REMAINS TO BE SEEN: “Our Body” as ideology

Katie (who gets credit for this title), Samantha, and I got sucked into the “OUR BODY” exhibit at UT’s Stark Center, which houses a “museum” dedicated to the instillation of norms of human “fitness.” Named after fitness gurus Joe and Betty Weider, its galleries include a huge, rotating plaster cast of a statue of Hercules, a reading room featuring sports history and periodicals; its walls are graced by posters of athletes and groups of men and women working out.

The call to fitness contextualizes the experience of the OUR BODY exhibit. Only during our making our way through the exhibit did its other investments become apparent. Of course, like all exhibits, it is rhetorical, guiding spectators teleologically through its scenes. Lighting, technology, and walls of quotations from philosophers, artists, and anatomists all give dignifying credence to the display.

But there are numerous problems with this series of representations. Numerous scholars and journalists have attended to how the plastinicization of corpses as a way of preserving them for display, the selection of “fit” bodies posed in athletic endeavors, and the pedagogical revelation of “diseased” bodies all may be aligned aesthetically and ideologically with Nazism. They are bodies made to work in the name of freedom from superstition and romance. (See https://sites.google.com/site/stopbodyworlds/media-coverage/body-worlds-body-aesthetics, and the excellent rhetorical/anthropological analysis at http://blog.lib.umn.edu/sphpod/sphpod/schulte-sasse.mp3).

In addition, the gender politics of the exhibit are alarming. Almost all of the “plastinates” as critics call them are male; penises and testes dangle matter-of-factly from most, with signs identifying the penis at every one. The female body is reserved for and sequestered in the “prenatal” area, marked off with warnings about the material within being sensitive and commanding reverence from viewers. Parents are exhorted to escort their children or protect them from this content. Inside this small display, one gets a look at the female reproductive system, with strange emphasis on the vulva, labia, and even pubic hair.

Then there are fetuses suspended in plastic at various stages of development. A wall sign describes the changes in fetal development week-by-week; except for the title of the display outside, the fetus is referred to as “the baby” after the blastocyst stage. The reservation of femininity for reproduction and the reverence dictated toward gestation have clear ideological import. (At the same time, the display of fetuses–shrimplike even at 8-12 weeks–would give pause to any abortion opponent looking for ammunition.)

In other cities around the world, the exhibit has gone under a number of names and has included varying numbers of plastinates. In some exhibits, the donors of corpses and their release forms are put into the foreground. In Austin, however, there is no mention of where the bodies came from. One is struck by the fact that they are overwhelmingly male and Asian in their features and coloration. (There is something seriously disturbing about seeing a corpse holding its own removed skin draped over one extended arm.)

A little digging reveals that it is likely that the bodies in the Austin exhibit (with the exception of the fetuses, of course) are those of Chinese convicts, numbers of whom could have been political prisoners, who were executed or died in prison. There is no way that these once-persons gave their “consent” to participate in this ostensibly educational, scientific project.

According to Boston Herald journalist Darren Garnick, German scientist “Gunther von Hagens’ factory in Dalian, China’s third largest port,
reportedly employs 260 medical school grads to work the “Body Worlds” assembly line. Factory workers get $200-$400 a month to peel skin,
scrape fat off muscle and replace bodily fluids with soft plastic. Based on a presumed 40-hour work week, that comes to $1.25 to $2.50 an hour for what has to be the grossest job in the Eastern Hemisphere” (https://sites.google.com/site/stopbodyworlds/media-coverage/the-working-stiff; see also http://www.postgazette.com/pg/07175/796418-109.stm).

This fact more than any other reveals the exhibit as a for-profit enterprise mounted by the self-aggrandizing inventor of the plastinicization process. (Not incidentally, visiting the exhibit is not cheap.)

Finally, the exhibit cultivates pornographic voyeurism, which, one could argue, all such representations do. I am not embracing a scopophobic stance, however. Numbers of groups have protested this exhibit where it has appeared (notable among them are religious groups for the unavoidable materialism of the display). Given the heinous provenance of these bodies, the employment of sweatshop labor in the tranformation of them into objects, and the posing of the dead as physically fit Barbie dolls, protest is a reasonable response.

At the very least, we should encourage spectators to recognize the rhetoricity of the display and to question the conditions of its production and the social relations of its consumption.

At UT, the exhibit is called: “OUR BODY: The Universe Within.” Marketed as a display of “actual human bodies,” the display will, according to promotional material, make it so that “You will never look at your body in the same way again!” It is, according to the brochure, a “blockbuster exhibit!”

