The Age of Prostheses

Last week I blogged about Candida Moss’ piece on relics and commerce. She’s got another piece out, this one on historical prosthetic limbs.

Excavations of an ancient tomb near Turpan, China, have uncovered the 2,200-year-old remains of a man buried with a hoof-tipped prosthetic limb. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Chinese Archeology, researchers wrote that the man’s natural leg had become deformed so that the bones were fused together at an angle of 80 degrees and could not be straightened. The unusual poplar wood prosthesis allowed the wearer to walk and, perhaps, even ride a horse.
The discovery offers a rare glimpse into the technology of prosthesis in the ancient world. The lack of antibiotics in the pre-modern world meant that numerous infections and accidents resulted in amputation. While as many people died during treatment as did from their initial injury, this meant that many people lived their lives absent a hand, leg, or foot.

Moss goes on to discuss the history of prostheses, discussing functionality versus aesthetic, and concluding with a zoom out into technology broadly, and saying:

There’s no shortage of those of us who say, somewhat flippantly, that we “can’t live” without our phones. The existential angst caused by lost Fitbit steps is not to be underestimated. And there’s an unsettling truth to the memes that rank WiFi and battery life alongside oxygen as a basic need. Ultimately, maybe we live in the age of prostheses.

I really like “age of prostheses.” It engages with a couple of other themes I like. The hashtags from Alice Wong (of the Disability Visibility Project) – #TheFutureIsDisabled and #WeAreAllCyborgs. The second, in particular, overlaps nicely with age of prosthesis.

Then there’s Sara Hendren’s motto – “All technology is assistive technology.”

We are accelerating into a world in which some of the definitions of abled and disabled will blur, thanks to technology. This has happened at plenty of other moments in the past. I like to think about walking down a crowded street in the pre-modern world, and the ubiquity of physical features that we would today consider disability or deformity (not a word I like) – missing hands, eyes, noses, ears, pock marks, major scars, and so much more. And yet, as Moss reminds us, aesthetic prosthetic mattered in the past as well, so the ubiquity of the disabled body in no way erased stigma about whole versus part.

Disability studies meets futurism informed by, um, pastism? (let’s call it History) might help us navigate the Age of Prostheses.

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