Archive for January, 2019

Catch Me If You Can – Upcoming Conferences

Posted in Dissertation, Presentations, The corpse on January 27, 2019 by Diana S-V

Between a full-time job as an instructional designer and slowly (but surely) making meaningful progress on the dissertation, I’m not left with much time to develop and give conference papers. This year, however, I’ve been fortunate to be invited to give a few guest lectures in colleagues’ classes, and now, I’ll be presenting at my two favorite annual conferences: the ACLA Annual Meeting and Congress.

Although both papers concern Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition, they take very different approaches. As the latter half of my first chapter (and one of my unpublished book chapter drafts) focuses on the exhibition, it’s nice to be able to dig into two specific aspects of Body Worlds that I may only be able to touch on in the dissertation. I’ve included abstracts below, in case anyone is interested in the details.

Exhibitionist Embodiment: Aesthetics of Morbidity and Vitality in Body Worlds (ACLA Annual Meeting, March 7-10, 2019)

In The Morbidity of Culture: Melancholy, Trauma, Illness and Dying in Literature and Film, Stephanie Siewert and Antonia Mehnert suggest that contemporary social and medical discourse is primarily defined by the relationship between cultures of morbidity and cultures of vitality. Rather than seeing morbidity as a negative value and a binary counterpart to vitality, Siewert and Mehnert argue that the generative power of morbidity becomes a site of ethical and aesthetic imagination. Few projects have captured the rise of classical and technical anatomy as an aesthetic better than the spectacle of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition, an experience which combines the didactic components of public health presentations, the composition of an art show, and the visual and material motifs of anatomical practice. My paper argues that examining Body Worlds within the paradigms of vitality and morbidity allows us to describe the unique new relationship between health, aesthetics, and ethics that technological advances in anatomy and physiology have produced in the past fifteen years. From the radical shift in conceptualizing the public and private medical body to the political consequences of “democratizing” anatomy and narratives of health more broadly, BodyWorlds is a visual and physical manifestation of contemporary issues in biomedical ethics, health humanities, and theories of embodiment.

“But where, and how, and when did you come by it?”: Donation, Theft, and Contemporary Cadaveric Economies (ACCUTE/IGA Joint Panel – Congress, June 1-7)

In “The Body Snatcher” (1884), Robert Louis Stevenson introduced his Victorian audience to the shadowy figure of Dr. Wolfe Macfarlane, a shadowy anatomist who uses coercion and murder not only to supply himself and his students with cadavers to dissect but also to silence those who would expose his grisly work. Stevenson loosely based Macfarlane on real-life Scottish anatomist Robert Knox, whose involvement in the Burke and Hare murders rendered him a questionable figure among other mid-nineteenth-century medical professionals. While Stevenson depicts Macfarlane as a murderer, it was Knox’s participation in the economy of body-snatching homicides (rather than committing those homicides himself) that earned him the disdain of colleagues and the public in the wake of Burke and Hare’s arrests. Similar aspersions have been cast on Gunther von Hagens, whose Body Worlds exhibition combines the ambiance of an art installation, the didacticism of public health education, and the memorialization of medical body donors to great commercial and critical success. An exposé by German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that some of the specimens used in von Hagens’ exhibitions had come from executed Chinese prisoners. Von Hagens has also been accused of purchasing cadavers of prisoners, homeless people, and the mentally ill in Russia, charges that he has vehemently denied and which have not been proven. The triad of Macfarlane, Knox, and von Hagens — and the narratives surrounding their work — demonstrate how the discourse of cadaveric economies has changed even as anxieties about how educators source specimens have grown. Even without the direct exchange of financial capital for cadavers, systems of economy and exchange nevertheless inflect the sentiment and altruism of donating one’s body to medical science, and these notions (“sentiment” and “altruism”) are themselves burdened by an economic framework. Reading “The Body Snatcher” alongside the real-life cases of Knox and von Hagens, I explore the ways in which public perception of von Hagens and Body Worlds calls back to the Burke and Hare murders (and Knox’s involvement in them) as a paradigm for determining guilt, complicity, and responsibility in cadaveric economies. I then look to how this economy has changed with the advent of voluntary body donation as a moral practice in the late twentieth century. Tracing the transformation of specimen procurement from Gothic body snatching to contemporary medical donation, this paper examines the cadaveric economy as a determining principle of contemporary medical ethics as well as the suspicion that tempers the benevolent discourse of body donation.

