Cut Off

The Mütter Museum’s permanent exhibition about Civil War medicine is of a piece with the rest of the collections on display: meant to be, as the museum director has said, “a kick in the gut.” In one display case there is a broken skull of a solider shot through both eye sockets. Nearby there is a long pair of “ball forceps” used to remove bullets lodged in various body parts. There are samples of the Minié ball, the conical lead bullet that maimed and killed many during the war. The exhibition’s focus on the medical aftermath of the war (sensible as a frame since Philadelphia was a destination for about 157,000 injured soldiers but not a battleground) is grisly nonetheless.

In the corner of the “Broken Bodies, Suffering Spirits” exhibit is perhaps the most uncivil of this Civil War collection. You’re invited to step inside a small, darkened room to experience what it would be like to have your arm amputated with Civil War medicine. There is a touch screen next to the entryway, asking you to select your height (up to 6’4”), your gender (male or female), and your skin tone (three choices). When you’ve selected these options, the screen invites you to enter the black box.


In the first few days of September this year, the listserv for “Disability Studies in the Humanities” swelled with messages after one scholar sent out a link to a description of a study that showed how asking able-bodied students to simulate disability helped create empathy for people with disabilities. This particular study, following in a long line of similar ones, asked students training to be music educators to simulate a sensory or physical disability and, with another student acting as an aide, be in a public space for at least thirty minutes. In describing what she sees as the salubrious effects of her exercise, the researcher says, “Without fail, all of them came back and said, ‘That was really cool.’”

Disability scholars were quick to critique this “fun factor” in disability simulations. That the exercise induced pleasure is evidence that enjoying the simulation is only possible as the result of the privilege of leaving the simulation behind. “Fun” was only one problem disability scholars saw in this kind of research. One person emailing the list pointed out that temporality is in fact a much deeper structural problem in the spate of studies that have examined disability simulations. Rarely do these studies test long-term changes in attitudes towards people with disabilities, which is the kind of experimental effect we hope the research to bring about. A meta-analysis of disability simulation research found that over half of articles analyzed merely included discussion of how to implement a simulation without referencing empirical data that actually tested effects of these interventions. In that analysis and in other studies, the actual causal claim of simulation creating more empathy is shown to be tenuous and ultimately unsupported.

Assumptions about the benevolence of “empathy” throw us into deeper questions about the category of disability. Identity politics scholarship in the 60s and 70s insisted on the insularity of the experience of marginality. Standpoint theory, for example, found a strong justification for humanistic and social scientific research to incorporate the lived experiences of subordinated groups only by maintaining that oppression cannot be understood phenomenologically from a position of privilege. In the enduring legacy of this way of thinking, “empathy” is an ill-fated project to begin with, since it holds out the possibility of crossing what identity politics finds to be a fundamentally impassable chasm. This we might see as a holdover of intransigently mentalist conceptions of the insularity of consciousness writ large, where a Cartesian notion of the mind enforces an individuated, skull-bound model of thought. Why speculate on others’ experiences, the thinking goes, if any certainty is already foreclosed?

We can understand Tobin Siebers’s critique of disability simulations as part and parcel of this genealogy. For Siebers, simulations

fail to give the student pretenders a sense of the embodied knowledge contained in disabled identities. Disability simulations of this kind fail because they place students in a time-one position of disability, before knowledge about disability is acquired, usually resulting in emotions of loss, shock, and pity at how dreadful it is to be disabled. Students experience their body relative to their usual embodiment, and they become so preoccupied with sensations of bodily inadequacy that they cannot perceive the extent to which their “disability” results from social rather than physical causes (Disability Theory, 28).

Given the importance of this critique, could we not dare to imagine a more radical understanding of disability that redeems simulations attempts without unwittingly inscribing the problematic assumptions they risk? If disability, as hosts of scholars have argued, is the difference that unites us in being a human condition we become over time, if not in an instant, then shouldn’t our conception of disability find a more properly porous way of conceiving of who is inside and who stands outside the category?


When you’ve entered the dimly lit room, there is a large, full-body mirror. Across from it on the floor are two footprints, indicating where you are meant to stand. When you take your place, your right arm falls behind an unlit  kevarmwall. When you look into the mirror across from you, where you would normally see your own arm is a hologram-like image of a new, bare arm. Text above your head’s reflection on the mirror asks you to adjust yourself so that the arm appears to be connected to your shoulder in the mirror-image you’re looking at. The experience begins.

The text tells you you’re a soldier in the Civil War. One day you’re shot in the arm. The arm-image in the mirror rattles a bit and a bullet hole appears, then drips blood. You’re bandaged (the wound disappears beneath cloth), but then it gets infected (the wound reappears, sallowed). The infection gets worse, reaches the bone (the wound looks decayed) and doctors decide to amputate.

You’re told chloroform helps knock you out during the surgery. Dotted lines appear along the arm-image. The incision is made, leaving extra skin that will be folded over the new extremity. The arm-image is sliced through until, with a sudden pop, the lower part of the limb separates and vanishes.

Time speeds up as you’re told about the healing process and your life after the war. You’re told that despite the new life you’ve established, you still sense a presence of your amputated arm. “Nothing can replace your real arm.” A faint, spectral image of the lower limb appears and shakes, then disappears again.


