restricted access Diamond Wheels and Machetes: The Political Praxis of Prosthesis
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Diamond Wheels and Machetes:
The Political Praxis of Prosthesis

Foucault wrote that "knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting." If "knowledge is made for cutting," then a fair follow-up question might be, "what is cutting for?" (Foucault 83). I intend to explore that question through a very specific subset of "cutting," namely, cutting of the body in the form of amputation. More specifically, the amputations explored here are self-administered amputations of fingers carried out by the wielding of cutting instruments against the self to subvert (or at least redirect) the nominal, conventional, or even hegemonic uses of these cutting tools—as portrayed through recent fiction. Reading John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany and Chris Cleave's Little Bee, I argue that these novels suggest that what I am calling "the political praxis of prosthesis" is a decidedly political answer to our question, "what is cutting for?" I argue that the self-amputations depicted in these novels are politically motivated and that they represent the reappropriation of prosthetic devices with a view toward constructing a resistance against certain power structures. To assist in working through these close-readings, I have distilled a three-part theoretical framework as follows:

  1. 1. Drawing from Bernard Stiegler's Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus provides the launch pad for conceptualizing prosthetic technologies as extensions of the body, and as devices expressly intended for cutting: the knife is his most basic and recurrent example. I therefore define "prosthetic" as a cutting tool.

  2. 2. I borrow Michel de Certeau's "metallic vocabulary" from the chapter entitled "The Scriptural Economy" in The Practice of Everyday Life. Here, Certeau lays out a conception of cutting the body as a form of writing upon the body or, in his neologistic parlance, "intextuations." I thus interpret the amputations in Irving and Cleave as "intextuations" by "prosthetics."

  3. 3. I take the bait that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri provocatively dangle in Empire as they attempt to update not only the human condition and its "symptoms of passage" from Owen Meany to Little Bee-era power structures, but also the new "interactive and cybernetic" versions of prosthetics that attempt to cope with the new power of Empire. Therefore, I am enabled to acknowledge that the political praxis of prosthesis cuts in [End Page 61] different ways in different times, as well as to consider its evolution and its current relevance.

In John Irving's 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany the character Owen amputates the right index finger of narrator John Wheelright to prevent John from being drafted into US military service to fight in Vietnam. The amputation is done—as climax to a chapter significantly entitled "The Finger"—with a diamond wheel, which is used in Owen Meany's family-run monument shop as a granite-cutting tool to shape headstones for the local cemetery. The diamond wheel itself is described as the ultimate cutting tool and, as such, it might be the ultimate prosthesis. I argue that it becomes the ultimate prosthesis through its reappropriation. As an engraver of headstones, it is questionable as to how much life it scrapes out of the belly of the earth; on the contrary, it appears more useful in marking the expired lives that find their ways back into the earth. As a commandeered tool made to write upon blank flesh, however, the diamond wheel performs a great biopolitical function by keeping John out of harm's way and, by extension, keeping "the enemy" out of John-the-would-be-soldier's way.

The political thrust of Owen Meany is basic: it is a scathing critique of US foreign policy; in particular, of its Cold War imperialism in Vietnam. While each character assumes a unique stance along the anti-war spectrum, none of them is supportive of the protracted conflict; they are particularly critical of President Johnson and his "Rolling Thunder" campaign from 1965-1968. In any case, none are willing participants. (Owen's insistence on joining the Army has more to do with his spirituality and his belief that he is an "instrument of God," and he is not willing because...

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