Apr 26, 2018

"everything's a prosthesis"

One of the tricky things about writing on design and disability is trying to represent multiple truths: that 1) yes, the experience of using what might be called prosthetic tools to extend and amplify the body’s capacities is universal—that all technology is assistive; and that 2) yes, we might think of the prosthetic in a richly imaginative way, far beyond medical devices; but also that 3) flattening the experience of using prosthetics for daily life risks making them purely into metaphors at the expense of the very intractable material realities for people who use them, people for whom life without them is life significantly diminished.

Here David Serlin’s Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America is a good guide and case study. This excerpt is from chapter one, on how prosthetics research for WWII veterans in the US became a solidified field of scientific inquiry, and how replacement limbs became a project to restore not just bodily functionality but also personal identity, manhood, and job readiness. I’m parking this passage here for those of you who, like me, sometimes get a little squirmy at the wild abandon with which artists and designers make poetic use of the prosthetic when there are very real politics beckoning at the door:

Many books of the past decade use the extended metaphor of the prosthesis to analyze the artificial objects that mediate human relations as well as cyberculture’s mandate of virtual reality. In these works, a prosthesis can refer to any machine or technology that intervenes in human subjectivity, such as a telephone, a computer, or a sexual device. As a result, the prosthesis is regularly abstracted as a postmodern tool or artifact, a symbol that reductively dematerializes the human body. As Katherine Woodward has written, “Technology serves fundamentally as a prosthesis of the human body, one that ultimately displaces the material body.” Despite ubiquitous representations of prostheses or cyborgs in late twentieth and early twenty-first century culture, they hardly begin to understand the complex historical and technological origins of the body-machine interface for amputees and other prosthesis wearers. They also fail to give agency to the people who use prosthetic technology every day without glamour or fanfare.

Far from transforming them into supermen or cyborgs, prostheses provided [World War II] veteran amputees with the material means through which individuals on both sides of the therapeutic divide imagined and negotiated what it meant to look and behave like a so-called normal, able-bodied workingman. For engineers and prosthetists, artificial parts were biomedical tools that could be used to rehabilitate bodies and social identities. For doctors and patients, prosthetics were powerful anthropomorphic tools that reflected contemporary fantasies about ability and employment, heterosexual masculinity, and American citizenship.