Disability and Prosthesis Beyond Utility and Function
Jonathan Paul Mitchell
Presented at Nordic Network Gender Body Health conference 'Disability, Arts
and Health', Bergen University, Bergen, 1-2 September 2016.
Not for citation.
Technologies are not mere external utilities. ey are profoundly involved
within human development. is involvement can by explained in various
ways. And, since technologies have a historical development, they can
acquire metaphysical baggage.1 One way to conceptualise technology is
prosthesis: a tool—from a int or a hammer, to language—that extends
or enables capacities. I’ll discuss prosthesis as a human-technology
relation, and consider three such conceptualisations—instrumentalism,
Bernard Stiegler’s ‘originary technicity’, and Gilbert Simondon’s
‘concretisation’—and discuss their relevance to and potential for thinking
Early eories of Technology
Early theories of technology take one of two forms: instrumentalism and
substantivism. In the former—which is ubiquitous—technologies are
tools; mere means awaiting use towards autonomously-formulated human
1 Yuk Hui, On the Existence of Digital Objects (London: University of Minnesota Press,
ends.2 ey are epistemically and ethically neutral, or “subservient to
values established in other… spheres”.3 Instrumentalism is broadly
optimistic: technologies are means towards freedom. Substantivism tends
towards pessimism. Here, technology is no mere means, but an
autonomous force that distorts or replaces other values, and determines
behaviour.4 is follows from its underlying, instrumental logic. is
engenders an objectivising disposition towards others and world—as mere
manipulable resources—that alienates humans from their non-
Diﬀerences notwithstanding, these share a cluster of related ontological
presuppositions that ow from oppositions between natural and articial,
human and nonhuman.5 I’ll concentrate on instrumentalism, and briey
mention three. e rst is most fundamental: the principle of essentialism.
ere exists some specication of what the human is, which properties it
possesses. Second, the principle of autonomy. is exclusively human
property is fundamental to denition of the human, and requires—in
principle, if not always in fact—no additional material for its exercise.
Humans are autonomous subjects for whom technology is a mere
objective means: these extend a freedom that passes through them while
2 Aristotle, Physics, trans. Robin Watereld, Oxford World's Classics (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2008).
3 Andrew Feenberg, Transforming Technology: A Critical eory Revisited (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2002), 5. Peter Kroes and Peter-Paul Verbeek, "Introduction: e Moral
Status of Technical Artefacts," in e Moral Status of Technical Artefacts, ed. Peter Kroes
and Peter-Paul Verbeek (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014).
4 Feenberg, Transforming Technology 5. Marx, and later the Frankfurt School, diagnose that
modes of production, and associated technologies, determine social relations. See also
Jacques Ellul, and the Heidegger of e Age of the World Picture and e Question Concerning
Technology. Ellul, e Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage
Books, 1964). Heidegger, e Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York:
Harper Perennial, 2013).
5 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1993).
leaving no trace.6 Finally, the principle of externality. Technology is fully
exterior to the human. It is a neutral means to solely human ends. I’ll call
this position—that betrays a clear humanist bent—‘weak prosthesis’:
weak, because technology makes no profound contribution to, and has no
enduring eﬀect upon, human essence. It includes any technological
intervention that purports to extend or restore human properties without
changing the human itself.
Instrumentalism and Disability
I’ll turn now to disability, and how this separation between human essence
and technology plays out in the concept of normal function. Medical
accounts often consider disability an individual problem occasioned by a
dysfunctional bodily property. In Christopher Boorse’s ‘normal function’
concept, the "normal is the natural”, while diseases are “foreign to the
nature of the species”.7 Humans unable to perform his normal activities—
speaking, walking—are dysfunctional. Impairment essentially and directly
correlates with health reduction and warrants correction or rehabilitation.
Some medical ethicists adopt this as a regulatory standard.8 Here
biological deviation from normal function—taken as objective—correlates
with decreased social opportunity as a ‘normal competitor’, or decreased
6 Kroes and Verbeek interestingly note that positive metaphors about technology tend to
ascribe goodness to the wisdom of its human users, while negative assessments indict
technology precisely for having its own autonomy: while a human creation, it goes on to
resist, override, or even determine, human will.
