Lacerations: The Visible Human Project, Impossible Anatomies, and the Loss of Corporeal Comprehension – Eugene Thacker

The Visible Human is one of the cornerstones of a one million percent revolution in medicine. (…) If everyone develops their simulators from the Visible Human, then these things will be inter-operable. All you do is replace the Visible Human with your patient’s own data. (…) It is no longer blood and guts; it is bits and bytes. It’s like sending a letter or e-mail…

Dr. Richard Satava (Reiche, 1999: 9)

The Visible Human Project

In 1989, the National Library of Medicine initiated the Visible Human Project (which I’ll also be referring to as the VHP), a $1.4 million dollar research endeavor whose primary objective would be to create the computerized-equivalent of the anatomical atlas. To appreciate the significance of this project, one needs to consider the exhaustive process whereby the Visible Man and the Visible Woman were produced:

Once healthy, intact cadavers were located (from individuals who had donated their bodies to science), the bodies were scanned, using MRI and CT scanning technologies, and then frozen. Using a special cryosectioning saw, researchers then proceeded to slice the cadavers into transverse cross-sections at approximately 1-millimeter intervals, culminating in thousands of cross-sectional slices. Each cross section was then encoded using digital photography. These body slices were then transferred into a digital file format and organized into a computer database. The database was made available over the Internet so that, using a basic file transfer application, users may download cross-sections or indeed entire segments of the Visible Human Dataset.

The projected applications of the VHP material include educational uses (for example, to replace the need for cadaver dissection in medical schools), medical uses (for example, with pre-surgery visualizations), and non-medical uses (in computer animation, research by the U.S. military, and even industrial design).

The researchers working on the VHP at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, called the process of producing these Visible Humans ‘reverse engineering.’ As they state in a textbook derived from the VHP, ‘we now have a renewable cadaver, a standardized patient, and a basis for digital populations of the future. Not only can we dissect it, we can put it back together again and start all over’ (Spitzer & Whitlock, 1997: xix).


The Visible Human Project brings with it many questions. Is the cadaver a body? Is the body a cadaver? The VHP shows us a cadaver that never decays, a body that is lifeless but animated, and a visual morphology of the body that is also the body mediated by anatomical science. Furthermore, in attempting to understand the ways in which the biomedical body is being refigured through the VHP, what are those ambiguous zones where the body is technologically cut, strategically opened, its outlines and membranes contaminated by the threat of an unruly, “base materialism” which confronts the discourse of anatomical science? When the body is technically understood through an informatic logic, in what sense can a “virtual” body be said to exist? More importantly, how will such anatomies, constituted by information, touch the bodies of individual subjects and patients in medical practice and health care?

As a way of approaching such questions, I would like to inquire into the technical conditions of possibility, within which the modern science of anatomy can effect a smooth, progressive transition from a methodology based on observation in dissection, to an anatomy based on an informatics of a virtual body, what we might call a ‘digital anatomy.’ At issue, certainly, are new modes of representation and visualization, and the training of visual habits. But more than representation itself, more than the production of images, it is the ways in which the production of something we might call ‘impossible anatomies’ is part of a process linking biological, ‘real’ bodies to computer databases and their technical modes of organization. At stake here is an anatomical boundary-dispute and technical enclosure.


However, this concern with organizing the body is in no way exclusive to contemporary developments in anatomical and medical science. What the VHP shows us is that, at least since the early Renaissance, the history of anatomical science in the West has been obsessively concerned with putting into practice this link between modes of organization, visibility, and technique. This is especially evident during the so-called early modern period, where a series of changes are gradually transforming how bodies are known through medical discourse and practice.

The first of these changes has to do with the role of the dissection of human cadavers in anatomical and medical knowledge. In 16th century Italy, anatomists such as Andreas Vesalius begin to challenge several centuries of textual authority primarily due to a central discrepancy between text and body. Vesalius’ controversial move was to suggest that certain key areas in the classical texts of Galen were quite simply wrong because Galen had never actually dissected a human body to verify his theories. In other words, the crucial move implied in Vesalius’ critique of Galen was that, for anatomical science, the demonstrability of visible proof would take priority over the tradition of textual authority forging an intimate link between seeing and knowing.

from the works of Andreas Vesalius

Many of the implications of the centrality of dissection to anatomy were also instituted into the anatomical text, and this is the second change I would like to point to. In 1543, Vesalius publishes De Humani Corporis Fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body), often considered as the text which inaugerates anatomy into the modern age.

