Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Studies in Posthumanity I
I was completely riveted by Terri Gross' recent interview on Fresh Air with Hugh Herr, a double-amputee and biomechanical engineer who designs prosthetic limbs--including his own. Herr designs bionic prostheses that can sense weight and balance, and allow the wearer to walk, run, jump, climb, grab, and pivot. Not only that, but he and his lab are working on limbs that are integrated with the human nervous system.
Herr's own bionic legs are specifically designed for each function, to the point that he's actually improved on biological form. "Initially I put a climbing boot over the prosthetic foot and then I said, 'That's silly' and I threw out the shoe. I realized that the foot need not look like a human foot. To climb a vertical rock face, I really don't need a heel — so I cut off the prosthetic heel and I started optimizing the angle of the foot relative to the calf of the prosthesis. My rock climbing feet are the size of baby feet. They're very, very small and very, very short so I can get the center of my body over my feet on a vertical wall."
This seems to be a wonderfully direct contradiction--even a rebuke--to biology back to Aristotle. Later, Herr talks about how his biological body will age and decay over time, but his bionic body will only improve with every software download and lighter materials. Aristotle stated (On Generation) that natural bodies begin a process of gradual decay and dessication long before they actually die. Our humanity is defined in part by our relationship to finitude (our understanding of and our resistance to it), but our post-humanity (at least in Herr's vision) is defined by complicating, and perhaps transcending, that relationship.