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The Prosthetic ImpulseReview - The Prosthetic Impulse
From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future
by Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra (Editors)
MIT Press, 2005
Review by Jackie Leach Scully, Ph.D.
Nov 13th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 46)

To cut straight to the punchline, this edited collection is an honorable failure. Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra set out to explore the way that the term prosthesis now points to something more than an artificial leg or arm (or nose, in Nicole Kidman's case). The idea of prosthesis "has become a staple in the armoury of metaphors or tropes" of anyone interested in the relationship between the body and technology in modernity; Smith and Morra identify the central problem right at the start when they say that the notion of prosthesis has "begun to assume an epic status that is out of proportion with its ability to fulfil our ambitions for it." (p.2)

The collection deliberately tries to deal with, and somehow bridge, the discourses about the two kinds of prostheses, material and metaphorical. It starts, appropriately in my view, with an experiential account in which Vivian Sobchack analyses the art of living with a prosthetic leg. The concrete and practical details that Sobchack offers about using a prosthetic leg, and the phenomenology of it, are particularly compelling. As she notes wryly, in much of the theoretical work using the concept of prosthesis the literal and material ground of the metaphor seems to have been forgotten, if not actively disavowed. Some of these theorists would argue that the metaphor of prosthesis has now expanded into areas that have nothing to do with the materiality of false arms or legs, and therefore the "real" experiences and agency of "real" prosthesis users are neither here nor there. There are those -- I include myself here -- who find this problematic; particularly because the pattern of disavowal of a more mundane reality for the sake of theoretical flourish is something with which disability studies is all too familiar.

Sobchack makes passing reference to the double amputee model and actor Aimee Mullins, famous for her appearance in fashion photography, and she is central to Marquard Smith's discussion of the erotics of images of the female amputee in western culture. Smith compares Mullins' self-display to the photographic record of the work of the early twentieth-century prosthesis-maker James Gillingham. The interesting thing is the apparent inversion going on here: while in ordinary life a successful prosthesis hides its presence, these photographs deliberately reveal the devices in order to show off the skill of the manufacturer and the wonder of the technology. Since Gillingham's women are required to lift their skirts or bodices to reveal the mechanics, the resulting images are inevitably eroticized, evoking nothing so much as an overenthusiastic bondage practice. Marquard pushes his analysis of this "fetishistic dialectic" further to examine the problematic nature of Mullins' willing self-exposure, in her appearances in popular magazines but also in the extremity of prosthetic manipulation Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3 (2002) in which her legs are made transparent, or replaced by "man-of-war" tentacles. Like Sobchack, he notes that there are realities of Mullins' mobility with and relationship towards her prostheses, as evidenced in her own commentary, that are overwhelmed by the "imperatives of rehabilitation, empowering, and resolute unshakability" of the discourse of prosthesis: we seem to want prosthesis to bear more weight, as it were, than it really can.

The chapter by Lisa Cartwright and Brian Goldfarb "On the subject of neural and sensory prostheses" is also experientially grounded. Goldfarb has written on the development of ocular prostheses, while Cartwright has experienced spinal cord injury. They suggest that the new generations of prostheses that incorporate direct connection with the brain or spinal cord offer "a set of meanings and relationships of body and technology that are different than those theorized on the basis of mechanical prostheses" (p 127), and their essay considers changes in intrasubjective experience resulting from such neural prostheses. Again, it's the embodied details of the training and retraining of motor and sensory inputs that offer the freshest insights in this chapter, and which enable them to ask provocative and important questions about agency of the user versus the "agency" if it can be called that, of the technology. Both Sobchack and Cartwright/Goldfarb highlight the inadequacies of the language we have at our disposal to describe differences in somatic and autonomic experience, "especially when the latter are subject to external facilitation and control" (p. 140) Even more so, how do we speak and write and think about markedly reorganized bodies in which for example, the mouth is (through neural rewiring) a portal to sight?

Other contributors take prosthesis into the metaphorical domain, and some present a substantial challenge to a reader's understanding of what "prosthesis" is all about. In Lev Manovich's chapter on visual technologies he puts forward the idea that representation (such as photography) are a kind of prosthesis to aid cognition. In an intriguing twist he relates the historical desire to externalize the mind to "the demand of modern mass society for standardization", that is to allow internal private mental processes to be subjected to scrutiny and publicly regulated: "What was hidden in an individual's mind becomes shared." (p.206) Manovich is more critical of the way that equating new technologies with cognitive prostheses is based on the assumption that mental representations are isomorphic with external visual effects, which is clearly problematic, but one that "continues to persist in modern thinking about vision, ignited by every new round of visualization technology."

Lennard J Davis' chapter on genetics and prosthesis also boldly goes where prosthetics have not gone before, to my mind less successfully. He tries to make a case that the trope of prosthesis can usefully be employed to answer the question, "are genes in the body, of the body, or an addition to the body?" (p. 97), and that we need what he chooses to call a prosthetic space to think through some of the consequences of "the corporate and institutional takeover of the human genome" (p. 104). This does seem a bit of stretch, and to talk about the gene as an "amputated location" in the context in which he does seems to me more distracting than helpful, and a misleading oversimplification of much more complex processes.