There are several significant elements which differentiate Vesalius’ text from those of his predecessors. For example, the Fabrica was important not only in developing more realistic modes of representation, but also in approaching the anatomical body from what in retrospect we can call a technical logic. In Vesalius we see the anatomical body organized according to tables, taxonomies, charts, and what Jonathan Sawday calls a ‘keying mechanism’ (1995: 133). Text is not only juxtaposed to body, but a diagrammatic logic is grafted onto and laterally inscribes the body, an approach that is still seen in contemporary anatomical textbooks.

These two primary changes – changes in the role of dissection and changes in the modes of representation – culminate in the numerous “anatomy theaters” which were constructed during the early modern period. Concurrent with developments in Renaissance theater, specifically-designated anatomy theaters (such as those at Padua or Bologna) would hold public dissections. Such events were attended by professors, medical students, state officials, nobility, and other interested citizenry. In the center of the theater was the cadaver, next to it an anatomical text Most often a professor would read a selected passage from the text, while a dissector would perform the actual cutting and dismembering. Between them was an assistant, the ostensor, whose job was to point out the parts read in the anatomical text.

The Renaissance anatomy theater provides an example where anatomical science performatively enunciates the anatomical-medical body. It is in this space between body and text that the anatomical body and the body of anatomical knowledge is constantly negotiated. The juxtaposition between the grotesque, visceral, messy dissected body, and the clear, clean, order of the anatomical text provides a zone where the body is constantly interrogated and regulated through a choreography of language and technique. This ‘see-for-yourself’ approach became one of the central issues hotly debated among early modern anatomists: Vesalius is a key figure here because, while never totally denouncing the value of the ancients or of textual anatomy, he attempts to make of dissection a critical gesture – the test against which traditional and text-based anatomy must measure up.

Power and Body

Like anatomical science during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Visible Human Project is a cutting into and an opening of the human body. Inasmuch as the practices and the techniques of anatomical science have become foundational in generating a knowledge of the body, these ‘technological cuts’ assemble an anatomical body at the same time as they dismember the cadaver. In addition, the very act of strategically cutting open the body brings with it a certain threat of de-anthropomorphizing the body, an anxiety of losing the boundaries and the enclosure of the body in the very opening of those boundaries. Anatomical science has thus had a twofold challenge: to technically make visible and intelligible the hidden order of the human body, while also managing the potential unruliness of a body that has been violently yet precisely cut open.

Cross-sections of the Visible Man

However, the Visible Human Project is unique in that, unlike early modern anatomy, anatomical dissection no longer functions as the guarantee of visible knowledge, as it did for 16th century anatomists such as Vesalius. The Visible Human Project instead makes use of a range of computer-based technologies to reveal a different ‘truth’ of the anatomical body. The degree-zero of this new, digital anatomy is based not on an anatomical or structural logic; it is instead based on a technical logic of the handling of information. The basic elements for the Visible Human Project are thus the digital file and the database. With the digital file, one has a singular cross-section of a cadaver which has been translated into a digital format compatible for computer and networking technologies. With the database, one has a multi-layered, flexible organization of information, based on data storage, data retrieval, and data transmission. In these processes is another type of ‘technological cut’: certainly there is the rather gruesome technology of the cryosectioning saw, but there is also a computer-based cut which scans, encodes, renders, and decodes those individual digital files or body slices, enabling it to be variously partitioned, networked, and reassembled in a digital format.

The point here is not that an assumed, pre-discursive, ‘real’ body is dematerialized into abstract data, nor that the virtual body is somehow constructed while the body prior to encoding is not. Rather, what is happening is that the anatomical body is being technically aligned with the capacities of information, so that the material practices of anatomical science may be integrated into the digital domain.

What this suggests is that the Visible Human Project sets up a unique type of relationship between virtual technologies and the body. Rather than expressing a desire to transcend the base necessities of the body through cyberspace or simulation, the Visible Human Project is an attempt to ‘elevate’ the anatomical body, aligning the technical logics of sophisticated computer modeling and visualization with the anatomical logics of dissection and the anatomical atlas. Such a correlation between the anatomical body and computer data is possible only through a technical regime of disciplining the anatomical body. The Visible Human Project thus instantiates a paradoxical ‘cadaver docility,’ utilizing a range of techniques to enable the cadaver to display and demonstrate itself, whether through the use of computer modeling, or through the use of Web-based Java applications for viewing the Visible Humans (Foucault, 1977). The task of the Visible Human Project is thus to facilitate the technical points of contact between knowledge and the body, as well as to enable the cadaver to articulate itself through new computer technologies.


In his text Haine de la poesie, which was later to be re-named The Impossible, Georges Bataille weaves philosophical, poetic, aphoristic, journalistic, and miscellaneous fragmentary texts into an affectively dense meditation on limits. Like much of Bataille’s work, The Impossible attempts to evoke ‘the impossible’ as a way of dramatizing and intensifying limits (limits of the body, limits of rational comprehension, limits of language, limits of death, limits of social structures). This evocation is fundamentally paradoxical because it is an active positing of an exteriority which can never itself be manifest, an intangible tactility, a zone of negative identification.