7 Christopher Boorse, "Health As a eoretical Concept", Philosophy of Science 44, no. 4
(1977): 542-573; "A Rebuttal on Health," in What Is Disease?, ed. J.M. Humber and R.F.
Almeder (Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 1997).
8 Allen E. Buchanan et al, From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2000). Norman Daniels, "Justice and Health Care," in Health
Care Ethics: An Introduction, ed. Donald VanDeVeer and Tom Regan (Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1987).
quality of life.9 Only those who see, walk, talk, access “the ‘normal
opportunity range’”.10 Accordingly, medicine and technology help by
restoring normal function.
I don’t mean that such intervention is always negative, or to discount
positive reports by those using prosthetics or undergoing interventions
that replicate functional and aesthetic norms. My concern is with
technology and production of the human. I’m suggesting that weak
prosthesis does more than it admits. e implied boundary between
human and technology obscures their myriad interleavings. It stabilises
across time the organising concept of human essence whose autonomy
correlates with morphological properties. Its purported neutrality
obfuscates this productive role. is occurs in diﬀerent technological
registers: from the operative idea of ‘restoration’ for those with congenital
impairments, to instruments that monitor for foetal ‘abnormalities’,
resulting in selective termination. I’m not debating the ethics of these
practices. I’m suggesting that technological intervention reproduces and
renegotiates a boundary within the living between normalcy and
deviation, and that this boundary is not read oﬀ nature, but introduced
Stiegler and Technics
Latterly, philosophers of technology have undertaken an ontological
reorientation away from dualism, and understand humans as profoundly
9 e From Chance to Choice authors claim to broadly accept the social model of disability as
land out in the UPIAS manifesto. However, their actual argumentation consistently
connects diminished opportunity to biological decit.
10 Ron Amundson, "Against Normal Function", Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological
and Biomedical Sciences 31, no. 1 (2000): 33-53. See, for example, Buchanan et al: “Justice
includes a commitment to equal opportunity, and genetically based disabilities, like other
disabilities, impair opportunity”. From Chance to Choice 270.
interrelated with technologies. I’ll talk about Bernard Stiegler, then
discuss some implications for disability and prosthesis.
I’ll call his position strong or ‘constitutive’ prosthesis, because it
understands technology as internal to the denition of humanitas. e
human is constituted as such through technological activity.11 Stiegler’s
argument goes roughly as follows. e human is ‘born too early’: it has no
inherent capacities, including memory. is susceptibility—human lack—
is constitutive, originary. What the human has, essentially, is nothing: its
essence is indetermination. It fabricates technology to mitigate this
deciency. Such supplements as language, sociality, tools, transform
environs and, ultimately, defer death.12 e human exists as its concurrent
externalisation in technical materials, and internalisation of this prosthetic
ek-sistence: co-constitution of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, not addition of external
technology to preexisting interiority.13
Finally, this ruptures from ‘pure’ biological life. Technology comprises
a new “inorganic organisation of memory”: human culture embodied in
11 Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time: e Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Geoﬀrey Beardsworth
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998). Stiegler contests Heidegger’s assertions that
the essence of technology is outside technics, and that there are other, more open modes
of world revealing than that of technology. What Heidegger overlooks in his search for a
more poetic mode of world disclosure is that humans simply are in virtue of their relation
with technics. Technics comprises nothing less than the horizon of human existence: the
genesis of technics corresponds precisely with the genesis of the human.
12 Stiegler’s position echoes that of Arnold Gehlen, for whom humans are Mängelwesen:
fundamentally decient, and thus in need of technologies to compensate for this, so to
survive in an environment to which they are not naturally adapted. Gehlen, Man, His
Nature and Place in the World, trans. Clare McMillan and Karl Pillemer (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1988).