The exhortations to regard these molded, arranged bodies as “our bodies” and to learn a new way of seeing ourselves through these viscerally exposed models may cultivate identification with these anonymous others. However, it seems to me that the import of the title “OUR BODIES” is the claim to ownership, wherein property and propriety intersect.

My Harvey Milk Day Speech . . . how I wanted it to come out.

We Must Unite and Fight:

Speech at Harvey Milk Day Rally 5/22/2010, Austin Texas

Conclusion of Equality Across America statewide conference

(which didn’t exactly come out this way)

Today, I am wearing the “queermadillo” t-shirt that many of you present signed at the 300,000 strong National Equality March in Washington D.C. That march demanded full equality at the federal level for LGBTQ persons in all matters governed by civil law. The march was a powerful statement that we are here, we are on the move, and we are not waiting for our rights.

As I put on this shirt, I was reminded of the incredible diversity of our communities as reflected in the ways we name ourselves: Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Transgender. Transsex. Intersexed. Allied. Questioning. Queer. Moreover, many of us experience the multiple oppressions of living at the intersections of race, gender, sex, class, nation, and so on. We belong to multiple political organizations and ascribe to diverse political beliefs.

But we share in common the way that we challenge or mess up the segregated categories that our rulers depend upon to divide us—gay/straight, black/white, immigrant/native, male/female: legal/illegal. When we demand equality, even in the seemingly conservative domain of marriage and family, we mess up the categories that warrant the dehumanization of so many of us to the profit of the few. The backlash against us shows how we share enemies in common. We share on a deep level our demand for recognition of our core humanity.

For these reasons, we must UNITE and fight.

Every day, we undergo the insults of oppression and we face the limitations of our movement and its leaders in responding to our needs. Emmanuel Winston today told us today about being bashed, how he represents thousands of other instances of everyday violence against gay and especially transgender persons. In 30 states it is legal to fire a person just for being gay. Transgender workers face the added burden of not having documentation that matches their gender identity and expression, which leads to incredible unemployment and hardship.

Many of you here represent members of the military and veterans persecuted under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law. Like many immigrants, we are decreed “illegal,” and with immigrants, we demand the breakdown of the borders between us. Out4Immigration founder Amos Lim today told us how deeply the immigration issue matters to LGBTQ people. If we are in bi-national families, we have no legal right to unite them.

And then we are denied the rights and dignities of recognized families and marriage. I know many of you recognize, as I do, that the nuclear family idealized by the Right is a problem. But our demand for marriage equality is not a bid to replicate the politics of normal. When we enter these relationships and win recognition for them, we are transforming society at its base. We transform these institutions by our entry into them. Marriage and family rights are, like immigration rights, a class issue as well. Being able to provide one’s partner health care; the right to share and inherit property and pensions; these and many other benefits are desperately needed by many of us.

We MUST unite and fight!

But the leading organizations of our movement—including the Human Rights Campaign and the National Lesbian and Gay Rights Lobby—have failed to prevent or stop these harms. They have counseled patience, compromise, and working through the “official” channels of elections and lobbying. They embrace Democratic politicians and forgive them when they betray us. For 40 years, basically since Stonewall, these organizations have not moved us forward.  The old strategies are not working any more and we are tired of waiting.

It will take a new generation, this generation here, to refuse to compromise or to wait when it comes to our basic rights. Harvey Milk, whose life and work we honor here today, once said, “It takes no compromise to give people their rights.” In other words, our rights are not subject to compromise! Dismissing our urgency and militance, Congressman Barney Frank told organizers for the National Equality March last year that the only thing that would feel the pressure of the movement was the grass. But we will not wait and we will not be silent.

We must unite and FIGHT.

Harvey Milk was a politician yes, but an organizer, a rabble-rouser, and an agitator first and foremost. He refused to settle, to wait, or to give up what was unique about himself even while uniting with others across ideology, race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. Infamously, he told every group he spoke to that his aim was to recruit them. His memory continues to recruit us to this fight.

He said, “I have tasted freedom. I will not give up that which I have tasted. I have a lot more to drink.”

We have tasted freedom in recent years in several states, only to have the cup ripped from our hands.  But we will not give up that which we have tasted. We have a lot more to drink. Harvey Milk struggled until his death to win his freedom.

If we are rightly to honor his legacy, WE must unite and fight!

Harvey Milk was right.

We must UNITE and fight.

We MUST unite and fight.

We must unite and FIGHT!