But this evocation and intensification of limits is also, in its very interrogation, the possibility of a radical, rigorous, and turbulent redistribution of the relationship to limits. When, in erotic texts such as Story of the Eye or The Dead Man, Bataille presents gendered bodies at the limits of their corporeal boundaries, threatening to leak beyond those boundaries but never wholly succeeding, he is evoking ‘the impossible’ as it is manifested and contingent within the body of the subject. Such moments – Bataille’s examples include erotic activity, religious ecstasy, ritual sacrifice, war, and the phenomena of flowers, jewels, excrement, and laughter – such moments are for Bataille ‘transgressive’ nodes, points of critique which highlight the contingency, fragility, dynamism, and concrete reality of limits of all kinds which structure social life (Foucault, 1998: 69-88).

This dual movement – the intensification of limits as a way of highlighting various contingencies, and the critical mobilization and redistribution of those limits to offer new perspectives – is the primary force of the notion of the impossible as Bataille uses it. Through its very articulation, the impossible illustrates its unique, paradoxical character: it is transgressive in that it posits a de-limited exteriority, a threat of un-doing limits, and it is normative in that as an exteriority it may serve to negatively define what is on its borders. The range of mobility is contained in the articulation of the paths marking an unknowable exteriority – what Bataille often refers to as a ‘laceration’ (1988a: 35; 45).

At the heart of Bataille’s use of the impossible is a question concerning the body of/and the subject: what characterizes the movement of the subject impelled to intensify its own limits, impelled to open itself to the contamination of a kind of de-anthropomorphism? What characterizes the impossible for the body-in-eroticism, the body-in-ecstasy, the body-in-defilement, the body-in-transcendence?

Digital Anatomy

The use of the impossible takes a specific form when considered within the anatomical and medical sciences. For these discourses and practices, scientific discourse is fused with technological innovation to produce a self-conscious progression and accumulation of knowledge. While the VHP utilizes biomedical technologies (MRI, CT), it also combines the physical technology of cryosectioning, with the highly sophisticated technology of computer imaging, rendering, and animating. The end result of the VHP is not an additive diagnostic aid, ultimately referring back to a ‘real’ body, but the production of a virtual body, a ‘digital anatomy’ that is simultaneously tied to the ‘real’ cadaver from which it is produced, as well as networked to a range of functions within cyberspace.

The Visible Man and Visible Woman are digital anatomies which can only exist in virtual space. The Java applets or virtual surgery simulations are manifestations of bodies whose physiology is simultaneously medical and computational. In this sense the VHP not only makes available new modes of producing knowledge about the anatomical body (still universal, still abstracted, still grounded in sexual difference), but it also creates digital anatomies with unique properties (the ability to view an animated simulation of a working digestive system, as in current Visible Woman research). So these are bodies which both produce new knowledges about the anatomical body, and which are endowed with unique capabilities which are impossible for ‘real’ bodies. The VHP is therefore a constant reminder that the virtual body is never totally virtual, and that ‘real’ bodies are never completely different from the technologies which touch them at multiple points.

The primary element which differentiates the Visible Human Project from traditional dissection, or from the use of diagnostic technologies in medicine, is in the range of applications of the Visible Human data. For instance, a number of medical schools and computer science centers have created complex interfaces with which to study and analyze human anatomy. These include CD-ROMs, applications for the Web, and the development of ‘haptic feedback interfaces,’ which simulate the texture and resistance of flesh, muscle, and tendon in a virtual dissection. In addition, the overall goal of the Visible Human Project is not just reproduction or simulation, but the development of the capacity to create the conditions for what VHP researchers have called a ‘living anatomy’ (Spitzer & Whitlock, 1998: 49). For instance, researchers working on the VHP have expressed the desire to be able to model digital anatomies of standardized bodies according to differences in age, sex, race, and pathological ratios, creating an anatomical morphology between bodies that are at once particularized and universal.

Virtual Dissection

Such morphological capacities are a direct result of the incorporation of new computer and networking technologies into anatomical science. With the range and the limitations afforded by such technologies, the Visible Human Project has been able to produce visualizations, models, and simulations of the anatomical body never before seen. An example is the basic ‘fly-through’ animation, where each of the Visible Man slices are put into an animating program to give the effect of literally taking the computer user straight through the body (see the Visible Human Project website for an example). Other examples include real-time, interactive simulations of physiological systems, and research done in pathology to see how a given pathogen affects the anatomical body (which, presumably, can be reset at any time), and simulations from virtual dissections (pictured here). But aside from such high-tech example, we might even take a literalization of the VHP Dataset: in this case what we have are a distributed and networked set of digitized cross-sectional slices from a cadaver. In other words, the very technical possibility of databasing and networking a cadaver suggests that the horizon of the impossible with respect to the body is being reconfigured by contemporary anatomical and medical science. Anatomies such as these are quite simply not possible in dissection or through medical technologies; they are produced by and depend upon the morphological capacities of computer-based technology applied to a science of the body.

