The Cochlear Implant between Restoring and Transcending Humanness: The Cases of Michael Chorost and Enno Park
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This paper deals with a neuro-prosthesis that has been the subject of various controversies since it was developed in the 1950s and successfully applied and commercialized in the 1980s: the Cochlear Implant (CI). While praised as a medical ‘wonder’ by a range of medical experts, the CI is regarded critically by some Deaf activists, as the practices involved in cochlear implantation construct deafness as a ‘disability’ and degrade sign language to a mere ‘prosthetic language’ instead of acknowledging deaf people as an individual cultural and ethnic group and sign language as their genuine form of communication. In this context, the CI’s rehumanizing and dehumanizing effects have frequently been discussed: from a medical perspective, being ‘deaf’ is an ‘abnormal’, ‘inhuman’ state that needs to be cured. Here, the CI is functionalized as an enhancement, enabling ‘rehumanization’ of the formerly ‘disabled’ individuals. However, the Deaf opposition argues that they do not consider themselves ‘deficient’ or ‘abnormal’ in any way and that the CI is a ‘dehumanizing’ instrument of power by which deaf people are ‘normalized’ and assimilated into a majority of hearing people. These controversies aside, self-proclaimed cyborgs like philosopher Michael Chorost and software programmer Enno Park consider socio-technological symbiosis with the CI as a possibility to transcend the physical and perceptive borders of the human body and to question and revise (humanist) concepts of what it means to be ‘human’. This paper considers those three perspectives, thus focusing on a cultural phenomenon that has rarely been addressed within CI research. Indeed, an effort will be made to analyze how popular film and media discourses on post- and transhumanism and the motif of the ‘cyborg’ are appropriated, reworked, negotiated and associated with the CI as a means of subjectivization. The paper will also consider how these discourses are mobilized in order to construct the CI as both a rehumanizing and a dehumanizing instrument or a means of transcending humanness.
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