WHO OWNS YOUR BONES? 

BY TAMAR SHAFRIR

 

“…the being of spirit is a bone.” — Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit 

“…there is a spirit (subject) only in so far as there is some bone (some inert material, non-spiritual remainder/leftover) that resists its spiritual sublation-appropriation-mediation.” — Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute

In 2005, an exploding star was detected in the NGC1032 galaxy, about 117 million light-years away, using the University of California at Berkeley’s Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope. Five years later, scientists discovered that Supernova (SN) 2005E represented a new type of dying star — a low-mass white dwarf that “stole” helium from another white dwarf nearby, until it grew so hot and dense that it underwent thermonuclear explosion about 110 million years ago. Since the explosion was based on helium rather than carbon and oxygen, SN 2005E produced large amounts of calcium and radioactive titanium, in a process known as supernova nucleosynthesis.

Typically, the central core of a star acts like a factory for the production of helium through the fusion of hydrogen atoms. Once all of the hydrogen has been fused, the helium becomes the next building-block, producing elements like nitrogen, carbon, neon, oxygen, magnesium, silicon, sulphur, nickel, and iron. Until that point, the fusion of these atoms releases energy. However, heavier elements require an input of energy to fuse, as in the case of helium and silicon joining to make calcium. In general, that threshold of energy is only reached in supernova explosions. Judging by the unexpectedly high amount of calcium present in the Milky Way and other galaxies, scientists have calculated that a few explosions like SN 2005E must happen every century or so.

On earth, this calcium washed into the oceans about 1.5 billion years ago during massive tectonic shifts, and was slowly absorbed by simple organisms in order to produce hard shells, spines, and shields. The mineralised body was key to the diversification of animals, but the transformation of the exoskeleton into the endoskeleton was even more significant for the spread of life to new habitats through increased mobility, more articulation, adaptive skin, and teeth for an expanded diet. The skeleton would also acquire other functions. Bone mineral was not only more stable due to the calcium phosphate salts that were its primary component; it would also become an active storehouse for these minerals, which would also become instrumental for the regulation of life functions.

Calcium is especially critical for human life. An adult human skeleton contains one to one-and-ahalf kilograms of calcium. Far from an inert material, bone mineral is constantly being broken down to release calcium to the blood and remodelled to replace older tissue and store minerals. This process is controlled to keep calcium in the blood plasma in a narrow bandwidth, in order to use it as a messenger or for neurotransmitters or muscle contraction. In particular, the resorption and remodelling of bones takes place in a mother’s body during pregnancy and lactation, allowing the transfer of calcium to the foetus via plasma and later to the infant via breastmilk. This process is crucial in the first year of the baby’s life, when nearly all of their bone matter is remodelled. It also explains why some of the most commonly cited sources of dietary calcium are the equivalent vehicles for this process in nonhuman vertebrates—milk, eggs, and so on.

The patient reader may now be wondering: what does this mean for the concept of vegan design? Veganism includes eliminating suffering from the lives of animals and refusing to use animal products, but here we are primarily concerned with bones. In the realm of design, bones have been used asused directly as tools, both ancient (such as needles, arrow points, or fishhooks) and contemporary (such as bone folders); they have also been burned into bone char, boiled into animal glue, heated and ground into bone ash, and fired into bone china. While the animal origins of primitive human tools is clear, the other forms of bone products are abstracted, processed, and sterile, giving little hint of their origin in living organisms.

Veganism decries the consumption of meat and other animal products, the use of leather or other animal skins, the collection of honey and other animal by-products. But bones cannot be categorised with such clear ethical precision. Who owns your bones? Do they belong to you—to what extent, and for how long after your death? Are your descendants responsible for the preservation of your bones? What about cultures of cremation? And if your bone matter was initially taken from your mother, does it belong in part to her, and thus in corresponding quantities to her mother, and her mother’s mother, and so on? This calcium, which came from the explosion of stars in other galaxies — did it previously belong to alien life forms whose existence we can barely fathom?

These questions may seem like an overly relativist thought experiment, but the central point impinges greatly on the sanctity of life implied by a vegan approach to design, the fundamental act of creative production. That act, on a galactic scale, participates in the universe’s massive creation, destruction, transportation, and recycling of elements, a process in which authorship and ownership are impossible to define. Bones, however, are unique, because they can tell a story not only by their presence, but also by their absence — in other words, by their fossilisation through diagenesis (mineral replacement) or casting. Therefore, as Hegel claims and Žižek responds, the bone is both the substrate of the spirit and its nonliving scaffold at the same time. Therefore, even if we think that bones do not belong to the animals they once composed, the reduction of bones to powder, ash, char, glue, gelatin, or other homogenised material implies the erasure of narrative, the deprivation of the right to claim a place in the historical order. By using the derivatives of animal skeletons within their work, designers therefore assume responsibility for the evocation of their life stories, to be recounted with all the beauty of the fossil record.