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  • Anthroprosthesis, or Prosthetic Dogs
  • Ivan Kreillkamp (bio)

Can a clear distinction be drawn between the human and the nonhuman living creature? From Descartes through Heidegger to Levinas, [End Page 36] modern Western thinkers have struggled to isolate some fundamental capacity—whether speech, thought, awareness of mortality, or capacity for future planning—that distinguishes the human. What seems to be needed here is some term or category that would define the human as separate from, and possessing some priority over, the non-human. The modern anthropological view of culture, for example, may be said to rest "upon the idea of the human symbolic appropriation of nature—whether animate or inanimate" (Ingold 11). This presumption reinforces a more general modern understanding of human beings as creatures who create and shape the environment in which they live by means of the "symbolic appropriation" of the natural world. The human is distinguished from the rest of the living world, then, by a particular kind of use of that world—a formulation that presupposes a stable distinction between the human and a non-human world.

The manipulation of tools, traditionally if mistakenly understood to belong exclusively to humanity, offers one iconic instance of such appropriation or use. A tool allows an exertion of human powers, powers that in the first order manipulate the non-human world and in the second order demonstrate and anchor the human/non-human distinction. Tools do not simply define the human and its difference from the non-human or the animal, but extend the human's reach, both literally and conceptually. From the first tools used to, say, throw a stone farther than one could with one's arm alone, human beings have created a world of technologies generating the effect of a prosthesis or extension of the human. "With every tool man is perfecting his own organs," Sigmund Freud observed in an oft-cited passage from Civilization and Its Discontents. "By means of spectacles he corrects defects in the lens of his own eye; by means of the telescope he sees into the far distance.... Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god" (43-44).

Several scholars of Victorian literature and culture have recently argued that nineteenth-century Britain might be understood as a thoroughly prosthetic age.1 Here, I am interested in the particular function and meaning of animals as and in relation to prostheses. Animals tend to be overlooked in considerations of prostheses, which are typically understood as thoroughly mechanical-industrial: tools, devices, machines. But we "use" animals as tools and prostheses as surely as we do mechanical objects, whether in the form of tools made from an animal (a leather belt or shoe, a wool coat) or in the use of labouring animals (a cart horse, a guide dog). Any of these can be understood as what I will call "anthro-prosthetic" tools that extend the human and mark the human being's difference from the animal by incorporating and appropriating the animal in an ongoing, anxious process of defining that difference. I am influenced here by Giorgio Agamben's argument that the human is itself constituted by an "anthropological machine ... at work in our culture" (37) that continually dispels the nonhuman or animal from the human, which is in fact defined by that segregating gesture. What I am calling "anthroprosthesis" is, then, the process by which human beings use animals in order to define the non-animality of the human. [End Page 37]

If we think more broadly about the history of human relations with animals and of human domestication of certain species, we can see how a prosthetic logic operates here as well. What is the sheep, the cow, or the dog in its domestication but a projection or extension of human desires and needs? This is most obvious in the human use of substances like wool or leather, but is no less evident in the broader manipulation of animal species to serve human needs; in this light, all breeds of domesticated animals, so fundamentally shaped by human beings, are themselves prostheses.2 I want to suggest, then, that while Freud decreed that in the modern period, humanity had "become a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 36-41
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-07
Open Access
No
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