Stumped: the possibilities and pitfalls of a cyborg world

A number of people (each wearing a device or prosthetic) stand together against the background of a futuristic city.

Of all, disabled cyborgs are the most beloved and the most dangerous. 

by Niluka Gunawardena

‘Bet they don’t sell those at H&M,’ is probably what she thought while peering into my bag. I was humming tunelessly — oblivious to the peering, as I was to the staring — until my little sister pointed it out. So we stared back. Peering, staring, glaring — what a delightful past time for a mass of people involuntarily clumped together on a bus.

That day, I was quite clumsily and carelessly carrying around what was perhaps my most expensive accessory. My parents were so proud. It was something girls from our ‘community’ wore to indicate their ‘coming of beauty.’ At the threshold of adolescence, I was the last person on earth to wear a gaudy thing that my parents thought would make me look pretty.

I was also a ‘good girl’, cognisant of the fact that they had spent a fortune on this crown of utility. So I kept making all kinds of polite excuses — it’s too hot, it’s too heavy, it’s too stuffy, it’s too new, it’s too sweaty — a string of unbearable sufferings. Having exploited their parental compassion, I managed to stuff my new accessory in to an H&M bag.

Before getting on the bus, I thought it was pretty well-concealed, but I soon realised that my secret was a little too long and kept jutting out and literally waving at all those jealous people. Suddenly, the bus halted. Being tourists on a shopping spree, it took a while for us to realise where we were.

My roadrunner mother suddenly jumped out and held the door for the rest of the brood, hurrying everyone along. I was still in a state of oblivion. It took the bellowing calls of my mother to really wake me up.

She had reasons to bellow:

a. my obvious inattention and forgetfulness
b. the prospect of losing a precious child to the London metro
c. the prospect of losing an esteemed accessory to the London transport system

With all her energy and in all earnestness my mother shouted:

‘Niluka! Don’t forget your arm! Get your arm out of the bus!’

So I desperately clung to my arm and rushed out with a hundred eyes glued on me. I was flushed pink inside and thanked god that I was brown outside. Suddenly, the ridiculousness of it all made me roll over with laughter. My family laughed, the driver laughed, some passengers laughed. The lady’s suspicions were confirmed so she also laughed.

Most were still perplexed. Some probably thought my foreign-looking mom didn’t know English. Perhaps others thought arms in bags was a matter for Scotland Yard.

Whatever people thought, I said goodbye to that bus holding (not wearing) my very first arm.

Functional, cosmetic, both — prosthetics have become the must-have accessory in the disability world.

When I was younger, random strangers would ask me one of two questions:

a. what happened to your arm?
b. why don’t you wear a prosthetic?

As utilitarian as a prosthetic is, I personally find it burdensome. This is not to discount the countless benefits of using a prosthetic. It happens to be an individual preference. It’s probably due to my obstinacy and aversion to change. I have come to love the fleshiness, touch and corporeality of an ‘androgynous’ stumpy arm.

With that, comes resentment towards hard, robotic, silicon appendages that break the tactile intimacy that I share with the world, disrupting the aesthetic wholeness that I often (but not always) feel.

My memories of that bus ride are probably exaggerated, but it marked the birth of a feminine alter-ego. Despite all my refusals, I was always coaxed into wearing my new limb to social events, especially weddings.

Weddings are occasions when the bride looks ravishing and all the other females, especially the single flowers in her presence, are expected to adorn themselves to the high heavens to affirm their bridal aspirations and perhaps even catch the eye of a handsome stranger. It is an occasion for social approval. Simply put, it is an event for the appraisal of many daughters by parents of sons in a semi-incestuous system of class- and caste-based matching, pairing and status sealing.

At these events, some relatives tried to ignore my magnificent accessory, more gender-affirming than any other costly jewellery worn by fellow maidens. Others tried to guess what change has brought about my newfound elegance. My well-meaning grandparents delighted in my new symmetry and said that maybe one of those cute boys would now look my way.

A black and white illustration of a long haired figure, duplicated on the left and right. They are looking down.

‘Cyborg Woman’ by Daniela S Nassetti (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

They failed to realise that not all flowers bend towards pretty boys… They failed to realise that I just might accidentally and very powerfully hit a cute boy with my Dr Octopus like free-minded arm while trying to dance. I noted how I (accidentally) crushed a glass with my lady arm at the previous wedding. Perhaps my arm and I were not such delicate damsels after all.

After those spectacles she would be summarily wrapped up in a bag and chucked into the darkest recesses of my closet. ‘Thanks for helping me pass,’ I’d say to her with a smirk and walk away.

Not long after that last wedding, I read an article in Reader’s Digest that argued that the secret to a woman’s beauty lay in her symmetry. My achchi always kept a picture of a pretty, symmetrical granddaughter in her room on a very prized shelf.

Donna Haraway famously wrote a manifesto for a cyborg world where notions of gender roles, identities and the power dynamics of corporeal doctrines would be obsolete and incomprehensible. I was certainly getting closer to a cyborg world of my own… but one that was far from Haraway’s.

