Elliott (Bioethics and Philosophy/Univ. of Minnesota) examines the American fascination with “enhancement technologies,” techniques provided by medical science for transforming, improving, or even discovering one’s true self.
A participant for five years in a Canadian research project examining how new technologies illuminate issues of identity, Elliott looks for answers not only in professional literature but also in conversations with the people involved: psychiatrists and other clinicians, patients, clients, and consumers. And he looks at our culture, the movies, books, television shows, and commercials that shape people’s perceptions of their world and expectations of themselves. His scope is broad, and the result is both entertaining and surprising. Opening with a discussion of Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesizer and an “accent-reduction clinic” in North Carolina, he moves on to consider drugs that reduce social anxieties or calm hyperactivity, cosmetic surgery that alters the size of appendages or changes gender, human growth hormones that increase stature, treatments that change the color of hair or skin, and cochlear implants that ameliorate deafness. He asks what these enhancement technologies mean to the people who choose them and what these choices say about Americans’ ideas of success, self-improvement, and self-esteem. The proper use of enhancement technologies and the way in which public identification and description of a condition contribute to its spread come under scrutiny in a chapter on apotemnophilia, a bizarre psychosexual attraction to the idea of being an amputee. Elliott also explores such lesser body modifications as tattooing and piercing. Shorter versions of “Amputees by Choice” and “Pilgrims and Strangers” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and the Hedgehog Review, respectively, and many other chapters have a similar stand-alone quality.
An absorbing read that probes our foibles and uncertainties with gentleness, wisdom, and humor.