Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article, “Man and Superman,” on genetics and performance in sport kicks off this month’s web roundup, where we ask the questions: Who is a superman (or superwoman)? How do we even go about defining the characteristics of a superman? How might we account for subjectivities in the search for superman?
Gladwell cites an array of genetic or otherwise biomedical anomalies as explanations for the sporting superman: slim calves in Kenyan runners, extraordinary eyesight in professional basketball players and increased red blood cell counts in a cross-country skier from Finland. These aren’t supermen in the comic book sense, but it certainly seems as if the subjects Gladwell highlights have a significant competitive advantage over otherwise “normal” competitors.
Over at Smithsonian, Geoff Brumfiel’s feature, “The Insane and Exciting Future of the Bionic Body,” takes on the significant advances in contemporary prosthetic technology. The article begins with Brumfiel meeting Bertolt Meyer, user of the new i-limb, which enables him to rotate his wrist 360 degrees, which the author describes as “unnerving.” Instead of superman, Brumfiel sets off on pursuit of the Bionic Man, a general amalgamation of characteristics (‘smart’ prosthetic limbs, artificial organs and wireless neural implants) that together construct a projection of man’s potential fulfilled by the promise of biotechnology.
Perhaps looking only at the distinctly enhanced man leaves out other readings of the superman. Take Jezebel’s post on Barbie Thomas, a double shoulder disarticulation amputee and competitive fitness model. Not only does Thomas land complicated routines, but also her choice to compete in a sport “somewhere between a body builder and a bikini girl” indicates that her success is not only about athletic ability; rather, by excelling as a fitness model, Thomas smashes judge and audience expectations of “symmetry” and what is “sexy, athletic, fun and emotional.” Surely we can take Thomas as another interpretation of what a superwoman might look like.
And what about subjective notions of what counts as super? Gawker’s post, “This Is What It Feels Like To Be Quadriplegic,” offers a moment in the life of Jimmy Anderson. The second installment in a series, Anderson says his condition “sucks,” and he hates “how restricted the world feels.” He says, “beauty in life is experiential,” and describes how many precious experiences he misses now that his mobility is severely limited. But Anderson’s conclusion, that an act of kindness from a stranger revealed “the beauty in the world,” indicates that superman need not be faster than a speeding bullet or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; instead, Anderson is superman when he reenters a world made beautiful by his experiences. His mobility may never improve, but his subjective experience of how he moves through the world certainly demonstrates a capacity for superhuman strength, courage and grace. In searching for superman, perhaps we are best served by looking not at capacity, ability or even biomedical superiority, but at exceptions, deviations and the unforeseen.
More links of interest:
“Ethical Enhancement” – Practical Ethics
“An App to Nab Jerks Who Illegally Use Accessible Parking” – Media dis&dat
“On the Space Between the Human and the Post-Human” – Utopia or Dystopia