In some other chapters it has to be said that the discussion of prosthesis seems opportunistic. Disappointingly, Elizabeth Grosz's is one of these. She has written a consideration of nakedness and "the interface between sexuality, bodies and art", posing the question, if biologically humans lack the kinds of sexual displays inherent in other species, then does art (and here she adds "the art of prosthetics") serve as our sexual lure?  But this is about the only place in the chapter where prosthesis is actually mentioned, so that it looks suspiciously as if it was originally written for another purpose. Similarly, David Serlin's chapter "Disability, masculinity, and the prosthetics of war, 1945 to 2005" is a piece of cultural history about the queering of the military masculine body. He starts with an account of the Amputettes, an amputee drag act of the late 1940s, and goes on to compare and contrast the different forms of stigma associated with disability and queerness in military culture. It is very interesting, and I agree with him when he says, "The shifting status of queerness and disability within a military context becomes a poignant barometer for measuring social progress or lack thereof" (p. 175); nevertheless, it isn't about prosthesis as such, but about disablement. It makes an interesting contribution to that debate, but whether it does the same for the question of prosthesis is less clear.

Alphonso Lingis' "The Physiology of Art" is stuffed with provocative thoughts, but frustratingly prone to delivering statements without backing or evidence that just prod the reader to quibble: "Bulimia and anorexia are metonyms for apotemnophilia", or worse, "Does not the orgasmic urge to cut off body parts also refer us to the deepest levels of the formation of organisms?" (p. 83). The chapter by Raiford Guins and Omayra Zaragoza Cruz is a similarly frustrating look at sound technologies, "turntablism" and race, frustrating because it touches on a number of intriguing ideas only to skitter rapidly on to something else: I'd like to have heard more, for example, about the phenomenology of the turntable DJ's "different intelligence in the fingers". The same goes for Gary Genosko's chapter on "the bug's body". Genosko is talking about both the entomological and the software variety of bug. There is an intriguing and illuminating discussion of mimesis in insects and biomimesis in robotics, and how it relates to the construction of "artificial insectoids" or cybugs. I find this fascinating; I'm just not sure what this has to do with prosthetics rather than robotics.

David Wills' "Techneology or the discourse of speed" examines the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler's work on with the temporality of technology, that is the relationship between technology, speed, language and being or becoming human. In his view language is the technology with which humans are most familiar (so familiar in fact that we don't normally think of it as a technology at all). Wills wants to describe technology in general as "prosthetizing" because it "dislodges and disjoins the subject", and he wants to call language prosthetic, not just because of "the adoption by the human organism of the inorganic otherness language represents" (p. 258) but because it mutates "at warp speed" or "at the speed of light". Finally, Joanne Morra considers the practice of drawing. She also mentions Stiegler, and draws on recent theorizations of speech and art as means to exteriorize the subject's interiority, that is to act as a prosthesis of the human body (or mind). She considers the work of artist Rauschenberg, and then critiques Derrida's analysis of the way that psychoanalysis uses textual metaphors to represent psychic content and structure, suggesting that this involves a concomitant suppression of the visual, graphic aspect of psychic representation.

This final contribution returns us to the aim of the whole collection when Morra says her aim is to bridge the material and metaphorical polarities within recent discussion of prosthesis. Morra notes that "Both literal and metaphorical understandings of prosthesis have enabled a fruitful debate on the questions of subjectivity, epistemology, and ontology" (p. 266), and I applaud the editors' desire to bring together cross-cutting insights to inform this debate. Unfortunately it just doesn't work when too many of its contributors do exactly what others criticize: take the concept of prosthesis because it is fashionable, and push it to explain too much that has little to do with any conventional understanding of the term. I am skeptical as to whether it really brings anything to our analysis of the subject in relation to technology to describe so much in terms of prosthetic effects.

As the editors say in their introduction, these essays are eclectic and use a variety of methodologies. I think they hoped this would enable "the dialectic and edges between metaphor and materiality, figuration and literality," etc to be addressed. I am not sure they have succeeded; there are too many disjunctions between very different theoretical commitments and methodological approaches. It's not enough to place things in juxtaposition and call it a bridge: there needs to be some work of bidirectional translation, interpretation, restatement and so on, for those points of contact to turn into channels of communication or at least of illumination. Readers who, like me, are at home in some kind of material and phenomenological tradition will remain uneasy at the hypermetaphorization of prosthesis in literary and cultural criticism and will be nodding at Vivian Sobchack's comment that her academic colleagues' theorization of prosthesis bears very little relation to her experience of her leg; readers from other traditions will find the experientially based chapters, and my criticisms, annoyingly crude and literalist.

Despite this, the collection succeeds honorably in displaying the diversity of ideas that now cluster around the prosthetic imagination, in not downplaying the real difficulties of dialogue across the material and metaphorical domains, and in raising new questions. The key lies in the final sentences of their introduction where the editors describe the volume as "sitting awkwardly" and as living the "inelegant" edges of contact. It tries to do this; I think it fails, but its failure is instructive, and a pointer for future thought.

© 2007 Jackie Leach Scully

Jackie Leach Scully, Ph.D., School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University, United Kingdom


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