The Society Pages’ Cyborgology dives into our weird relationship with the otherness of the disabled body. While the piece opens with the predictable discussion of Mullins and Pistorius, I was floored by Sarah Wanenchak’s use of Olympic speed skater Apollo Ohno:
Like the images of Mullins and Pistorius, Ohno’s body is explicitly being presented here as an attractive object. By most standards, Ohno is as able-bodied as one can get. But as I pointed out to my students, he manages this on the back of technology – on specially designed skates, in special aerodynamic suits, with the help of carefully balanced exercise and nutrition plans; almost no athlete is really “natural” anymore. But at least in part because of the closeness of his body to an able-bodied ideal, this presents no explicit threat to our categories. Ohno fits the accepted model of “human”. Who would look at him and doubt it? And if Mullins and Pistorius are perhaps not as close to that ideal, they at least fall into line with it, by virtue of the fact that they don’t explicitly question its legitimacy as an ideal – unless they seek to transcend it.
My point, in short, is this: we are uncomfortable with disabled bodies that question or trouble our accepted, hierarchical categories of abled and disabled, of human and non-human, of organic and machine. We are far more comfortable with them when they perform in such a way that they reinforce the supremacy of those categories. They become acceptable to us.
Ohno literally cannot compete without his equipment. About the only sport that had remained un-cyborgized was swimming (forgiving goggles, swim-caps, shaving, and that it takes place in a pool not open water) until the shark suit. To “disqualify” Mullins and Pistorius because they possess a mechanical advantage (or in the case of Caster Semenya, an unclear biological sex) underlines our poor understanding of sport as a celebration of physical achievement.
The discussion is akin to a question of the land speed record. We have records within circumscribed limits. The fastest km/h for a human, for any living organism (again, on land, ruling out swimming or flying), for a wheel-driven vehicle, and for any vehicle that does not take flight. These records measure different things, such as the athletic determination and dedication of a person mixed with genetics or the sheer engineering marvel necessary to make something break the sound-barrier without leaving the ground. If we simply want to see how fast we can go, Apollo 10 holds the record for manned flight and the Helios probes hold the record speed for any man-made object (faster than Voyager 1! I can’t believe it).
The point here is that as we continue to argue the “authenticity” of an achievement on steroids, or with aluminum bats, or what have you, it’s worth noting that all competitions are only relevant within their context and limitations that we’ve set to make them special.
Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
You will develop a strong opinion about something you find here. I want to hear it. Philosophy is a conversation.
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