Disability in the Post-Physical World


Rocking Chair Image of soldier with guide dog antique wheelchair


Button Button, Who’s Got the Button?

I once heard an engineer from IBM tell a conference of disability service providers that assistive technology would make disabilities disappear. This was in the late 80’s when the pc was still new and cool (as opposed to tricked out and cool). The engineer had all these examples of how computers could be tailored for people with disabilities. He was swept up in the poetry of his cause. Pointers, sticky keys, speech synthesizers, Braille keyboards—these he said would open the doors to employment and a more receptive culture for PWDs. When it came time for Q & A I ruined the whole thing by asking him what happens if the employer won’t buy the assistive technology? He had no answer for that. He mumbled something about not really understanding the question and beat it off the stage. Of course my point was that disability is a social construction and not a technical problem—that technology fits into the dynamics of disability as a marked category in the assignment of cultural values.

That engineer was a good man. He was longing for the post-physical world. He probably loved that Star Trek episode where the disembodied brain runs the entire space ship from atop a pedestal. 

Star Trek Brain  

Star Trek image of disembodied brain running the whole show


Of course the image above evokes Bill Clinton’s remark: “If you see a turtle on a fence post you can bet he didn’t get there by accident.”


Post-Physicality and the Millennial Imagination

Longing for the post-physical world is nothing new. The belief in Shamanism is post-physical imagination. In the Finnish Kalevala Steadfast Old Vainamoinen (poet and magician) journeys under the earth in search of magic words. Shamans travel far off in spiritual dimensions, leaving their bodies behind to be guarded by sacred animals. The anthropologist Victor Turner calls such people “liminal figures” because they step over the threshold of the culture and travel to the unknown.


Vainamoinen R.W. Ekman

Image of Vainamoinen playing his pike bone harp

In Kalevala Old Vainamoinen solves problems (his boat gets stuck on a rock) by playing a harp made from the jawbone of a fish. As he plays (and sings) the animals of the forest come to listen and finally the disembodied spirits of the sky appear. This is the Orphic imagination. Playing the harp Vainamoinen surpasses mere physicality and configures the mimetic enactment of a post-physical aporia—all contradictions of the body are resolved in reveries of out of the body travel.

This instant from Kalevala represents the poetry of the technical imagination, for Vainamoinen builds and then plays his harp. It is a dream of the body “improved”.

In our time the body-improved is the source of much intellectual and social discord. The pike bone harp is not so easily played. What does the improvement of the body mean? Who is in charge of the improvements? As Gore Vidal once famously remarked: “Politics is knowing who’s paying for your lunch.” Who is paying for the improvements? Who directs them? Do you get a “say” in the direction of your physicality?  How do we understand the social construction of the post-physical body?

As Donna Haraway famously writes we are now determinedly living in the post-physical body, a condition she calls  cyborgian. Post-industrial human beings are no no longer mere organisms. Logically enough this hybridization is not free of the territories of money and politics:

“By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. This cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. In the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics–the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other – the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination.” http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html


Star Trek Borg Image Aimee Mullins with racing prosthesis Aimee Mullins leg collection


The post-physical body is a confluence of material reality and imagination but it is also co-determined by or within politics. The production of material culture is therefore still a matter of 19th century economics. Accordingly the cyborigian person with a disability is a hostage of sorts. We are, it seems, living in the age of the promissory “improved” body—yet that body is still stuck between the territories of production (politics), reproduction (material expense) and imagination (compulsory normativity).

As of this writing the GOP is endeavoring to take apart the health care programs and social services that provide assistance to children with disabilities, the elderly, and veterans. My argument is that the imagination necessary to develop the post-physical body is at hand and it is simultaneously imperiled by 19th century economics. And that of course is where the word “disability” comes from.




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