Medical Technics

Medical Technics
by Don Idhe

University of Minneapolis Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2019
94 pp., illus. 1 b&w. Paper, $7.95; ebook, $4.95 ebook
ISBN 978-1-5179-0830-0; ISBN 978-1-4529-6215-3.

Reviewed by
Michael Punt
March 2020

Don Idhe’s little book of some 94 pages is his contribution to the University of Minnesota Press’ Forerunners: Ideas First  series. Describing the series as ‘Short Books of thought-in-process scholarship where intense analysis, questioning and speculation take the lead’, Medical Technics has a rather eerie sense of a past. Idhe reprises his theoretical framework of postphenomenology and reflects on his medical experiences as he has got older. Postphenomenology in his words, ‘…joins the now widespread notion that human knowledge is perspectival, bodily located, and multisensory, or as I put it, praxis perceptual’ (p.10). This frames much of the account of his technical medical treatment as an accommodation of the failing body with technical devices–- stents, joints, and diagnostic sensors that shift the boundary between human and machine. This recasting of the body (his body) as a semi-technical object is matched by the skills of the operators (clinicians), whose pre-learning with computer-based games in childhood have seamlessly joined them up with an interface between clinician and patient that is partially ‘non-human’. Idhe uses a phenomenological approach to unravel the contract between the ailing body and the artificial to dismantle what he regards as over-inflated claims for the future of the human body as a post-human/transhuman cyborg. He describes in some detail how the various technical interventions he has experienced have come at a price. For example, his joint implants may be made of the sort of solid material that we trust forever, but like the bone that they replace, they wear out, become problematic for the body and need replacing. Each replacement, he tells us, means that more bone is removed so that there are limits on how many times one’s mobility can be restored with an artificial joint. However, more important for his case against the hyper-inflated claims that are made for technological solutions, is that all medical technics reduce bodily capacity and affordances that can be sensed through first person reflections. As always, Idhe has a firm hand on the tiller of reason in a tumultuous sea of the wild speculation, vapourware, and the gesture rhetorics that discussions of technology seems to tolerate. This is more than a struggle for the history of the future. At stake in the promotion of this kind of loose talk claiming a fashionable modernity is the degradation of human values: See for example the vogue for articles on artificial intelligence that naturalise the conflation of learning and intelligence into a single concept. This may seem to be a convenient discursive short cut but on the way it reconfigures the human to organs of capacity and productivity. Smart zombies with software.

Clarity about technology and its relationship to us is what we have come to expect from Idhe over the years. Perhaps less usual is the literary style of this short book. Mostly written in the first person, it has the voice and detail of a casual conversation with a stranger over a long night in a hospital waiting room. There is much thoughtful introspection and also much personal detail, that at times feels a bit uncomfortable, and some medical detail that is not for the squeamish. Nonetheless, it is to be commended since Idhe is putting his weight behind an ever-growing challenge to the routines and conventions of academic writing that have built up around the academic journal over 400 years. This style, it is argued, has silenced important voices and masked important discursive forms, like gossip and introspection. Postphenomenological approaches are made for this kind of literary adventure, but first-person accounts and deep internal reflection are not to be confused with unstructured streams of ideas––the textual selfie and the late-night blog. Fictions require skill and aesthetic judgement and personal stories are as demanding (if not more so) as any other kind of text. It is not sufficient to be very detailed and personal. If, as many now begin to argue, that academic writing, biography, autobiography, even legal and scientific reporting are particular kinds of fiction that corral arbitrary data, then authors of first-person accounts have a responsibility to build a structure to tell a story and not unburden themselves at the reader’s expense. Idhe narrowly avoids this in Medical Technics, but some repetitions seem accidental slips that the book could do without. Nonetheless, his short book is a delight that makes its point clearly and ingeniously when it is allowed to. It tells us something about the overinflated technofallacy of the cyborg that runs through much of the published material on technology and culture and it equips us to think for ourselves about the contract that we strike with any technology that we use. More than anything, its embodied approach to knowing the world reminds us that without critical vigilance unreconstructed visions of technology may ripple out and reduce the riches of human thought and creativity to quantity.