Beyond body and mind

ANATOMY / Five centuries ago, anatomist André Vésale opened up the human body to science. Today, De Humani Corporis Fabrica opens the human body to the cinema.
Director: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel
Country: France

In the Cartesian model of knowledge, based on the subject who is observing the world from a distance, technologies have always had an important role. With the X-rays, a new disease, tuberculosis, has been «discovered», and space travel enabled humans to perceive the earth from afar. With the latest microscopic cameras and other equipment, Sensory Ethnography, a novel documentary approach, challenged the fundamentals of the Cartesian world itself. It aimed at producing the experience for the viewers and eliminating the distance between the subject and the world. De humani corporis fabrica, the latest documentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, members of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, challenged the Cartesian notion of the human as a superior being composed of body and mind.

De humani corporis fabrica
De humani corporis fabrica, a film by Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor

Inside the French public health system

The film is named after the treatise in anatomy, published in 1543 by Dutch physician Andreas Vesalius. De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body) in its time represented a monumental achievement in medical science and the quality of illustrations. The film, shot in a network of Paris hospitals and clinics, opened the body to cinema just like the treatise opened the body to science. It caused maze and gained fame as an unprecedented landscape of organs, created by the help of microscope cameras, endoscopic imagery, ultrasound probes, and other instruments which penetrate, enter, and observe the inside, and by the permits granted to directors, who film things that have never been cinematic image before. The only guide to what we see are the voices of the French surgeons, doctors, and nurses who perform the actions, filmed in the fly-on-the-wall approach. This mix of sincere concern and nonchalant banter, technical jargon, and, sometimes, expletives creates an outstandingly honest portrait of medical personnel and reveals an important aspect of the post-Covid world. As the public health systems are failing, this means more stress for the professionals working in it and exposes their humanity.

As the public health systems are failing, this means more stress for the professionals working in it and exposes their humanity.

Experience instead of discourse

But the truly outstanding achievement of this documentary is that it articulates the view beyond the traditional notion of the human. The De humani corporis fabrica is a logical upgrade of the previous films by Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, particularly Leviathan (2012), the first film they made together and one of the exemplary works of Sensory Ethnography. The distinct feature of this approach is the ambition to emancipate images from the discourse and show what can’t be expressed with words. Not to represent but to actively produce an aesthetic experience. In Leviathan, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel employed modern equipment, such as small digital cameras, to film a fishing expedition in the ocean. They created a particular experience for the viewer of feelings such as crippling seasickness and intense claustrophobia, for example, and shot the images from an unexpected perspective – from the point of view of the fish and the matter. In this, they innovated documentary filmmaking and also introduced a novel approach to the world, the one that sees life, autonomy, and agency within all aspects of nature and not, as we are used to, as an exclusive feature of humans.

De humani corporis fabrica
De humani corporis fabrica, a film by Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor

A world that looks back at us

This novel approach has been theorized in diverse streams of contemporary philosophy, such as new materialism, object-oriented ontology, post-humanism, speculative realism, eco-theory, or cyborg theory, but they all fall under the broad domain of nonhumanism. This «nonhuman turn» in philosophy is parallel to recent historical events such as climate change, as well as scientific discoveries, for example, the recognition that a human being is an assembly of human cells and microorganisms, autonomous beings that not only live within the human body but also seriously impact its’ health. In the words of Jane Bennett, unlike the common habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings), this new view assumes that not only people but also plants, animals, natural and material world are in a way alive and poses autonomy and agency.

This view is not a complete novelty. Jane Bennett based her approach, «new materialism», on the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, French philosophers from the last part of the previous century, and their emphasis on «the active power of things to draw other bodies near, and enter into assemblages.» On the other hand, scholars of technology remind that Rene Descartes, who introduced the cartesian division of the body and the mind, explained (in a private letter) that he introduced the mind as a particular feature of humans to make it possible for people to eat animals.

this new view assumes that not only people but also plants, animals, natural and material world are in a way alive and poses autonomy and agency.

Out of mind

The structure of De humani corporis fabrica replicates the division of the body and the mind. Parallel to the scenes from the hospitals where the human body has been cured, we see the scenes from a mental hospital. But what we see subverts this division because none of these fundamental parts of a human being is as we are used to believing it is. Where medical professionals are treating the human body (giving birth, operating the prostate, eliminating cancerous cells,…), the matter, human flesh, is portrayed as having agency and subjectivity. In the scene depicting the exchange of documents within the hospital, for example, the circulation of packages through the tunnels is shot from the perspective of these packages, as if they were alive. And the cancerous tissue is not only presented through images as beautiful as an abstract expressionist canvas but also as if they would have the capacity to act by themselves. Thus, when the oncologist mentions the cells that feed themselves with the dead cancer cells that remain in the organism after chemotherapy, we see the oncologist from the perspective of these cells, a sure proof that these cells themselves are active agents.

On the other hand, in the mental hospital, we witness the malfunctioning of the mind. Due to the fly-on-the-wall approach, the viewers find themselves surrounded by persons who mechanically repeat words («hurry up, hurry up,…»), screams (a bird-like cry mechanically emitted by an elderly lady) and actions (a patient attempting to cal the elevator; a couple walking through corridors,…), in ways that resemble the malfunctioning of machines.

The human mind is failing while the matter is gaining agency and subjectivity. These concerns, ever more widespread in the contemporary world, in De humani corporis fabrica, lose relevance. The approach of Sensory Ethnography that aims at replacing the Cartesian perspective with a new, non-anthropocentric view seems to be working. In their latest documentary, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel offer a view of the world that we never saw before, new and unprecedented but also outstandingly sincere, fascinating and engaging.

De humani corporis fabrica screens at the 20234 CPH:DOX as art of the Artists & Auteurs section

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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