13 “[M]an invents himself in technics by inventing the tool—by ‘externalising’ himself
techno-logically […] the interior is invented through this movement: it cannot precede it”
Stiegler, Technics and Time 141-2. e evident fallacy of Rousseau and others is to posit a
relation of succession between a pure and anterior human that only then externalises itself;
a true origin that antedates its fall into contingency. In fact, the inside is produced precisely
in the movement of exteriorisation.
enduring technical artefacts.14 Humans are denitively shifted from
genetic into non-genetic memory, liberated from genetics, and subject to
new, non-biological exigencies, which increases their indetermination.15
is looks fruitful for disability and prosthesis. If the ‘human condition’
is technological compensation for inherent vulnerability, everyone is
lacking, and none are complete. Moreover, technics is precisely liberation
from biology. Consequently, disability need not identify a categorial
division between completeness and insuﬃciency, between fully and
partially human. Finally, technologies need not approximate normal
However, Stiegler shouldn’t be embraced too hastily. First, he separates
biology and technology too forcefully, to under-acknowledge relations
between body and technics. ‘Man’ still evolves biologically as an animal,
but becomes human only through technical evolution: using tools to
anticipate possibilities other than those proscribed by genetics. Human
invention principally concerns a vie d’esprit that is not biological, but
technically-instantiated. Even though this vie d’esprit exists in material
technologies, this rehearses a merely technologised mind-body dualism.16
Externalisation in technics is simultaneously internalisation within the
human, but only within technical subjectivity. is subjectivity is divided
14 Creation issues from this historical lineage as sedimented within inorganic memory.
15 For Stiegler, instinct approaches genetic determination. e human possesses a kind of
intelligence that oﬀers a total freeing from such pre-determination. ere are shades of
capacity to choose: a vertebrate has greater latitude than an ant.
16 Defenders suggest that this is not so. Gerald Moore claims that Stiegler is suggesting that
“humanity has no essential basis in biology”, and that technics is in principle available to
any living being. But this seems just as anthropocentric: if animals could use tools, they
would be just like humans. Gerald Moore, "Adapt and Smile or Die!: Stiegler Among the
Darwinists," in Stiegler and Technics, ed. Christina Howells and Gerald Moore (Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2013), 27.
robustly from the biological body—equated by Stiegler with ‘stupidity’17—
rendering obscure just how technology aﬀects the body. is problem
cannot be overstated, since his basic position is that humans exist precisely
at their point of separation from biological features.18 is approaches a
denial that biology is an aspect of humanity.
is echoes debates in disability studies concerning whether impairment
is a biological or social artefact. In Stiegler’s account, impairment would
reside in the biological register, though it could radically be overcome by
technics. is suggests an inability to address adequately a question
motivating this paper: what role do technologies already play in
disability?19 Surely biology and technology do not have separate causal
histories?20 I’ll suggest that the very emergence of disability is enacted in
and through relations between bodies and technologies, broadly
construed, that regularise valued and disvalued properties.
A second problem concerns lack: Stiegler rejects a xed biological
nature for an equally universal foundation. at humans are fragile as a
matter of empirical fact doesn’t warrant the overdetermination of this state
17 It is not insignicant that Stiegler begins from Lacanian premises. As omas LaMarre
notes, this lends his account a psychoanalytic tenor. e human must recognise and
reconcile itself to its essentially fragile nature. omas LaMarre, "Afterword: Humans and
Machines," in Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual, Technologies of
Lived Abstraction (London: MIT Press, 2012).
18 is also entails a robust division between nature (locked into evolutionary adaptation and
mechanistic repetition) and culture (liberated by technics to radically innovate). is is
reminiscent of Sartre’s existentialism, that goes even further to eﬀectively deny that the
human has biological features. Roberto Esposito, "Politics and Human Nature", Angelaki:
Journal of the eoretical Humanities 16, no. 3 (2011).
19 My suggestion is twofold: rst, technologies replicate purportedly natural human
functions. e rst follows from the aforementioned tendency to assume normal function
as an objective fact, and to conceptualise technologies through that lens.
20 While it is beyond the scope of this paper, contemporary philosophy of biology suggests
that Stiegler’s adaptationist account is also rather outmoded. See the work of Susan
Oyama: e Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Second ed.
