WISCON 34: Flesh Colored Bandages and Skin Jobs

WisCon was one of the best experiences ever — y’all should come next year!

This panel was in the “Power, Privilege, and Oppression” track, and basically talked about what it means to have a cyborg body. I wasn’t very good at note-taking, so will note when I wrote down the panelist speaking’s name. Otherwise, please just assume everyone was totally brill.

One of the first questions posed was  “What is considered a prosthesis and what is not?” The panelist talked about glasses vs limbs vs handheld technology, and then (which I thought was really interesting) brought up the difference between something being normalized (like wearing glasses) and needing to pass (like having a prosthesis look “real,” which generally means looking white-norm). Another panelist brought up that this challenges the definition of prosthesis, since some people would say that any merging of biology and technology was a prosthetic or cyborg moment.

Laurel Amberdine said, “The definitions of “prosthesis” and its worth impact the definition of “cyborg.”” She went on to talk about how the prosthetics in the world are developed in areas where there are land mines, like India, and then she and some other panelists (and I think audience members?) reflected on rural vs. cosmopolitan bodies, Western vs. non-Western bodies, and how particular landscapes delineate the kinds of bodies allowed into the public sphere or into public life.

Someone brought up insurance, and asked, “Why are wheelchairs considered medicalized (and therefore priced way high) but bicycles are not?” Someone mentioned hacking wheelchairs as a way of customizing one’s everyday life and therefore resisting the kind of medical practices that would otherwise reduce you to a particular kind of body that is only capable of particular things. Hack Ability talks about this, and looks like it might be a useful resource.

Someone brought up that movements permitted to disabled bodies reflect attitudes about disabled bodies — so the only “really” disabled people are those unable to go to the bathroom by themselves, and the emphasis then is on caretaking and not empowerment.

A lot of this is about class, race, and gender, and someone suggested Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence by John Hockenberry as a useful source. This discussion of intersecting oppressions brought us back to passing vs. normalization, returning to that earlier point about the coloring of bandages reflecting multiple types of passing — as able-bodied, as white.

One panelist brought up some extended reflections on insurance and diabetes, since most types of insulin are not prescription — the script is generally to get insurance to pay for it. Someone brought up the disproportionate number of US Latinos and African Americans impacted by diabetes and getting amputations, as well as the number of USLT and African Americans coming back from Operation Iraqi Freedom as amputees. This brought up a conversation on the vets’ movement, and someone from the audience talks about cyborgs and the military. Someone else talked about lasik and sports, tendons and golf, and how particular categories of people (soldiers, athletes, women) are valued for what their bodies are capable of, versus their quality of life.

Someone from the audience talked about how becoming better-than-human (better how??) is a dangerous thing when you are not ALREADY considered human (that is, you’re an object of production, a cog in the vast machine). Someone else from the audience talked about the relationship between the social need for prosthetics as happening after the Industrial Revolution. One panelist talked about this and bodily control.

After this we started talking fiction, particularly fiction featuring disabled characters of color! Someone brought up Manny from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. I brought up Riddick from The Riddick Trilogy (Pitch Black/ The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury/ The Chronicles of Riddick). Sandy Olson asked, “How does the cyborg feel about its own body?… It’s not just the ideology that people place on my body. It’s also about how I live in and experience my body.” Someone brought up “The Girl Who was Plugged in” by James Tiptree Jr, which should be available in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, someone else suggested John Varley’s The Barbie Murders, Jeannette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, and Ellison’s The Voice from the Edge: Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.

I was thinking about how being seen as politically and socially “free” is a classic marker of Information Age rhetoric. Someone talked about how “body adaptive technologies” are ALWAYS classed, raced, and imperialist. Someone brought up the idea of “bots on the ground” and the continued militarization of particular bodies.

Concluding thoughts:

I was wondering where reproductive technology was in this convo, and wished I’d gotten a chance to ask that. We pointed to it a few times, but didn’t get explicit. I also wished we’d had a chance to talk about colonialism and labor — while we touched on both with the discussion of militarization/bodies/race, I was thinking of how Mab Segrest’s Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice talks about how the search for a caffeinated beverage aligned with the drive to make one’s workers constantly productive and the normalization of shifts.


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