“Quiet and dignified”: Choosing a good death for our beloved cat

Posted in Reviews on January 10, 2019 by Diana S-V

To say that Ophelia Grace was my cat isn’t quite right. She was our family cat, in every sense of the expression. When my sister and I were younger, she was our playful partner in mischief and exploration. When my sister and I moved away, she made sure that my parents, still living in Alberta, never felt that their nest was empty. Ophelia brought out immeasurable tenderness in my stoic father and incredible joy in my mother, who sometimes has a hard time with her girls both miles away in Ontario.

But it was my mom who I was the most worried about. My mom has a huge, caring heart, and I think there was a part of me worrying that my mom would try to hold on longer than she should. Then again, my mother is also amazingly empathetic, and when it came time to choose the manner and timing of Ophelia’s death, my mom chose perfectly.

For context: we rescued Ophelia when she was a very young kitten. She couldn’t have been more than a year. That was when I was 13 years old. I’m now 32, putting our dear girl at between 19 and 20 years of age. As anyone with a cat will tell you, that’s a damn good run. I should also mention that when people talk about spoiling their cats, they probably didn’t imagine the following scene: my dad, clad only in his boxers and half-asleep, shuffling to the bathroom in the middle of the night, stopping to check the microwavable wheat we gave Ophelia to help with arthritis aches and to keep her tiny body warm during Alberta winders was still giving off heat. Then a shuffle the microwave, a warm little bag tucked in around her hindquarters, and my dad’s gruff voice muttering, “Hey, girl…” as he stroked her head. Or my mom dropping everything to get down on her hands and knees and brush Ophelia when the cat gave the unmistakable signal — sitting in the middle of the living room rug and howling her tiny, adorable face off. No, this cat didn’t just have a good life. She had the best life.

Today, my mom texted me. “My heart is heavy,” she said, “but I cannot have her like this.” Ophelia had recently suffered a stroke, losing the vision in her left eye and becoming unstable on her feet. Once she became incontinent, my mom knew it was time. “Her lost cry at night tears my heart. She is unstable on her feet and is incontinent.” Here’s what really got me, though. My mom said, “That is ignoble for such an Abyssinian princess who used to drop dinner at my feet.” We always joked that Ophelia was an Abyssinian or an Egyptian Mau because she was such a long, elegant tabby.

My mom used her empathy to determine the timing, today, and she also used it to try to figure out what a good death for our girl might look like. Ophelia had a nice last meal of her favorite food. My mom gave her a bath with a warm, wet washcloth. She was bundled up in the ragged green blanket that she adored, and laid in my mom’s arms as our longtime vet gently put her to sleep. “That’s what I would have wanted,” my mom said, and I’m incredibly proud of her for having the strength and foresight to make the arrangments that made such a sweet, soft death possible.

I fret a lot about the fact that I have three older cats and a young son. One day, I will have to guide the process that helps Molly, Spirit, and Frank to comfortable, good deaths. That might be soon. It might be a long ways off. But I have faith that as long as I keep my eyes open and use my empathy to imagine a good life for my fluffy companions, I can also watch and know how and when to give them the best possible death.


Ophelia Grace, cute as a button.

For more resources and information about grieving the loss and celebrating the life of a pet, please visit the following:

7 Self-Care Essentials While Grieving the Death of a Pet
Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously
The grief of losing a pet is traumatic and universal. So why don’t we talk about it?
Man’s Best Friend: 5 Considerations for Grieving the Loss of a Pet