London: Duke University Press, 2000; Evolution’s Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-
Culture Divide. London: Duke University Press, 2000.
of aﬀairs into an ontological ground. Crucially, taking humans as equally
vulnerable engenders a homogeneous conception that attens out bodily
diversity, and the variable vulnerability that attends such diversity.21 More
precisely, this claim can only nd purchase by disregarding embodiment.
Even assuming that we accept vulnerability as the human predicament,
starting from concrete particular bodies (as does Simondon) would instead
suggest heterogeneity, and vulnerability by degrees.
Simondon and Individuation
So, while Stiegler’s originary technicity looked promising, it doesn’t
address the body’s own contingency, and its interrelation with, not
transcendence by, technology. I’ll turn to Gilbert Simondon’s work to this
end, before making some suggestions about technology’s role in the
production of the human.
Simondon’s organising concept is individuation. is understands
individuals in terms of process and relations. It can be characterised very
roughly as follows. e individual can be understood only relative to the
preindividual. ese are not discrete substances, but phases in an ongoing
individuating process. Individual structure emerges out of the
preindividual. e preindividual is the condition for individuation: the
reservoir of real potential, prior to structuration as an individual. It is
always conserved after individuation, primed to spill over into further
transformation. Alongside the individual, individuation also produces a
specic, associated milieu, to which it essentially relates. is relation
between individual and milieu is the ‘location’ of the preindividual. As
21 is also instates a categorial divide between humans and nonhumans. Lack is a based in
an oppositional logic of identity-in-diﬀerence.
Pascal Chabot writes, “[t]o exist is to be connected”.22 ese relations are
not accidents aﬀecting a pre-given individual, but what bring that
individual into being. e individual is not in relation; it is relation. An
individual, then, exists as an unfolding trajectory. It is never self-identical
or complete, but one phase of becoming, the temporary crystallisation of
a set of preindividual potentials. While there is structure or stability, it is
an outcome of ‘underlying’ operation or process.
Simondon and Technology
For Simondon technology is a kind of individuation: a movement from
abstract to concrete, called concretisation. Invention begins with an end or
predictable outcome in mind. e object in its primitive form is abstract:
a blueprint describing an assembly of elements, each of which is a “closed
system” with a discrete structure.23 During their ‘perfection’, elements take
on extra functions that the original design did not anticipate. e technical
object acquires a range that exceeds original intention “due to the
superabundant eﬃcacy of the created object when it is a true invention”.24
And, it gradually realises relations to an associated milieu. So, where the
abstract object was entirely articial—and identied with the inventor’s
goals—a concrete object has a mode of existence irreducible to human
artice or natural law, that “approximates the mode of existence of natural
22 Pascal Chabot, e Philosophy of Simondon: Between Technology and Individuation, trans.
Aliza Krefetz and Graeme Kirkpatrick (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 77.
23 Gilbert Simondon, Du mode d'existence des objets techniques (Paris: Éditions Aubier, 2012),
24 Gilbert Simondon, Imagination et invention, course material (hand-out) published in the
Bulletin de Psychologie, December 1965, pp. 395-414, February 1966, pp. 916-29, and
March 1966, pp. 1074-95, p. 1197 (published in 2008, Editions de la Transparence). While
objects are not precisely agentic, agency is not precisely in the inventor: potentials within
technology solicit certain responses.
objects”.25 To simplify: the concrete object has essentially an openness that
the abstract object lacked. It is loosened—albeit not completely—from
human origin and ascribed purpose. Perfection does not instantiate
Platonic form, a complete, abstract thing given in one blow.26 It
inaugurates a pattern open to dynamic transformation, an object with a
higher degree of openness, a greater “margin of indetermination”.27
So, the basic insights of Simondon are: the preindividual—transformative
potential—is primary; this gives both living and technical a fundamentally
open, processual character. is is overlooked when attention is restricted
to structure, which then becomes exhaustive of the individual or object,
whose genetic operations are thereby ignored. Sure enough, the modern
metaphysical chauvinism towards the self-identical submits such openness
to a logic of closure, generating both an anthropocentric view of the
human (as self-identical, self-contained and autonomous), and an
instrumental view of technology (the ‘labour paradigm’). e labour
paradigm doesn’t only address work, but rather describes a disposition
towards technology—that aﬀects life at all levels and scales—that ignores
its genesis, its human relation, and above all its openness: “the inherence
[in technicity] of values going beyond utility".28 I’ll dwell on this a little
before turning to Simondon’s positive implications.