I’ve come across plenty of cyborg stories. Prosthetics for survivors of disasters, survivors of wars, and most importantly, heroes ‘fallen’ at war. These days in postwar Sri Lanka there is a great din over raising funds to equip wounded soldiers with prosthetics. With a bit of imagination, all the stories could be summarised as the miraculous restoration of masculinity, virility and dignity of incomplete, scarred, battered, once-heroic bodies through limb technology.

The other day I read an article about a new bionic arm, the most state-of-the-art myoelectric device available under the auspices of a titan Scottish biotech firm. Such coverage talks about how soldiers are back at target practice, running through the rugged fields thanks to new technology. The coolest thing I noticed about this arm was that it wasn’t merely a fudge of steel bolts, wood, plaster, silicon and all the other ingredients used to bake an arm. Rather, it looked like a super-tool built with space-age material, giving armless guys the cool, formidable Terminator edge and stumpy girls a sleek, chic, Amazonian persona. Now who wouldn’t want that!

After years of hiding my lady arm I suddenly started scouring the internet to find the perfect accessory. After years of having being told that short sleeved clothes were a no no, I finally had a fashion advantage! No ‘fully armed’ person would ever get to wear it! That was my primary motivation in addition to the news that this new toy was more flexible, adaptable and aesthetically palatable than any other arm created before.

Site after site, I saw the same stories: veterans extolling the life-changing virile potential of it, women chopping vegetables and holding babies with arms gentle enough for a mother. Men drilling holes, wielding power saws and opening cans — the real macho man. I kept resenting how guys always get the best clothes and toys; not necessarily because I wanted to drill holes but because women always wore the ‘natural’ looking ones with painted nails while men got the steels, metallic, futuristic ones in colours of their choice.

I hoped they would customise and build me a magnificent androgynous one.

Many of us with ‘impairments’ become cyborgs. We become cyborgs so that we may not be ‘disabled’. We become cyborgs through prosthetics, speech aids, pacemakers, reading glasses and a plethora of other technologies.

Millions of self-proclaimed non-impaired people become cyborgs every morning by affixing their minds and bodies to computers, TVs, video game consoles and more. Gadgets begin where the skin ends. Plenty more than stumpy-armed folk become silicon cyborgs through implants, lifts, fills and enhancements.

Cyborgs are all around us in an all-natural world. Perhaps cyborgs are naturally who we are. Our flesh and psyche become — intimately, embryonically — entangled, inter-twined, fused and merged with the hardness, the boldness and the molecular, nanoscopic immortality embodied in technology.

Of all, disabled cyborgs are the most beloved and the most dangerous.

Famous cyborgs like Robo Cop and the Bionic Woman were ‘once impaired’ mortals who became invincible in their hybrid bodies.

Cyborgs like Aimee Mullins — broken, delicate damsel in her cosmetic legs; sexy Artemis in her athletic legs. What other girl can change her legs, body and being at will like Mullins?

Such is the existence of a disabled cyborg. They inhabit a space that is neither mortal, immortal nor liminal — a space yet to be defined, yet to be conceived of. It’s the unknown, the myth of the cyborg that places those of us with impairments in a unique state.

The prospect of a disabled super body is a full-frontal assault on the supremacy of the ‘normal’ body. Interestingly, cyborg bodies guarantee immortality to vulnerable, ‘normal’ mortal bodies. A cyborg culture may lead to the complete acceptance of the mortality of human corporeality through the obsolescence of the concept of human corporeality as we know it. If they are broken, they may function as well as or even better than ‘before.’ Broken bodies combined with the promise of eternal youth create disabled cyborgs — demi-gods!

Much of that works in theory. In reality, I’m losing interest in strapping or fusing on a bionic lady arm. It feels like yet another passing phase — the kind of hype that came and went with Avatar, another blockbuster movie about disabled people, cyborgs, aliens and more.

The next time someone stares at you when you are using an assistive device just look at them with a terminator glint in your eyes. You will either scare the life out of them or they’ll come to you with requests for autographs and other favours. That constantly happens to a good friend who uses a communication device in her public presentations. People have more questions about her super cool voice than her actual presentations!

The fact remains that our prosthetics, aids and assistive technologies still propagate many of the notions of ‘normalcy’ that we hold, whether they are about bodily form, gender or sexuality.

Our cyborg bodies, despite their tremendous subversive potential, still become canvasses for the same power dynamics that we as activists constantly try to challenge. Perhaps it’s because cyborg bodies as we know it are born from those very same dynamics. We do not even realise that our appendages, and hence our bodies, are indeed agents of pre-existing dynamics, often in the most hyper-masculine, hyper-feminine, binary and heteronormative forms.

We also do not notice how sometimes, perhaps even accidentally, these cyborg bodies radically undermine pre-existing notions of ability, gender and sexuality. We don’t realise this because when it comes to our bodies, our cyborg bodies, our bodies adorned with hearing aids, glasses, crutches, prosthetics, canes and more, we often hide, resent or forget.

I used to run
Run from pain
Run for refuge
Run alone
And now with you
I still run…

Niluka Gunawardena is a disability rights advocate, researcher and educator based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal