Other types of (infrastructural) prostheses: on dust, nuclear particles, and industrial chemicals
by Laura Herman
Breathe in. Along with air, each lungful you inhale contains the detritus from our indoor environments: fibers, vapors, tiny airborne insects and their excrements, viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Breathe out. Breathe in. Do you realize that chemical fumes from the objects around you escape into the air, are drawn into your lungs, dissolve across your alveoli membranes and into your blood? Breathe out. Breathe in. The air you just inhaled has already passed through ducts encrusted with a grimy, gray, microbe-infested fuzz of debris, hair, dust, and fiber particles released by decaying building materials. Breathe out. 1
I. The Carapace and the Swarm
The prosthetic has long been a fascination in architecture, design, and contemporary art, understood either as a carapace or extension of the human, or as the desubjectivation and deterritorialization of the body. On the one hand, the notion of prosthetic refers to a supplement to a Vitruvian figure; a standardized body that undoes the limits of the hand: it functions as a trap structure to capture energy, or as a shelter to a naked body. On the other, prosthetic design has been theorized as swarm intelligence, re-assembling the human into a networked, compositional body. These two positions, the extended body and the assembled body, increasingly merge as we inquire into the role of prosthesis in the relationship between the body and the environment. According to Mark Wigley, for example, prostheses are more than extensions of the body. Rather, he argues, “they are introduced because the body is in some way "deficient" or "defective," in Freud's terms, or "insufficient," in Le Corbusier's terms. In a strange way, the body depends on the foreign elements that transform it. (...) The prosthesis reconstructs the body, transforming its limits, at once extending and convoluting its borders. The body itself becomes artifice.”2 This double gesture of extending and reconstructing the body, hints at what Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, as early as 1960, have called the cyborg (cybernetic organism), which has later been further theorized by Donna Haraway in her acclaimed “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985). This idea of a cyborg already emerged, however, in the work of artists and theorist in the 1950s and 1960s, interested in the relationship between the human body, mass communication, and technology as prosthesis—the extension of the human nervous system into a generalized cybernetic system. We can observe this in the work of Norbert Wiener and Marshall McLuhan, as well as in the work of John McHale or Eduardo Paolozzi who depicted high‐tech extensions to the human body as fundamental new forms of cultural production and communication.3 Paolozzi, for example, created images of humanoid figures incorporating “the pop cultural idea of self‐fabrication—the self–willed invention of a new identity—into figurative form.”4
While these examples illustrate how prosthetics have more commonly been positively described as technically enhancing, transforming, or adapting the human to a changing environment (and which still runs through in debates of posthumanism andtranshumanism), a number of different understandings of prosthesis often evade the conversation. First, one might wonder about the economic stakes of a discourse around prosthetics as offered by industrial design, the health industry and marketing companies. Who decides upon the adoption of prosthesis? How do we discern the fine line between humanist discourses around curing, protecting, and augmenting the body, and the capitalist interest to appropriate human bodies?
Secondly, how does the discourse of prosthetics take into account “the variety of bodies and the social construction of abilities?”5 As Sarah S. Jain writes, “certain bodies—raced, aged, gendered, classed—are often already dubbed as not fully whole.”6In relation to the racialization of prosthetics and synthetic biology, one is reminded of Pamela Rosenkranz’s Venice Biennial installation Our Product, a large pool of scented liquid, incorporating synthetic molecules such as biotin, neotenes, silicone, viagra, and bacterias; its colour matching a standardized European skin tone, hinting at the exclusion of bodies unworthy of becoming whole. Then again, for Haraway the age of technoscientific governance engenders the possibility for cyborgs—bodies that collapse the divide between the organic and synthetic, female and male, animal and human, nature and culture—to structure the possibility of historical transformation, and to be liberated from the infrastructures that impose cultural restrictions and identity constructions. How are the reality of racialized bodies and the fantasy of the cyborg to be reconciled? Thirdly, and related to the second point, individuals are increasingly formed by the substances they take in, or the product they consum7 Not only by choice, but also unwanted, or even unknowingly. This is often an infrastructural concern. How do we understand types of prosthetics that alter or extend the human body in more violent and perhaps invisible ways, such as the food additives we take in, the chemical particles we inhale, the pollution that settles on our skin, or the nuclear radiation that mutates organic bodies?
In what follows, I will formulate some loosely related thoughts about this third point in particular, working through the idea of intergenerational prostheses and the prosthetic effects of industrially manufactured design, which turns the concept of the prosthetic, as a clearly defined technical relationship between the body and the environment, in a different direction.
II. The Past Defers its Violence into the Present.
In the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster, the Tokyo‐based art collective Chim‐Pom organized Don’t Follow the Wind, a radioactive group exhibition inside three buildings within the Fukushima exclusion zone. Since the decontamination of the radioactive area will probably span a period that expands our lifetimes, no visitors are allowed in to see the exhibition, which opened in 2015. Although it is the intention of the curators to make visible a crude reality that largely remains “invisible”, the presence of radioactive particles in the environment won’t cease to have its effects, once the zone will be decontaminated, and the exhibition becomes accessible. On the contrary, the effects will only slowly become visible over a longer period of time, which the feminist technoscience studies scholar Michelle Murphy understands as “latency”: a lag time that can be important to think through other forms of reproduction, and forms of delayed prostheses.