Making reference to Bataille’s concept of ‘the impossible,’ we might call these kinds of bodies ‘impossible anatomies.’ For Bataille, the impossible designates a certain intensification of limits: limits of the body, limits of language, limits which define a given social structure. The impossible is that which highlights the point beyond which a body loses comprehension, beyond which the body is laid bare, constituted by boundaries which are also in excess of it. For the Visible Human Project, ‘impossible anatomies’ are bodies which, on the one hand, are not simply free-floating avatars, but which, on the other, are not simply a new version of the ‘body itself.’ Impossible anatomies are, above all, technically constituted and corporeally interstitial; they make possible anatomies that are dead but animated, inert but morphological, non-subjective but interactive, and composed of tissues that are also data.


The production of impossible anatomies results in two primary consequences for digital anatomy, with which I will conclude:

Volume Rendering of the Visible Man

The first is that the impossible anatomies of the Visible Human Project will be technically optimized bodies. This is not discovery science, where anatomists will claim to have uncovered new structures to the human body; rather, this is an analytic science, in which first the cadaver and then the data-body are urged to become the most technically-sophisticated bodies possible. This process of analytic thoroughness and complexity will produce impossible anatomies which will be able to flexibly accommodate a variety of data structures, including Web-based search engines and Java applications, interactive virtual dissections and virtual surgeries, as well as basic data-comparison between standardized models and individual patients.

The second consequence is that the Visible Human Project, in taking its impossible anatomies as new models for the body-in-itself, is producing a set of norms that is in excess. That is, the main attraction for anatomical and medical science in the Visible Human Project is in the range of new diagnostic tools and knowledges of the body that will be made possible through the use of the Visible Human Dataset. These are informatic modes of standardization generated from computer models, which have been extrapolated from the set of digital files which constitute the Visible Man or Visible Woman. When such diagnostic tools and knowledges get re-routed back into medical practice upon the bodies of individualized patients, then a unique configuration of power, bodies, and biomedicine is in process of being formed.

The Visible Human Project is a unique endeavor, within medical science, to test the limits of the continuities and discontinuities that exist been virtual and computer technologies and the medical body. In its production of ‘impossible anatomies’ the Visible Human Project transforms early modern anatomy’s tension between text and body into an anatomical morphology made possible by an understanding of the body as constituted through information.

We can begin by asking: is there not a fundamental tension in digital anatomy’s proliferation of new, computer-assisted, impossible anatomies of the natural-biological body? Are not the particular, technical ways in which digital anatomies are produced and utilized the production of an entirely new concept of the anatomical body, even the formation of a hybrid technicity for which current anatomical knowledge is no longer adequate?

As this paper has tried to show, Bataille’s thinking through the body, in the concepts of the body’s ‘extreme limit of the possible’ (1988b: 37) can function has critical, transgressive nodes in investigating the possibilities and contingencies of truth-claims to the body made by a long and complex tradition of anatomical and medical practice. By inquiring into those ambiguous openings, zones of formlessness, and those wounds not outside of but within anatomical and medical science, we can begin to understand and address the morphologies of contemporary technoscientific practice.


Bataille, G. (1987) The Story of the Eye. San Francisco: City Lights.

—- (1988a) Guilty. Venice: Lapis.

—- (1988b) Inner Experience. Albany: SUNY.

—- (1991) The Impossible. San Francisco: City Lights.

—- (1995) My Mother/Madame Edwarda/The Dead Man. New York: Marion Boyars.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline & Punish. New York: Vintage.

—-. (1998) “A Preface to Transgression,” in James Faubion (ed.), Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. New York: New Press.

Reiche, C. (1999) “Bio(r)Evolution: On the Contemporary Military-Medical Complex,” in Cornelia Sollfrank et al. (eds.), Next Cyberfeminist International Reader. Hamburg.

Sawday, J. (1995) The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture. New York: Routledge.

Spitzer, V. and Whitlock, D.(1988) Atlas of the Visible Human Male: Reverse Engineering of the Human Body. Boston: Jones and Bartlett.

—- (1998) “The Visible Human Dataset: The Anatomical Platform for Human Simulation,” The Anatomical Record/The New Anatomist 253.2 (1998):49-57.

Visible Human Project Website is at <>

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