Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Gross anatomy

Did ya see it? 'Anatomy for Beginners' is mercifully a few hours after dinner time at 11 pm on Channel 4. The first two episodes (it continues till Thursday) made fascinating but uncomfortable viewing. Curiously, I thought the cadaver was the least of it -- the queasy-looking audience and the unsettling relish of the presenters was most cringe-inducing. The 'live' models might as well be cadavers for all the life they show. Doesn't it tickle to have lungs drawn on your torso? Imagine if the model dissolves in uncontrollable fits of giggles. It could delay filming by some hours while a suitable air of decorum is reestablished. In part it felt weird that it was so formal -- there was no sense of 'we're all in this taboo-twister together'. It was very much 'us' and 'them', Von Hagens pretending it is perfectly normal to draw attention to the importance of 'arranging the specimen very nicely' -- someone's entire skin on a hatstand. If you're going to have a live audience, why not let them ask questions, debate the ethics, chew the fat...?

Von Hagens is undoubtedly a very skilled dissector. The problem is the hat. By wearing it he turns the dissection into a spectacle with himself as the showman instead of the body under the knife. I suppose the idea of having a live audience is making a statement about public access to a usually taboo procedure, but if the purpose is education rather than entertainment, what's wrong with a documentary format? Von Hagens clearly fancies himself as having some sort of calling to dissection and fancies himself a modern-day Versalius or Rembrandtian Dr Tulp. One daren't speculate about what he might have become had he indulged his penchant for carving dead flesh in any other way. 'Anatomy for Beginners' does beg the question 'beginners at what?' given that it's aimed at the general public.

I had to grin at the advertising placement: skin creams galore on Monday night. It was almost shouting 'should have your skin removed and held up to public scrutiny, make sure your not ashamed of the condition it's in...'

Any thoughts about the contribution this show makes to public engagement with medicine?


aj said...

'Chew the fat' - id rather not! slightly shocked as the skin slipped off in episode one, but found by the next one i had rather gotten used to our friend Gunther's rough ways and sinister voice. i think Prof Lee saved the program - salvaging the more shocking moments with an interesting fact or two or distracting attention from the actual dissection.
I wonder why they didnt have life models of both sexes, it would perhaps been a rather useful way of demonstrating the differenes between the sexes?
As for the hat, isnt it rude to wear one indoors!?

Giskin said...

Thanks for your contributions to the blog, aj. 'Chew the fat' was admittedly rather tasteless -- the oozing, yellow subcutaneous fat during the dissections definitely upped the yuck factor. They did have male and female live models, but no attention was drawn to sexual difference!

Brueton said...

This has been a very new approach to the public's interaction with the medical world and a whole lot better than another 'ER' based casualty drama, allowing them to see a body as never before.

Von Hagens is a little strange in that he seems to purposefully brand himself as a friendly Frankenstein but should he not be entitled to a personality? (is it not human instinct for a man in his position to brand himself and become notorious. The notoriaty ensures to a degree the continuation of his career as a famous anatomist).

As to the performance distracting from the cadavar, I can see what you mean but I find this hard to believe possible when presented with the first live dissection in umpteen years, would you not stare at the body rather than the hat. I understand that I could well be biased on the grounds of my adoration for the anatomy but good show all round.