Body Worlds – Possession, Fetish, Education, and Controversy

This ranks, I believe, as the first mention here of grave-robbing and dead-body possession fetishism (my own phrase, please offer alternatives!). I began work on this theme (work that directly led to my current work in Cambodia) more than ten years ago. My partner had been working as a NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) officer, and I had begun to work through some of the issues of academic and ethical interest in a few papers, including one that was presented at several conferences. My specific argument then was that Native American bodies are the object of so much institutional and white-settler desire precisely as a fetish of legitimate possession of the land. That is to say, the grave-robbing and continued possession and display of Native American grave goods, including bodies, is itself an attempt to overcome an ethical objection to the oppression of Native America.

Native Americans were fetishized by early European settlers first as peaceful Rousseauean noble savages, then progressively as various forms of subhuman: savage (just not noble), ignorant, culturally and mentally and spiritually impoverished, uncivilized, &c. These transformations in the imagination of the Native American in the mentality of the white settler had everything to do with the expropriation of Native land.

To this day, people buy and sell the bodies of indigenous people around the globe. Do a search on eBay for “jivaro shrunken heads,” and among all the fakes, you will certainly find a few genuine ones. After NAGPRA, it was illegal for any museum that receives public funding to continue to hold on to these bodies, or associated grave goods, if their descendent communities wanted them back. [text of NAGPRA]It remains to be seen whether NAGPRA, which is no longer directly funded, to my knowledge, will have any lasting effect on the practices of museums – they have clearly not had as large an effect on private collectors.


My experience with this line of reasoning in Cambodia will have to wait until another time – suffice it to say, my reasoning had to be revised for the new context. But what I want to point to here is the truly negligible attention paid to the Body Worlds business empire that has been making so much money worldwide.

Body Worlds is the roving Museum Exhibit – one of those multi-million-dollar superstar exhibits that Museums have been so dependent on in the past few years (as governments pull public funding, museums begin to do whatever it takes to keep the doors open) – that displays real human bodies, most of which have been flayed, and all organic parts of which have undergone a form of preservation called ‘plastination‘ by the originator of the technique, a German man named Gunther von Hagens

That’s not to say that no attention has been paid. Some has, and much of it has been quite decent. Such as this article over at Salon. But certainly not enough.

Some of the issues indicating that a more in-depth exploration might lead to a really horrendous story (possibly even a ‘funny’ one) are:

  • He keeps calling himself “professor” though it is unclear he has a legal right to that title (in Germany, that’s a serious legal offense – really!). [1]
  • He has a serious aversion to having the proper paperwork
  • His former partner, who performs the same techniques and has a competing exhibit, called “Bodies – The Exhibit”, openly acknowledges that most of his corpses are purchased from the Chinese state – the bodies of prisoners, mental patients, etc. von Hagen refuses to open up his paperwork; although he claims to have enough papers for each body, the bodies are separated from the paperwork and rendered anonymous, so there is no way of confirming this.
  • He apparently tried to buy a very tall man’s body from him before he died.[2]
  • He’s ‘half scientist, half sideshow,’ in the words of some reporters, such as this one from NPR. He calls himself a “public scientist.” Which is what justifies a public autopsy, for example.
  • This play with his identity and credential causes him to make, by his own admission, a number of outrageous ‘mistakes.’ Like when he announced that he thought it would be feasible to sell plastinated corpses as commodities, to private individuals. He had to take that one back.
  • Perhaps most worriesome is the persistent idea that his bodies come from Chinese prisoners and patients. The German publication Der Spiegel has been most aggressive on the Body Worlds exhibit in general, though their considered outrage hasn’t translated elsewhere very well. And in 2004, they published evidence that some of the bodies in the exhibit were, in fact, executed Chinese prisoners. I cannot find the Spiegel piece, but this piece restates the main facts. As does this piece from NPR.

But when I began studying Cambodia and the treatment of the dead there, it became clear to me that the same process was not in effect there. Certainly, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the Vietnamese-sponsored ‘puppet regime’ of the 1980s, had fetishized the dead of Choeung Ek as the paradigmatic victims of the Khmer Rouge. In point of fact, more of the Choueng Ek dead were likely to be cadres of Angkar (the Organization) than in most other execution sites, precisely because Choueng Ek was the place where the victims of S-21 – the most important interrogation and purge prison under Democratic Kampuchea – were dumped.

So, the Choeung Ek dead, more than most other groups of Khmer Rouge victims, were made the paradigmatic victims of the Khmer Rouge. These victims were also perpetrators, and highlighted the moral ambiguity of the period. This was perfect for the new regime, composed of Khmer Communists who had defected from the Khmer Rouge (or had broken with precursor organizations earlier) who now opposed the organization which they had previously supported. This was done with a great deal of connivance from the West, which supplied iconic phrases like “Killing Fields,” and Noms de guerres for leaders that were never used in Cambodia, like calling Ta Mok (itself a Nom de guerre) “The Butcher.”

Eventually, the Day of Hate, the CPP-sponsored secular day “to remain tied in anger” against the Khmer Rouge, was introduced. This story will have to continue from there some other time.


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