25 Ibid., 46.
26 True perfection only comes through concretisation. is is not dened via external criteria
like utility or protability.
27 Simondon, MEOT 11. Indeed, it is precisely indeterminacy that becomes concrete:
“concretisation lies in the solidity of openness”. LaMarre, "Afterword: Humans and
28 Simondon, MEOT 222.
is closure—of human and technology within themselves, and from
each other—is surely signicant for disability, grounding the abstract
autonomy that underpins normal function (and that echoes
instrumentalism). is allows humans to understand themselves as fully
autonomous even as their actions are technologically-enabled.29 Yet this
implies ‘context-transcending abilities’, which would in turn suggest a
self-suﬃcient, complete human. As Stiegler rightly suggests, this recalls
the state of nature, which represents “the absence of relation”.30
Instead I’m suggesting that there is a banal, low level prostheticity to
the average and everyday. Much apparent complementarity between
‘normal’ humans and environments is not spontaneous, but the outcome
of activities, both historical and contemporary, that render the world thus
through harmonisation with a valued functional ideal. Rather than a
universally valid—that is, ‘normal’—mode, there are normalised relations
that prioritise certain modes.31 Importantly, the underlying logic
understands these relations as between determinate entities—the normal
individual, the neutral tool—and remains at the level of structure, without
attending to their engendering processes. Rather than ability or disability
antecedent of situation, there are enabling and disabling relations. ‘Ability’
correlates less with innate features, and more with temporally-normalised
relations between bodies and a world of technologies (broadly construed)
that en-able them.32 Conversely, disability reduces neither to physical
29 Bruno Latour, "On Technical Mediation", Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 29-64; "An
Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”", New Literary History 41, no. 3 (2010): 471-
490; We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1993).
30 Stiegler, Technics and Time 128.
31 Put diﬀerently, ‘ability’ is not pre-existent but situationally-enacted.
32 is involves both long-term evolutionary, and short-term existential, timespans.
properties nor inherent lack.33 It is a spatiotemporal event, that occurs
where a merely atypical body encounters others with incongruent
orientations, where aﬀordances are absent or inapt.34 Disability and ability
are relations between real bodies and technologies, where the contribution
of the latter is eﬀaced.
Transductive Prosthesis and Technical Ethics
Now I’ll turn to the aﬃrmative register of Simondon’s thought, to make
some suggestions for alternative ways to think the human-technology
relation, which I’ll call transductive prosthesis: transductive because
neither participant is entirely the agent, and every individuation is
conditioned upon earlier individuations, that conserve their own potential
for transformation. While Stiegler is right that technical evolution
transforms the human, this is not based in compensation for vulnerability.
ere is nothing essentially lacking in humans (or any individual). ey
are instead characterised by potential to diﬀerentiate characteristic of the
living in general.35 Humans and technological objects each contain this
potential, essentially but diﬀerently. ere is something human in
technology, not because they are makers and users—which would fall back
into a dualism of freedom and bondage—but because the technical
33 For this reason, I consider impairment a merely medical term with limited applicability,
and do not consider impairment qua objective abnormality part of the furniture of the
universe. Henceforth I will use anomalous embodiment to denote mere atypicality, and
disability to describe limiting situations based in assumptions that impairments are
34 e ’normal body’ it is given implicitly at one pole of the body-world circuit, instantiated
within milieus of various kinds. ‘Normal’ possibilities draw one in because these are taken
implicitly as ‘what everyone does’, and because contexts advert to such aﬀordances. So,
environments solicit unrealisable possibilities: however eﬀectively the wheelchair-user
comports themselves, the environment welcomes a motility other than theirs.
