Disability as Malleability: The Prosthetic Metaphor, Merleau-Ponty and the Case of Aimee Mullins
The trope of the prosthesis has become commonplace in philosophy, cultural theory, and posthuman discourse, utilized by scholars who are concerned with the human body’s porous and malleable nature when it comes to its interaction with tools and technology. Surpassing its meaning in a medical context of an artificial limb or implement which is attached to the body in order to restore or replace a bodily lack due to illness, defect, accident, or disability, prosthesis has come to signify augmentation, enhancement and a posthuman fascination with cyborg bodies: the blending of human and technology to triumphantly overcome the ‘natural’ limitations of the human body. Prostheses, as a metaphor and as a material reality, instantiate the possibilities for the medial body, creating a slippage between fact and fiction, where a posthuman bodily imaginary is increasingly made manifest within the factual and material structures of embodied life.
In this book Chapter, I unpack the prosthetic metaphor and discuss its possibilities and limitations for considering the trope of the medial body, particularly with reference to issues that concern disability politics. First, I will consider how the metaphor has currency in theory, or in other words, how the metaphor works in the first instance. I will do so through a discussion of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological descriptions of the body schema and tool usage, themes which demonstrate how the lived human body has the capacity for mediality—blending self and other, fact and fiction, tool and world. I will draw a distinction between the experience of utilizing a prosthesis as an extension (in the case of tool usage) and prosthesis as bodily incorporation (in the case of an artificial limb). I will then turn to consider the figure of Aimee Mullins as a living exemplar of the enfleshment of the prosthetic metaphor. Mullins is a below-the-knee double amputee who enjoys mainstream renown as a world-record breaking athlete, fashion model, inspirational speaker, and actress. Looking at artistic and commercial representations of Mullins, I will illustrate how the theoretical contradictions and tensions of the prosthetic metaphor play out concretely in terms of promoting the possibilities of body malleability for disabled bodies, considering the potentials and pitfalls for disability politics.
Dolezal, L., 2020. Disability as Malleability: The Prosthetic Metaphor, Merleau-Ponty and the Case of Aimee Mullins. In: D. Butnaru, ed., Medial Bodies Between Fiction and Faction. Transcript Verlag, pp.125 -145.