use them as starting points for more complex analyses of postbiological ontology. The first and second chapters of this thesis discuss instances in which the human body is posthumously modified, drawing on Gunther von Hagens's Body Worlds exhibition and the Visible Human Project. The Body Worlds plastinates are situated in a liminal and ambiguous ontological space between life and death, and it is argued that their extraordinary ontological status evokes a form of imagined melancholy, wherein the longed-for and lost melancholic object is a complete process of death. In the case of the Visible Human Project, it is argued that the gruesome and highly technologised process of creating the Visible Male, wherein the corpse is effectively dehumanised and iv rendered geometric, evokes the trope of horror, while at the same time being fraught with a nostalgic longing for a pre-technological, anatomically 'authentic' body. The third and fourth chapters of this thesis discuss instances in which the living human body is reconfigured, focusing on immortal cell lines and organ transplantation, and on medical imaging technologies such as computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. In the third chapter it is argued that organ transplantation and the creation of immortal cell lines give rise to profound anxieties about ontological contamination through their capacity to render permeable the imagined boundaries defining self, and in this way invoke the monstrous. The fourth chapter interrogates the representation of medical imaging in Don DeLillo?s novel White Noise, arguing that the medical representation of the body functions as a form of double, a digital doppelganger that elicits an uncanny anxiety through its capacity to presage death.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2008

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