35 Humans are but one vector within a continuity of living individuation.
individual is an elaboration of potentialities within humans.36 Technology
doesn’t contradict the living. It ramies it. Yet due to their openness,
technologies retain a kind of quasi-agency that is not parasitic upon
humans. e human-technology relation is co-individuation: a “dialogue
between humans and machines” that engages preindividual forces in
human and technology that individuate together.37 Humans are
“conductors in the world orchestra of technology around them”, an
orchestra of which they are also part.38 Simondon will explicitly suggest
that the human is not a pre-given set of somatic or cognitive capacities,
but a living being that enters into relations with technical objects in an
I’ll nally make three brief recommendations about disability-
technology relations in a Simondonian key. First, taking individuation
seriously means resisting closure and teleology in biology and technology
alike. Remaining with structure only discloses regularity, and (somewhat)
warrants the understanding of humans as (however imperfect)
instantiations of ideal form. Instrumental understandings of health and
technology leave their categories untouched, and reproduce metaphysical
commitments to closure within individuality that occludes the reality and
primacy of relation. A related point concerns technical objects. If these
have a genesis and lineage that is implicated concurrently within human
becoming, we should attend to the anthropocentric—not merely the
human—in prosthesis. I’ve already mentioned the reduction of technology
to productivity—due to the longstanding tendency to think the human-
36 Nonetheless technology is not constitutive in Stiegler’s sense. It is merely one—albeit
highly signicant—trajectory of individuation.
37 LaMarre, "Afterword: Humans and Machines", 98.
38 Technical evolution is not linear progress from object to object, but return to and
reactivation of what is ontologically prior through “reimmersion in the preindividual”.
technology relation analogically with mastery and bondage—that short-
circuits technology’s potential. Perhaps technological solutions for
disability implicitly tend towards normalisation not simply because of
present economic imperatives, but also because productivity is sedimented
within technology’s purported role or purpose.39
e obverse practice attends to processes of taking-form. Such in-
forming is not construction by humans out of passive nonhumanity.
Simondon reontologises bodies: not as substances but as real trajectories
of becoming. ere is an ontology of disability. It is neither biological nor
social, but individuated within many, real but contingent, relations that,
through repeated practices, acquire an apparent xity. It is this xity might
be contested, by recognising “technical concretisation and the transductive
relation between humans and technology”.40 And, by following material
processes that aﬀect which bodies inhabit the world: how and why such
productions happen, and that it could have been otherwise.41
Finally, there is taking-up of potential towards a more open future.
Liberating technology from productivity releases its inventive power. My
former references to ‘the human’ were only pragmatic. I advocate a non-
anthropocentric theory of technical relations that relinquishes emphasis
upon merely abstract autonomy and function—with their implicit purity
and closure—for plurality and connection. Invention can take many
forms. ere is moderate: pragmatic living-with-machines that substitutes
39 Jean-Hugues Barthélémy, Life and Technology: An Inquiry Into and Beyond Simondon, trans.
Barnaby Norman (Lüneberg: Meson Press, 2015), 53.
40 Donald A. Landes, "Individuals and Technology: Gilbert Simondon, From Ontology to
Ethics to Feminist Bioethics", Continental Philosophy Review 47, no. 2 (2014).
41 ough beyond the scope of this paper, consideration of recent developments in biology
that prioritise contingency over genetic determinism—niche construction, non-genetic
evolution and development, autopoiesis—could be considered in relation to technology, to
develop a robust, processual account of bodily-technological elaboration, without requiring
that biology be transcended.
relational agency for individual autonomy. Technology still facilitates
action. However, if technicity assists almost all action, invention is freed
from approximation of normal modalities. Consider Christina
Papadimitrou’s ‘becoming en-wheeled’: “a way of being in the world that
is not merely mechanical or practical”.42 It may even create entirely new
ways of acting. Or, rather than complementary or supplementary addition
to bodies, an aesthetic and experimental elaboration. Importantly, as we’ve
seen, individuation also brings with it an associated milieu. A new
technical relation is simultaneously the creation of a new milieu. Of
course, this is already happening in and with bodies everywhere, we just
need to look for it, and keep bringing it to light.
42 Christina Papadimitriou, "Becoming En‐wheeled: e Situated Accomplishment of Re‐
embodiment as a Wheelchair User After Spinal Cord Injury", Disability & Society 23, no.
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