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The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future

by Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005
340 pp., illus. 32 b/w. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 0-262-19530-5.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


It is quite rare to have the privilege of reviewing a book, the contents of which represents scholarship at the highest level and is also written extremely well. This is one such book. Considering the complexity of the subject matter, both the contributors and the editors are to be congratulated in providing the reader with an interesting, pleasurable, and enlightening experience. This book is not concerned with current high-technologies per se for extending ourselves into a posthuman style technoculture. The book tends to play down this rather populist, ill-conceived concept. That is, the notion of the majority of us being uploaded to super bionic bodies, riddled with nanobots, and leaving our biological, evolutionary enheritance behind completely.

The Prosthetic Impulse, in part due to this non-hysterical approach, is like a breath of fresh air in the field of cyborg, posthuman, post-biological literature, much of which has become bogged down in uncritical rehashed tropes and over-enthusiastic hype for every new plastic encased electronic prothesis that is put in or added on to our bodies. This book discusses and investigates prothesis in its broadest sense and especially from a contemporary cultural theory point of view—rather than from a medical or engineering perspective. Together with contributions from cultural and disability studies the book considers, ". . . prothesis as both a literal, material and phenomenological concern and a metaphorical, theoretical, and philosophical one" (pp. 256-266).

The book contains 13 chapters that are divided into two sections. The first: Carnality: Between Phenomenology and the Biocultural covers a enticingly diverse range of topics, including Aimee Mullins’ erotic glass legs, the prosthetics of war, stumped genes, and disappearing bugs (both literal and metaphoric). The second section: Assembling: Internalization. Externalization discusses prothesis more as a cultural phenomenon through the discourse of such disciplines as evolution, psychoanalysis, and art. There is a smattering of black and white illustrations relevant to each contributor’s essay, an Introduction by the editors, Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra, and a List of Contributors.

This book will become essential reading for all scholars and students involved across the broad range of disciplines that prosthetics covers. The main reason for this is the depth of critical analysis the book brings to the overall problem of prosthetics. Almost all essays are at pains to point out that "the prosthetic impulse" involves far more complex issues than simply, for example, constructing an aid to regain mobility. Humans have become, over hundreds of thousands of years, a technological species and as such our tools (extensions of our bodies) can rightly be considered prostheses.

Quite a few of the essays in this volume ground their discussion in a broad approach to prosthetics throughout history. Simply stated, virtually everything we have created, through extending our very limited physical bodies, to growing large brains, to externalising our internal dialogues and visions comes under the rubric of prosthetics. "The prosthesis is not a mere extension of the human body; it is the constitution of this body qua ‘human’ (p. 7). As the editors point out, the essays take an eclectic approach, ". . . drawing on historical and theoretical methodologies from gender studies and philosophy, literary criticisms and visual culture, psychoanalysis and deconstruction, critical race studies, cybertheory, and phenomenology" (ibid).

The more sophisticated and smaller our computers become and the further we advance in high-body technologies (such as gene manipulation therapies), the more pressing and urgent will become the need for a broad multi-disciplined discussion and critical investigation into "the prosthetic impulse". This book will surely become a respected reference work in this field.



Updated 1st July 2006

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