Workshop 1: Interrogating Prostheses (Stockholm, May 15-16, 2017)

The focus of the first workshop will be on the meaning and significance of prostheses read through the diverse phenomena of disability, whether physical or mental, congenital, acquired, or age-related. The common thread will be how the incorporation of non-self elements into the body can cause disruption in one’s phenomenological experience and therefore to the sense of self. On a pragmatic level, disabled people who deploy prostheses, and especially those with non-congenital disabilities, must strive to accommodate something alien to their own prior lived experience (Sobchack 2010). Yet rather than simply achieving a re-integration of the embodied self and a rehabilitation of their practices, such people often feel marked by the unfamiliar experiential input and capabilities that construct the prosthetically embodied self (Serlin 2006, Finlay and Molano-Fisher 2008). The patterns of inclusion and exclusion, and categories of normal and abnormal, and natural and artificial, that generally circulate in western societies contribute further to the ambiguities and contradictions that problematise each act of incorporation.

The aim of the workshop, then, is to critically reflect on how prostheses shape and reshape not just functionality, but the very fabric of human lives, particularly in the context of disability. The development of increasingly sophisticated technologies that can aid individuals with disability (e.g. high-tech prostheses, brain implants, exo-skeletons, intense pharmaceutical interventions, etc) have changed drastically the modes through which disability is represented and understood in mainstream and alternative cultures. In consequence, the use and/or incorporation of prostheses cannot be read as simply utilitarian and in disability (and similarly in organ transplantation) is often associated with a dysphoria that indicates the difficulties of identity reformation (Sharp 2006; Sobchack 2010; Shildrick 2015). Despite a biomedical reading of prostheses as always therapeutic and often literally life-saving, recipients may tell a different story of not just enduring physical discomfort but mental distress that far exceeds the positivist claims made for biotechnological interventions.

One overarching aim is to demonstrate how the field of disability both contests and sustains imaginaries in which only those who are normatively embodied as whole, independent, separate and distinct are afforded the privileged status of full personhood. Based on the differential material practices, the problematic demands a detailed critique of the socio-cultural processes at work with regard to corporeality and recognition of the tension generated between disruption and successful transposition to a new embodied self in relation to prosthetic phenomena. The workshop aims to shake up the familiar certainties of modernist thought by exposing all the gaps, fissures and aporia between the ideal and the actual that render some lives – often those of people with disabilities – unsustainable. The workshop will take an interdisciplinary approach with a particular focus on how changing biomedical expectations are affecting the experience and representation of disability in the present day. It will also bring an important gendered dimension to these considerations, and encourage analysis of the diverse aspects of social injustice and local and global inequalities as related to health and ability.

We see all these issues as important bioethical dynamics that aim to interrogate change rather than simply assuming that technological advances are always likely to enhance therapeutic benefit. The further goal is to move forward in setting an agenda for the future of both disability studies and disability policy in the Nordic countries and beyond. The workshop will invite the involvement and active participation of academic researchers, people with disabilities who have first-hand experience of prostheses, professional practitioners and advocates/activists.