In “Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency”, Murphy inquires into the chemicals from petrochemical processing plants as an infrastructure that produces normative reproduction, while the sedimentation of the pollution chemically alters, reassembles, and structures bodies and environments. She refers to “assisted reproduction” to name the practice of scientifically generating life, which in turn creates biocapital. For Murphy, this assisted reproduction is infrastructural, as it encompasses the state, military, chemical, ecological, agricultural, economic, architectural realms that “assist, alter, rearrange, foreclose, harm, and participate in the process of creating, maintaining, averting, and transforming life in inter‐generational time.”8 Within these infrastructures, Murphy argues, some lives are supported, while others are abandoned, which she calls “distributed reproduction.”
Taking the St. Claire River area in Detroit as her case study, Murphy describes the uneven birth ratio of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community (65 female : 35 male), and the queering of the round goby, an invasive species or “low‐life”, becoming increasingly feminized by living on chemicals and pollution. The crucial point in her article is how chemical injury is not only displaced spatially, but also temporally, such that “accountabilities exceed the scope of individual lives, bioaccumulating or persistingover time, beyond regulatory regimes, into the long future.”9 This is the lag time between what floats in the water now, and the future that is already altered: the potential grandchildren who will not be born, or the intergenerational thriving of the goby, a newly assembled, queer fish, adapted to survive in the surface sediment of the benthic zone. In conclusion, the politics of redistributed reproduction, for Murphy, equals “the simultaneous recognition of intergenerational injury and a valuing of queer, altered, and othered life.”10 If we become more aware of types of invisible prostheses that will chemically alter bodies in a future time, what can we do to respond, reorient, or intervene?
Not only chemical infrastructures, but also other types of environments, redistribute reproduction and alter our bodies through industrial design, such as the late twentieth‐century workplace, as Murphy argues in an earlier book Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty (2006). Returning to architecture as prosthetic, sheltering and protecting the human, Murphy draws attention to the emergence of sick buildings with chemical exposures, materialized as “events with particular kinds of qualities— and not others— through concrete technical and social infrastructures.”11 Corporate science and the standardization of the working space, Murphy argues, gave rise to disquietudes among workers, and led to the emergence of a movement of women workers who recognized the buildings as the embodiment of inequality and the source of sickness. For Murphy, the assemblage of gender, class, racism and oppression, engineering practices, and scientific management became “as important for understanding the origins and meaning of illness as chemicals in the air or germs in the ventilation system.”12
The implementation of modern interfaces such as ventilation systems, certain types of plastics, and even synthetic carpet, can be examined as forms of prostheses that operate at different stages (as an external protection or type of comfort, for example, but also as inhaled dust that modifies the body from within). It raises the question of which bodies, and in what conditions, are enabled and which are disabled by specific technologies, their infrastructural implementation and chemical composition. The arrangement of social and material relations are an ideological project, in which we need to carefully consider how prostheses are implemented—not simply as the enhancement or transformation of a particular body, but also how they behave spatially and temporally, and how they privilege and exclude.
1 Classroom exercise from the Environmental Protection Agency designed to teach children about indoor air, quoted in Michelle Murphy’s Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty, 2006.
2 Wigley, Mark. “Prosthetic Theory: The Disciplining of Architecture.” Assemblage 15 (1991), 7‐29.
3 See the exhibition This Is Tomorrow (1957) organized by the Independent Group (Eduardo Paolozzi, John McHale, and Richard Hamilton, Peter and Allison Smithson, Nigel Henderson, Lawrence Alloway and Reyner Banham) about the transformation of the human senses by new technologies.
4 Eric M. Stryker, 'Parallel Systems: Lawrence Alloway and Eduardo Paolozzi', Tate Papers, no.16, Autumn 2011, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-‐papers/16/parallel-‐systems‐lawrence‐ alloway-‐and-‐eduardo‐paolozzi, accessed Friday, 25 March.
5 Jains, Sarah S., The Prosthetic Imagination: Enabling and Disabling the Prosthesis Trope -‐, Science, Technology, and Human Values 24, no. 1 (1999): 31-‐54. 8.
8 Murphy, Michelle, “Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency.” In: Life (un)ltd: feminism, bioscience, race, S&F Online, issue 11.3, 2013. Accessed March 26, 2016.
9 Murphy, Michelle, “Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency.” In: Life (un)ltd: feminism, bioscience, race, S&F Online, issue 11.3, 2013. Accessed March 26, 2016.
10 Murphy, Michelle. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2006.
12 Rosner, David. “Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty (review).” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 62, no. 3 (2007): 376–78.