by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Prosthesis: Noun. Originally from a grammatical concept “prosthetics,” from the 1550s, “addition of a letter or syllable to a word,” from Late Latin, from Greek prosthesis “addition, application, attachment,” from prostithenai “add to,” from pros “to” + tithenai “to put, place, to set down as in a proposition.” Prosthesis in reference to “artificial body part” is first recorded circa 1900, from earlier use to describe the medical art of making artificial limbs (1706), from the concept of “that which is added to” the injured body. That which extends before or comes before one’s body and/or one’s idea or claim–an extension of one’s reach, one’s ability, one’s doing or thinking–as well as a trace of the body, a mark or sign of amputation, castration, or excision.
I am little concerned with celebrity court dramas, almost to the point of ignoring them. The case of Oscar Pistorius/Reeva Steenkamp is an exception, though. Recently, when I asked a friend from South Africa about the best sources of news regarding the Oscar Pistorius/Reeva Steenkamp trial, she recommended I follow the Daily Maverick. Then, she asked me, “What’s your interest in celebrity trials?” I explained that I am not especially interested in these trials, but that with this one, I want to watch when, where, how, why, and by whom dis/ability and prosthesis get deployed throughout the proceedings and the coverage.
Last St. Valentine’s Day, Paralympian and Olympian athlete Oscar Pistorius allegedly shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, at his house in Pretoria, South Africa. Pistorius claims killing Steenkamp with four shots from his 9mm pistol was a tragic accident. He had mistaken her for an intruder. The State of South Africa has charged him with premeditated murder, along with additional charges of the reckless discharge of a firearm in public, and being in possession of ammunition without a license.
Pistorius, of course, had become world-famous as the “blade runner,” after becoming the first person to use carbon-fiber running blades to win an able-bodied world track medal in 2011 and then participate in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London in the men’s 400 meters and 4 X 400 meters relay races. At the 2012 Summer Paralympics, Pistorius won gold medals in the men’s 400 meters race and the 4 X 100 meters relay. He also competed in the 200 meters race, setting world records in all three events.
According to many predictions about the current court case and the opening arguments, the two key points of consideration are the state of Pistorius and Steenkamp’s relationship at the time of the incident and the state of Pistorius’s embodiment at the moment of the shooting. Were Pistorius and Steenkamp fighting? Was Pistorius wearing his blades? There is no question as to whether Pistorius fired the gun or whether he killed Steenkamp.
The questions of this case are questions of prosthesis–of what came before the fatal event, whether Pistorius was wearing his blades and how dis/abled and in/vulnerable he felt, why he aimed his gun and fired four shots through a closed door, and how many times we will see and hear about the extent of the media coverage of this trial.
This trial, perhaps more than others, highlights the intersection of prosthetic devices–relational dispositions, running blades, guns, cameras and microphones–in ways media and embodiment theorists have frequently described. (See, for example, Sarah Coffey’s summary essay, “Prosthesis.”) Many philosophers have discussed the relation between argument and supplement, how supplementary material both fills and exposes gaps in your argument. Many disability studies scholars have described the dynamics between impairment and adaptation, how all bodies function in response to adaptation, how all bodies are enabled differently by different structures and different environments. Many media critics have surveyed the ways in which technologies extend our senses and expose us to overload, how technologies help us to see and hear more but also how their overabundance forces us evermore to guard against sensory overload. The Pistorius/Steenkamp case has always revolved around questions of the boundaries between the human and the technological, and questions of where the body begins and ends. It has always been a story about supercrip overcoming, violence (gendered, racial, and classed), guns, and coverage.
The 11 March 2o13 Time Magazine cover, “Man Superman Gunman,” puts the body of Oscar Pistorius on full display. It deploys the image of Pistorius with his prosthetic blades in place.Yet, although it capitalizes on identifying him as “gunman,” it never shows us an images of Pistorius as gunman. What interests me about this magazine cover, the article inside–“Pistorius And South Africa’s Culture Of Violence” by Alex Perry–and other pieces about the Pistorius/Steenkamp incident is the display of the other prosthesis. What concerns me most with this trial is how all the prosthetics involved–relationships, blades, guns, and media–will appear and disappear throughout the event.
It may very well be that Pistorius doesn’t stay that unique for long. Prosthetics, especially prosthetic legs are very advanced nowadays and will surely improve even more. Maybe now they’re only available for a lucky few, but that time will change.
Thank you for your comment, Sophie. I have no doubt that prosthetic technology will continue to develop. And access is always a topic that has to remain on the table. What I’m also concerned with in the Pistorius case, though, is the prosthetics of media and weaponry that have circulated around his situation. In other words, I’m very interested in what counts as a prosthesis, for whom, to whom, and why. Glasses, cameras, finish line technology, guns, legs, etc. Anything that extends the body.