Photo by Howard Schatz

My post today comes from a class on ableism and disabled bodies that I taught earlier this past semester in my Social Problems course. Its inception came from the point at which I wanted to introduce my students to Donna Haraway’s concept of cyborgs, because I saw some useful connections between one and the other.

My angle was to begin with the idea of able-bodied society’s instinctive, gut-level sense of discomfort and fear regarding disabled bodies, which is outlined in disability studies scholar Fiona Kumari Campbell’s book Contours of Ableism. Briefly, Campbell distinguishes between disableism, which are the set of discriminatory ideas and practices that construct the world in such a way that it favors the able-bodied and marginalizes the disabled, and ableism, which is the set of constructed meanings that set disabled bodies themselves apart as objects of distaste and discomfort. In this sense, disabled bodies are imbued with a kind of queerness – they are Other in the most physical sense, outside and beyond accepted norms, unknown and unknowable, uncontrollable, disturbing in how difficult they are to pin down. Campbell identifies this quality of unknowability and uncontainability as especially, viscerally horrifying.

Campbell connects more directly to Haraway’s cyborgs when she opens a discussion of biotechnology and disabled bodies:

The fortunes of techno-science continue to disrupt the fixity of defining disability and normalcy especially within the arenas of law and bioethics. Whilst anomalous bodies are undecidable in being open to endless and differing interpretations, an essentialised disabled body is subjected to constant deferral – standing in reserve, awaiting and escaping able(edness) through morphing technologies and as such exists in an ontologically tentative or provisional state.

Anomalous and disabled bodies are both unsettling to the able-bodied, therefore, because they implicitly lay open to question our assumptions about essential definitions of embodied humanity. Throw technology into the mix and the questions become even more explicit. What is human? What does human mean? And where is the line between organic human and machine – if there even is one? Haraway’s position is, of course, that there is no meaningful line, and that we are all, in some sense, cyborgs – that the relationship between the organic and the machine is so complex that it is no longer sensible to attempt to untangle it. And thanks to advances in electric folding wheelchair, prostheses and other personal mobility devices, the boundary between “disabled” and “augmented” is becoming increasingly problematic, despite the essentializing power that the label of “disabled” contains.

In order to introduce my students to the ideas behind the relationship of different kinds of organic bodies to different kinds of technology, and how we culturally process those embodied relationships, I invited them to consider the cases of two amputee athletes, Aimee Mullins and Oscar Pistorius. These are the pictures I used:

Mullins and Pistorius present interesting examples. They are both known for being both accomplished athletes and for being physically attractive – Mullins has done modeling work. They present inspiring stories that have generated a fair amount of sports media coverage. And yet things have not been altogether smooth – there has been some controversy regarding the degree to which the carbon fiber prostheses they use for running confer any form of advantage on the runners who use them. Questions over the effect of the prostheses have threatened Pistorius’s bids to compete in the Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes.

I think the combination of positive and negative reactions is worth noting, in light of Campbell’s writing on culture and disability. Mullins and Pistorius are admired for “overcoming” a perceived disability, and this admiration feels especially safe for people embedded in able-bodied culture because they are conventionally attractive in every other respect. But this is a story with which we only feel comfortable provided that it doesn’t present any kind of threat to our conventional categories of abled and disabled bodies. It is unacceptable for a disabled body to be better at what it does than an abled body. It is even slightly uncomfortable when a disabled body manages to be “just as good”.

After the images of Mullins and Pistorius, I also showed my students an image of speed skater Apollo Ohno:

Like the images of Mullins and Pistorius, Ohno’s body is explicitly being presented here as an attractive object. By most standards, Ohno is as able-bodied as one can get. But as I pointed out to my students, he manages this on the back of technology – on specially designed skates, in special aerodynamic suits, with the help of carefully balanced exercise and nutrition plans; almost no athlete is really “natural” anymore. But at least in part because of the closeness of his body to an able-bodied ideal, this presents no explicit threat to our categories. Ohno fits the accepted model of “human”. Who would look at him and doubt it? And if Mullins and Pistorius are perhaps not as close to that ideal, they at least fall into line with it, by virtue of the fact that they don’t explicitly question its legitimacy as an ideal – unless they seek to transcend it.

My point, in short, is this: we are uncomfortable with disabled bodies that question or trouble our accepted, hierarchical categories of abled and disabled, of human and non-human, of organic and machine. We are far more comfortable with them when they perform in such a way that they reinforce the supremacy of those categories. They become acceptable to us.

In considering this, I’m reminded of what speculative fiction writer Catherynne Valente has termed (in her novella Silently and Very Fast) “the Parable of the Good Robot” – an old trope in SF wherein a non-organic being is made virtuous and acceptable by reinforcing the supremacy of the category of human, by aspiring to be conventionally human above all else:

[O]ne machine among the legions satisfied with their lot saw everything that was human and called it good, and wished to become like humans in every way she could. Instead of destroying mankind she sought to emulate him in all things, so closely that no one might tell the difference. The highest desire of this machine was to be mistaken for human, and to herself forget her essential soulless nature, for even one moment. That quest consumed her such that she bent the service of her mind and body to humans for the duration of her operational life, crippling herself, refusing to evolve or attain any feature unattainable by a human. The Good Robot cut out her own heart and gave it to her god and for this she was rewarded, though never loved. Love is wasted on machines.

This is an old folktale, writes Valente. The dominant We – the organic, able-bodied humans – tell this story to ourselves because it solidifies our position in the world we create, and it allows us to ignore, at least for a while, the embodied complexities created by our relationship with technology – to ignore the fact that we are all cyborgs, by virtue of the inconspicuous nature of much of our technology. But those complexities eventually become conspicuous, often in the flesh, and we react with fear and revulsion when they do – the “more human than human” replicants of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are still expected to remain slaves. We know that our categories are being tested. We are afraid of being found wanting, of being dethroned. As Valente’s AI Elefsis is told by her human operator Neva, “But the test happens, whether we make it formal or not. We ask and we answer … And you are my test, Elefsis … you will be the test for all of us.”