May 14, 2019

not half-human hybrids

When I first read Vivian Sobchak’s essay called A Leg To Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality back in 2011, it was just the right thing at the right time: a vigorous call to ground all the fascination with the prosthetic squarely in the lived politics of the expert wearers who use them, and to see first the adaptive plasticity of the human body, not the gear itself. This except from Steven Kurzman is cited in the Sobchak and is as concise and as revealing now as when I first read it:

“I am not a cyborg simply because I wear an artificial limb. I see cyborg more as a subject position than an identity, and believe it is more descriptive of my position vis-à-vis the relationships of production, delivery, and use surrounding my prosthesis than my actual interface with it. In other words, if I am to be interpellated as a cyborg, it is because my leg cost $11,000 and my HMO paid for it; because I had to get a job to get the health insurance; because I stand and walk with the irony that the materials and design of my leg are based in the same military technology which has blown the limbs off so many other young men; because the shock absorber in my foot was manufactured by a company which makes shock absorbers for bicycles and motorcycles, and can be read as a product of the post-Cold War explosion of increasingly engineered sports equipment and prostheses; and because the man who built my leg struggles to hold onto his small business in a field rapidly becoming vertically integrated and corporatized. I am not a cyborg simply because I wear an artificial limb, nor is my limb autonomous. Amputees (and other disabled people using assistive technology) are not half-human hybrids with semi-autonomous technology; we are people.”

Steven L. Kurzman, “Presence and Prosthesis: A Response to Nelson and Wright.” Cultural Anthropology, 16: 3 (August 2001), 382.