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  • Iatrogenic Permutations:From Digital Genesis to the Artificial Other
  • Tama Leaver

According to international media headlines, November 1994 saw a spectacular and completely unprecedented event: fifteen months after his execution by lethal injection, convicted murderer Joseph Paul Jernigan was dramatically resurrected in cyberspace. Journalistic embellishments aside, there was nothing miraculous about Jernigan's reappearance. Rather, after leaving his body to medical science, he became the first template for the US National Library of Medicine's ambitious Visible Human Project. Accordingly, Jernigan's corpse was dissected, then planed into cross-sections one millimetre thick; these segments were then exhaustively scanned and finally converted into high-resolution three-dimensional digital recordings. The resulting complete anatomical model could not only be viewed, examined and manipulated in a number of different ways but could also be made to model living functions: "the heart [could] be made to beat, the veins to bleed, [and even] the flesh to bruise and lacerate" (Waldby 16). In the informatic Visible Man, the supposedly clear and rigid distinction between animate and inanimate—or life and death—had, at the very least, begun to blur. Thus, when a second subject, the Visible Woman, joined her male counterpart online, media reports predictably announced a new technological Eden in which "Virtual Eve joins Virtual Adam" (Waldby 111).1

In the same year that the Visible Man debuted online, Australian science fiction author Greg Egan was also exploring the idea of digital bodies in his novel Permutation City. His goal was to take digital existence and conscious software "absolutely seriously, and push the logical consequences as far as possible" (42) To this end, his novel is divided into two main sections. [End Page 424] The first deals with the issues arising from the introduction of conscious informatic "Copies" of (mainly deceased) humans in the not-too-distant-future. The impact of this "digital genesis" is examined from the perspectives of both embodied biological humans and their emergent digital counterparts. The second section focuses more intensely on identity formation, subjectivity, and day to day existence for informatic subjects within a closed, coherent, and independent digital environment. Individually, both PermutationCity and The Visible Human Project are seminal sites from which to address contemporary cultural anxieties about embodiment and subjectivity in the digital millennium. Despite quite different contexts for their construction and development—one emerging from the nexus of biomedical technology and capital punishment, and the other (most directly) from the mind of an author of speculative fiction with a strong background in computer science—there are many points of connection between these two, broadly termed, texts. Moreover, when analysed comparatively, these texts illuminate significant common themes and intersecting tropes. Most important among these is a consistent questioning of human subjectivity, identity and embodiment in the face of new biomedical and technological advances.

As cultural critic Catherine Waldby has noted in her seminal work on the biomedical imaginary, the Visible Human Project was continually framed by Genesis references. In the popular media, for example, "the launch in late 1995 of the Visible Woman data [. . .] was almost universally presented as the provision of a mate for the Visible Man, an Eve sent to cyberspace to provide companionship for a solitary Adam" (111). Genesis iconography in this instance can be read in two ways: as the beginning, in the literal religious interpretation; or as evoking the continuation of a Western tradition with a past deeply rooted in Christian mythology. Ostensibly, reading the Visible Human Project as a new beginning seems the more compelling interpretation: the Visible Human figures are, after a fashion, miraculously reanimated in a bold new digital world where they will never age or decay, infused with a form of artificial vitality.2 In contrast, some critics argue that the Project is the latest high-tech step in Western medicine's anatomical tradition that can be traced back to the earliest anatomy sketches of the sixteenth century.3 Waldby, however, takes a more complex approach, arguing for a form of Genesis located within medical science: an iatrogenesis.

Conventionally, iatrogenesis refers to the secondary and unintended by-product of medical procedures. So, for example, the nausea and hair loss associated with chemotherapy are iatrogenic illnesses; they...