metaphors, memories, and responsibility in philosophies of technology

Reading Ott, Sobchack, and Kurzman this week brought back a series of memories, memories that stick in my craw not so much as important, vivid interactions that I can use as fodder for technotheorization, but rather a generic set of memories that remind me of the dangers, responsibilities, and ultimate utilities of metaphor in theory.

At the end of high school, right before I took off for college, I worked for a few months at Abilene Artificial Limb Company (whose owner has since moved to Lubbock to co-own Lubbock Artificial Limb and Brace after his father-in-law retired). I can’t claim any special experience or expertise with amputees or prosthetics, as most of my duties involved file cabinets and cleaning supplies, but I do remember one individual in particular. This man, in his late fifties, had been an electrician for decades until an accident involving a transformer box and the typical rapid come-and-go West Texas thunderstorms–the kind that you don’t notice until you’re deafened by thunder or drenched by rain. Water + Electricity + His Body resulted in a quadruple amputation. He was a huge man, six feet tall and barrel-chested, with big prostheses. I don’t quite remember if his legs were above or below the knee, but I do remember that he used two split-hooks instead of prosthetic hands. He’d made a change that I hesitate to call odd, but it still strikes me as the significant detail of my memory of him–no longer able to do many of an electrician’s tasks, he became what’s locally called a “cowboy artist.” He worked in pencil, doing sketches of rural scenes–horses, fences, ranch settings, rough profiles, and the like. A change in profession, but I wonder how much of this involved a change in identity? That is, to what extent did his “working man’s Ph.D.” translate into his postrehabilitation identity as artist?

All of this–and especially Sobchack’s chapter–brings to mind my own metaphorical use of the prosthetic. We’ve seen that prosthetics carry a wide array of cultural baggage–body aesthetics (glamor versus disability), literary functionality, taboo eroticism, and a big dose of technological determinism. The concept, construction, and narrative of the amputee and the prosthetic are packed with meaning that we in academia love to lollygag over, but in the end, this is also a real embodied and discursive experience. I recently have been weighing the pros and cons of utilizing the prosthesis metaphor in my own work on writing technologies–and though there’s a certain perfection to it as a tropological figure, it’s also at some level just a hip, “sexy” metaphor. While it may not be explicitly harmful in its use in philosophy (i’m thinking of Stiegler, to some extent), it does involve displacement and reduction if incorrectly used.

Sobchack, discussing the complexity of lived and symbolized experiences of “the prosthetic” mentions the need for “a more embodied sense-ability of the prosthetic by cultural critics and artists” that “will lead to a greater apprehension of response-ability in its discursive use” (19). I don’t feel she explicitly unpacks the elements of this sense-ability as such, and in looking over the set of readings for this week have come up with a set (wildly incomplete) of subordinate concepts that I think any technotheorist ought to grapple with and be able to integrate or be explicit about before trotting out the prosthetic metaphor. Potential concepts include: rehabilitation, transparency, loss, stigma, intention, incorporation, alignment, idiosyncrasy, agency, technoanimism (or determinism). How do these concepts help us to navigate the differences between “artifact,” “assistive technology,” and “prosthetic.”

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