Biopower, Bodies . . . the Exhibition, and the Spectacle of Public Health
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Biopower, Bodies . . . the Exhibition, and the Spectacle of Public Health

From racial science to the freak show, the visual display of bodies has often been associated with objectification, biological essentialism, the discursive inscription of racial characteristics, and exoticizing representations of the "other." This has been particularly true of the anatomical gaze, which has quietly reproduced disciplinary, essentialized categories when directed at racialized, gendered, or criminalized bodies. In the past century, however, racism has taken a more subtle turn, often operating via a logic of "colorblindness" that disavows the perpetuation of structural inequalities. A biopolitical gaze has arisen that functions not so much to inscribe difference and discipline, but to universalize bodies in the service of managing biological life. At issue here is not how individual bodies are racialized, but rather how racialized distributions of health and harm are effaced as they give rise to new forms of knowledge and biotechnology.

Our essay considers a mass cultural manifestation of this universalizing medical gaze: Bodies . . . the Exhibition, a controversial and well-attended international exhibition of chemically preserved corpses. The exhibition has toured since 2005 and is currently on view in 10 international cities including Barcelona, Buenos Aires, San Diego, Fort Lauderdale, New York City, and [End Page 15] Washington, D.C. (www.bodiestheexhibition.com).1 Whereas the panoptic power enjoyed by the particularizing and objectifying gaze has been well documented, Bodies provides an opportunity to explore the forms of identification, obfuscation, and control involved in more universalizing visual displays of human bodies. This essay will provide an overview of the exhibition's structure and literature, as well as a discussion of two of its enabling conditions: "plastination" technology and the utilization of unclaimed Chinese corpses. In order to understand how the gaze functions in a display that emphasizes the universal characteristics that lie under the skin, we draw on two bodies of theoretical literature: first, we consider how discussions of identification in the work of Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser shed light on the exhibition's visual form—the particular ways in which it poses and displays its corpses; next, we move to theorizations of "biopower" by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, which clarify how the exhibition contributes to broader transformations in health care and global capitalism. A final section connects the abstract, individual body on display at Bodies with the recent emergence of an enormous population of unregistered "floating people" in China's cities and peri-urban spaces in order to show how a model of social medicine based on "care of the self" not only neglects but indeed reproduces significant forms of legal and biological vulnerability.

The Spectacle of Public Health

To see is to know.

—Bodies . . . The Exhibition

What makes a visit to Bodies feel pleasurable and illuminating, rather than ghastly—an experience of awe inspired by scientific advancement and the fascinating complexity of the human body, rather than an uncomfortable immersion among Chinese corpses absurdly posed, imaginatively dissected, and transformed into plastic? The exhibition deploys a range of visual strategies to cue visitors to experience the bodies as spectacle. This, in turn, manipulates viewers to identify both with particularly idealized bodies and with the social, economic, and technological forces that underwrite their display. In this section, we draw on Jacques Lacan's elaboration of imaginary identification in "The Mirror Stage" and Louis Althusser's concept of interpellation to unpack the specular [End Page 16] dynamics underlying the slogan inscribed at the entrance to the exhibition: "To see is to know." What exactly is made visible in the exhibition of preserved corpses, and to whom? What kind of seeing subject is addressed by the arrangement, documentation (or lack thereof), and poses of these bodies?

Although Bodies advertises a correlation between vision and epistemology, the staging of the exhibits belies the extent to which vision involves affect and identification as well as knowledge. While individual galleries include multiple glass cases filled with specimens of body parts—a spinal column, a shoulder joint, a smoker's lung—, most also include one or two elaborately posed plastinated bodies designed to exemplify the beauty and complexity of the human form while also illustrating the interdependence...