Title: Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics
Authors: Various (Essay Collection)
Editors: Katherine Ott, David Serlin, and Stephen Mihm
Publisher: New York University Pres
Reviewed by: Jennifer Block, MS, CPO
In her introduction to Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics, Katherine Ott dismisses the cyborg as a metaphor for our complex relationship with prosthetic technology. She argues that it fails to reflect the functional needs of prosthetic users and the realities of disability. Instead, she advocates for “a material cultural approach” to the scholarly analysis of prosthetics which acknowledges the body as more than just a host for scientific progress. Although the discourse of technology is central to the collection, the essays merge history, politics, and gender studies to create a nuanced picture of the forces that govern the integration of humans and their prosthetic interventions.
The book is divided into three sections titled Need, Design, and Use, which are intended to reflect “the chronological experience of a person who uses a prosthesis.” The first section examines the unmet prosthetic requirements of WWI, WW2, and Civil War amputees, including James E. Hanger, and how these needs gave rise to the prosthetics industry. These essays collectively examine the effects of amputation on masculinity and the difficulties of making “the damaged male body productive again” in the advancing industrial age.
The second section examines the influence of materials on cosmetic and functional restoration. An essay on the evolution of the prosthetic eye juxtaposes advancements in fabrication materials with ocularists’ adherence to craft production methods. Another recounts the effects of manufacturing and market forces on the development of prosthetic hip implants. The final essay of this section, “There’s No Language for This,” explores how professional terminology attempts, and often fails, to bridge the gap between the physical experience of the prosthetic user and the biomechanical observations of the prosthetist.
Realism is a conflicting force in prosthetics, pitting the user’s desire for cosmetic perfection against functional goals best served by exposed materials and mechanisms. The final section of the book, Use and Representation, spans inventions from Benjamin Franklin’s Long Arm assistive device to the Jaipur foot, demonstrating how prosthetic devices facilitate not only physical activity, but also the social interactions of everyday life. One of the most compelling essays of the collection “A Limb Which Shall Be Presentable in Polite Society,” ties the 19th century value of concealment to cosmetic improvements in prosthetic design, and ultimately, to the rise of the middle class.
While the essays are comprehensive in scope, very little attention is given to the social impact of the female amputee. The discussion of women’s prosthetic management is largely confined to the breast prosthesis, and thus only critiques how prosthetics serves to reinforce society’s demand for beauty and homogeneity. A consideration of the functional needs of women would have strengthened the collection and given a more robust view of a diverse amputee population.
Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics examines the cultural context surrounding the field of prosthetics and the shifting relationships between the body, technology, and society. Rather than creating a single narrative, the essays are diverse in subject and focus, allowing the reader to move between centuries, continents, and cultural theories. It will appeal to those within the profession interested in the confluence of historical events and prosthetic technology, as well as those who seek an external view of the social values and motives that drive prosthetic advancements.
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