In our exhibition “Seducing Truth” we question the romantic view of science as a provider of reliable truth. The Torso-Installation, which is a part of this exhibition, questions about the truth in scientific knowledge about human bodies.
Following a historical and poststructuralist perspective, it will be shown that bodies – despite their long-term consistent physical appearance – are no natural objects to be observed and explored by scientists. Human bodies are artefacts, shaped by scientific concepts, theories and instruments.

A History of scientific views on Human Bodies since the Enlightenment

What makes us human? What makes us alive? What sets us apart from animals? The questions of “being human” and of “being/having body” are so old that their origins seem to be lost in the mists of time. Since the Enlightenment, the emergence of new sciences at universities, colleges and research institutions, began to focus curiosity and knowledge interests aside from philosophy.  During the 18th and 19th Century, new disciplines such as physics, chemistry, biology and physiology established new concepts and instruments to explore, understand and explain human bodies. These concepts and instruments were widened again after the establishment  of genetics and molecular biology in the 20th century.

Today the scientific and social interest in the human body is still intact. The nexus of collected and constantly renewed and expanded knowledge of the body, theories, methods and instruments has  served for ventures of health promotion (diets, therapies, drugs, organ transplantations and implants) as well as for ventures of population and birth policy (in vitro fertilization, control through prevention), for the increase in performance (industry, sports, military forces), emancipation (sexual self-determination through prevention) or the desire for preservation of youthfulness (cosmetics, plastic surgery). The scientific perception of the human body is shaped by two different perspectives. On the one hand, the human body was and is still seen as a result of a multi-billion year long evolution (or as a result of a divine act of creation), a stable and largely unchanging organic materiality. Even though this perspective is not completely unaffected by cultural and social developments as well as living and working conditions, the human bodies is perceive as having a consistent and vulnerable anatomy. This theory conveys the image of a body that is determined by its physical needs (e.g. sleeping, eating and drinking) and its mortality. For this image the existence of two genders is also significant, as they are indispensable for the reproduction of the body.
On the other hand, cultural anthropology, gender studies, body history, psychoanalysis, and poststructuralist theories demonstrated that the specific ways in which bodies were modulated change according to epoch, sex, class, age, region and milieu. Therefore, bodies are meaningful signs, which, along cultural and social “codes”, form their own perception. These linguistically and/or visually mediated patterns of interpretation cannot be separated from the physical substance of the body. When we study our bodies, we always study culturally shaped bodies. We cannot look at our bodies, cannot talk about them, cannot do anything with them, without using the acquired knowledge, that gives meaning to all the things we see, say, and do. An authentic, objective access to a “natural” body is impossible. Without being able or willing to solve this conflict between the two perspectives (the “physically stable” and the “culturally-variable” body), I would like to pursue the second perspective. I want to show how (scientific) descriptions of human bodies, of their inner functions and their outer appearance, changed over time and which results were triggered by those changes.

The scientific view inside the body

The scientific view inside the human body is presented in this exhibition by a short overview of conceptions of bodies as machines, beginning with René Descartes’ separation of body and spirit. The Torso-Installation shows five selected examples of historical conceptions of human bodies,  which all use body-machine analogies. These examples are:

• The body as a hydraulic machine
• Irritated, sensitive bodies – irritable machines
• “Organic Physics”, or the body as a human engine
• Popularization of body knowledge
• Self-regulating bodies, homeostasis, (bio)cybernetics

The look inside the body occurs in very different ways  in each case and by using very different tools. The scientific search for knowledge was based on philosophical thought experiments as well as on observations and laboratory investigations. Carcases and machine models were frequently used as objects of study and representations in place of “real” human bodies.
The conception of bodies as machines which is traced here should not be understood as an explicit history of progress. Neither could these concepts of the body-machines be separated from each other without transitions or objections, nor can later concepts simply be understood as supplemented, improved versions of the former. With each change of perspective within the analogy of bodies and machines, new interpretations of the human body opened up and old ones closed.

The scientific view onto the body

Our view onto bodies is, similar to the view into the body, determined by scientific knowledge. Since the Enlightenment it was this knowledge that – though never free from social and cultural influences – marked the different practices of classification and categorization of bodies. Only few things could give categories such as class, age, race and gender and descriptions of disease/health, normality/abnormality, desirable/not desirable such a powerful effect as the claim of being “scientific”. The scientific view onto bodies is presented by the following three topics:

• Anthropometry – the measured man
• Degenerated bodies – born criminals?
• The Gender of Science

These examples show that, the knowledge, concepts and instruments,  provided by science, could be used to stabilize categories as well as to move boundaries, to break down old categories and interpretations and to create new ones.


  • Sarasin, Philipp/ Tanner,  Jakob (Hg.) (1998): Physiologie und industrielle Gesellschaft. Studien zur Verwissenschaftlichung des Körpers im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/M.

further literature used for the torso-installation

  • Auga, Ulrike/ Bruns, Claudia/ Harders, Levke/ Jähnert, Gabriele/ (Hg.) (2009): Das Geschlecht der Wissenschaften. Zur Geschichte von Akademikerinnen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, campus, Frankfurt/M.
  • Becker, Peter (2002): Verderbnis und Entartung. Eine Geschichte der Kriminologie des 19. Jahrhunderts als Diskurs und Praxis, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay (1983): Der falsch Vermessene Mensch, Birkhäuser, Basel u.a.
  • Hagner, Michael (2006): Der Geist bei der Arbeit. Historische Untersuchungen zur Hirnforschung, Wallenstein, Göttingen.
  • Rabinbach, Anson (2001) : Motor Mensch. Kraft, Ermüdung und die Ursprünge der Moderne, Turia+ Kant, Wien.
  • Sarasin, Philipp (2001): Reizbare Maschinen. Eine Geschichte des Körpers 1765-1914, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/M.
  • Wieser, Martin (2010): Von reizbaren Maschinen und empfindsamen Geistern: Körperbilder und Seelenmetaphern im Zeitalter von Aufklärung und Industrialisierung, in: Journal für Psychologie, Jg. 18 Ausgabe 3. Online verfügbar unter: (Stand Mai 2012).