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Prosthesis and Disability in the Age of Superhuman Functionality

Botsa Katara // Prostheses have been known to humanity since antiquity, with their earliest traces found in Ancient Rome and Egypt. But despite their existence for centuries, their evolution has been a slow and steady one.

Copy of Roman artificial leg, London, England, 1905-1915. Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The change from simple wooden limbs to more aesthetically and technologically enhanced versions was the result of the 19th century industrial revolution and the Civil War, both of which heralded an era of rapid proliferation and development of prostheses. This burst could be attributed to an unprecedented increase in amputations, due to changed working environments at textile mills, paper factories, wind mills etc.; these factories replaced manual labour with complicated machines, which often resulted in accidents that could lead to amputations. On the other hand, the implementation of sophisticated weaponry during the Civil War caused severe injuries; coupled with the threat of likely ensuing infections, medical professionals viewed amputations as preferable to reconstructive surgery. This intimate interaction of man with machine inaugurated expansive vistas for machine, medicine and body collaboration in the medical sciences, consequently metamorphosing simple wooden stumps and peg legs into more technologically enriched prostheses. 

Image from A new and important invention, by Douglas Bly, M.D. (1862), via Harvad University’s Collection Development Department. Widener Library. HCL.

As is discernible in the images above, artificial legs function as objects facilitating the concealment of their missing counterpart(s). This is because the nineteenth century prosthesis users/wearers yearned to hide their impairments and escape the social stigma that “disability” enforced upon them. Because it was the “age of appearances,” in which people were obsessed with the ideals of organic wholeness, and social acceptance was based on one’s external comportment and demeanor, prosthesis was the answer to the compelling demand of concealment and external perfection.

But in the current world, prosthesis has been rendered with a totally different configuration. It not only redresses a lost functionality but also proffers hyper-functionality, machinic perfectionism, corrective curing, and an indomitable fight against mortality and liminality of the human form. These changes have come about due to the emergence of post-humanism, which proposed the precedence of the machinic and technological over biology and human materiality. This misleading narrative has promoted a dialogue that eludes the experience of living with a disability, coupled with the devaluing of one’s relationship with one’s prosthesis which exceeds the domain of  the machinic, mechanic and functional. To bring this to the fore, I would like to recount below–knee amputee Vivian Sobhchack’s experience of living with an artificial leg whose otherwise cordial relationship with it falters from time to time:

Although I really never feel as though [my prosthesis] possesses the agency to turn against me, I admit it does have the capacity to become opaque, a hermeneutic object that I have to pay attention to and interpret and do something about (other than transparently walk with it)…. My leg is transformed metonymically at times to another inhuman species or thing … In these moments, it becomes an absolute other. This can happen suddenly- as when I lose a certain amount of suction in the socket that holds my leg in place, and feel (quite literally) a bit detached from the leg … Like the turns and effects of language in use, experience – and view of my leg (and the rest of my body) is not only dynamic and situated but also ambiguous and graded (27).

This affective relationship between prostheses and their users contradicts the assumption that they barely replace the lost body part, or that all one requires is that they perform the job of a hand, or leg.  The dominant discursive practices around prosthetics misrepresent the phenomenal struggles that underlie using them. They not only camouflage the inconveniences but also distort the reality by glorifying the picture of disability through advertisements and images like these:

Does the superwoman on the wheelchair do justice to the middle-aged paraplegic Christina Crosby’s everyday experience of wheeling herself around and being presumptuously perceived as a man? In her memoir A Body Undone, Crosby recounts her journey with paraplegia, which was resulted from a bike accident that injured her spine. She describes the ordeal that ensues, including her frequent confrontation with the gendered resonances of her wheelchair. She writes:

I no longer have a gender. Rather, I have a wheelchair. I am entirely absorbed in its gestalt. I am now misrecognized as a man more often than ever before, almost every time I go out. I’m not surprised. I know that 82% of spinal cord injuries are suffered by young men, and middle aged butchy women must be statistically negligible in that accounting. Besides, when I’m outside wheeling my chair, I’m belted in… As I sit slumped in the chair, the chair is what you see. That’s my distinctive profile. I may have no gender, but the chair does. It’s masculine. (61)

The virile masculinity of the wheelchair that un-genders Crosby, unceasingly subjects her sclerotic brother Jeff to near mishaps and blockages. Jeff purchased a forty-thousand dollar chair that was developed by a tech engineer in California. Soon after it came into Jeff’s possession, however, the chair started causing problems: “technical failures limited the use of the chair, and the discovery that the signal sent by the mouthpiece interfered with the wireless call system of the hospital strictly limited the hours he could use it anywhere outside his room” (82). Thus stuck in his room, and subjected to the recurring inconveniences of the highly technologized wheelchair, Jeff too could not quite become the fetishized technophilic cyborgian organism, flying high in his superior wheelchair.  

On one side of our capitalist society, driven by the wave of super–crip image culture, there is prosthetic supermodel and athlete Aimee Mullins, actively endorsing new and advanced prostheses: “with all this new technology why can’t you design a leg that looks—and acts—like a leg? I want to be at the forefront of these possibilities.” On the other side stand the likes of Sobhchack whose juxtaposing iteration goes as follows:

My prosthetist proudly showed a video of amputees racing in the Special Olympics. As I sat there, I watched the people around me and knew that all they wanted, as I did, was to be able to walk at work, to the store, may be on a treadmill at the gym. All I want is a leg to stand on, a limb to go out on- so I can get about my world with a minimum of prosthetic thought. In sum, I have no desire for the latest literal or figural body parts. (38) 

These contradictory desires and expectations gesture toward the exigent need to create an ethics, a counter culture that bridges the gap between the two opposing streams of thought where neither is fetishized and glorified, nor shamed and disparaged. This is possible only by creating a space in which each and every experience is welcomed, acknowledged, listened to and empathized with.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter : A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Web

Crosby,Christina. A Body Undone. New York and London: New York University

Dave, Lupton, and Colin Hambrook. “Supercrips,” Crippen (blog), Disability Arts Online, August 8, 2008. Accessed April 12, 2019.

Jensen, Adam.” Bionic Arm.” Augmented Future,” 20 May 2017.

Madan. “Robots and Wearable Technology.”, 5 March 2015.

“Super-crip and the opposite.” Disability at Davis, Far From Great (Le) Gaspi, 23 April.2010. •

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge &Amp; Kegan Paul, 1962.

Sobchack, Vivian Carol. Carnal Thoughts : Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Acls Humanities E-Book. Ed. American Council of Learned, Societies. Berkeley Calif. ; London: Berkeley : University of California Press, 2004. Print.

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