Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Be All that You Can Be: Find a Super-limb in the AR-MY!

Originally posted Thursday, February 24, 2005.

According to the Tuesday, Feb. 22, LiveScience section of MSNBC.com, the “[U.S.] Military aims for better limb replacement.”

Perhaps prompted by the media attention phantom statistic in modern warfare, the disabled soldier, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is setting an aggressive agenda for its prosthetic limb research—the development of “advanced prosthetics that look, feel, and act like the limbs they replace” (Than).

While it is certainly noble for the military to develop methods to “restore some of the lost functionality” to the men and women injured in service, the ultimate goal (”to have a prosthetic device that looks and feels like a real arm, that can respond to the whims and thoughts of its user, and that blends seamlessly with the body”) certainly raises many questions, problematizing the body, especially the U.S. Army’s take on it (Than).

In April of 2004, I sat in a conference room at Emory University. The MLA was holding its first national conference on the topic of Disability Studies, and during the first plenary session, one of the leading scholars mentioned theories of the “cyborg.” It seemed a prognostication of all I hoped the conference would not be: charlatanry, the kind of thing relegated to a distant sideroom at the National Popular Culture Conference. It turns out, the only charlatan in the room was me–I thought I knew something about disability, about being disabled, but I found out I knew very little.

Science and technology has moved at such an alarming rate that “discoveries” are made and made available before we have time to fully evaluate their impact. Prosthetics and other devices are connecting the body with machinery in what is almost a Cartesan nightmare–what was once a metaphor for the body is becoming the body. Or the body is becoming it. Or, when one utilizes a prosthetic limb that “blends seamlessly with the body,” the dividing line is unmarked and meant to be unremarkable.

I suppose I have a bias—I am anti-prosthesis, and I have been my whole life. Born with a congenital amputation of my left arm at the elbow, I never took to prosthetics. They got in the way of the things I had learned to do without them. I have a shoebox of them (I was young; they are small) that I still move from home to home, but I treat them as curiosities, artifacts from some other time1.

Who can say what I would think if I were to lose an arm after having learned to do things with two hands—Oliver Sacks suggests that a “phantom” limb would make use of a prosthetic easier to learn, would allow the prosthetic to be more “seamless” with my body. And for soldiers returning from combat, this might be a better solution than what is available today.

Regardless, this program begins to raise interesting questions. If a machine is connected to the body and controlled neurologically, in what real ways is it any different from a transplanted organ? How is the person still “human,” and does our sense of humanity change? And how can we eventually keep Skylab from building the Matrix? That last question was a joke, but it was half-hearted.

I suppose, though, worse things could happen: any initiative that inspires a DARPA researcher to say “‘our soldiers [should] be able to play the piano. […] Not chopsticks, but a classical piece, like Brahms,’” well, they could be training them on far deadlier instruments.

1Mike Simpson, the writer, calls this my "Lobster Box."

Than, Ker. “Military aims for better limb replacement.” MSNBC.com. 22 Feb. 2005.

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