Cohen Van Balen is a design partnership between two artists, one of whom does not have a left arm. In their project called “Phantom Recorder,” they attempt to simulate the experience of having a phantom limb using a technological process funded by the Cambridge Center for Brain Repair and commissioned by the Royal College of Art. Practical solutions for phantom limb syndrome miss what the artist duo sees as the possibility to awaken the poetic function of a phantom. “[W]hat if,” Cohen Van Balen asks, “one could record and keep their phantom sensation[…]?”

Using a nerve interface that allows axons to incorporate electrodes into their microchannels as they grow, the system can introduce nerve stimulation and record neural patterns related to the prosthesis-cum-phantom limb. cohenvanbalen“The Phantom Recorder system projects a cold and damp sensation onto the skin surface, triggering the brain to hallucinate a phantom. As the phantom movement stimulates the peripheral nerves, its activity is captured by the neural implant and external wireless machinery.” The project relies on biomedical theories of nerve endings but the project is ultimately prototypical. Nonetheless, The Phantom Recorder proposes a number of provocative questions about phantom limbs and simulation.

Though the project hypothesizes that a person’s true nerve ending would fuse with the recording system, we can wonder to what extent the stimuli being sent to the limb are “simulating” an arm. In the microchannels of the limb to be “haunted,” the simulation is real in that the nerves are being truly being activated. But there is no attempt to make the phantom limb less spectral. Indeed the point of the design is to simulate – neurologically – what is not actually there. The Phantom Recorder, then, teeters between biomedical understandings of a phantom limb that might in other contexts be used to resolve the discomfort of the syndrome and a poetic design mode that seeks to preserve the liminality of corporeal ghosts.

By emphasizing the benefits of spectral simulation, Cohen Van Balen implores us to think of disability beyond the capacity to try it on. If the phantom possibilities of their device engage ways of thinking beyond the truly, real, material body, these possibilities also question the extent to which any body is truly experienced. Their project pushes us to consider the many ghosts that haunt our corporeal conditions, variable as they are.


In the Mütter Museum, a fascination with medical oddities is largely enabled by enrolling visitors to use their own bodies as markers of comparison with the freakishly displayed artifacts. When a tour guide points out how low the arms of a “giant” skeleton extend down the legs, the visitor is subtly encouraged to sense how far down her/his own hands fall against the legs. A large distended colon has the visceral effect of implicitly asking a visitor to imagine what it would be like to have that in her/his own body. Thus the museum functions in very similar ways to disability itself in other discursive realms. An able-bodied person is meant to leave the museum being glad s/he is not disabled. Thus we glimpse the irony in the museum’s overt insistence that its collections can engender “empathy” in its visitors minds; “empathy” only with the assurance that no actual reckoning with the lived experience of disability takes place.

We can see this par excellence in the amputation simulation. In an interview with Hidden City Philadelphia, the director of the museum explains that they wanted to

make sure that the exhibit works at a visceral and personal level [since] the moment a soldier is shot it becomes an intense, personal experience. ‘What happened to me?’ We decided to tell the story using the history of the body, individual people as lenses for the broader experience.

The “individual people” being hailed to are normatively-conceived, laden with a number of assumptions about what kind of body can and should enter the booth. The museum visitor is imagined as fundamentally able-bodied: has two legs to stand on the footprints, has one of two arms that will be shielded from view, can see well, is of a limited range in height, weight, and skin tone. Like a circus sideshow, the exhibition seems to shout to the “normals” that they should come see what the booth has to offer. It only takes a minute, literally.

Without running too quickly over this normate imagination of who is visiting the museum, I wonder if we can imagine a more sensitive disability simulation that doesn’t sit atop a host of ableist tendencies. What if we oriented our simulations to the figurative and artistic possibilities in the “phantoms”? What if we carefully probed the possibilities of creating empathy, instead of insisting on its impossibilities?

Within the Civil War exhibition, perhaps the museum could have capitalized on the homologies between the “phantoms” of amputated limbs and the “phantoms” the war created. Perhaps we could imagine the “suffering spirits” mentioned in the exhibitions title beyond those of the soldiers. The Civil War made disabled phantoms out of able-bodied soldiers in a clash over the justification of disability in slavery itself. As Douglas Baynton has shown, slavery was rationalized in more than one way by medicalizing African-Americans, casting them as too disabled to handle their own freedom. That slaves should be understood as more human than the reductive disability classifications allowed for is one way we could imagine disability as more central to the North’s motivation to enter the Civil War. Yet how rarely do we pause to recognize that the phantom soldiers killed during the battle and the phantom limbs of some who survived share an affinity in their disabled experience with the African-Americans who were involuntarily disabled by racist ideologies of slavery.

Though disability simulations can be troubling for a host of reasons, we risk something different when we too strongly condemn them. We risk establishing too rigidly the experience of disability. We risk cutting off disability from what could be potentially helpful cross-identity identifications, even if those identifications succeed in ways that cannot be captured with social scientific measures of “empathy.” That disability itself might be a ghost – something we glimpse apparitionally, in affective embodied experiences, as something we eventually become – might be a more productive way to redeem the utility of disability simulations.

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Culture Lab @ ASC.

The Culture Lab is a forum for researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania committed to exploring, enriching, and elucidating the contours of culture and communication. We are interested in culture as it is, as it takes shape, and as it is remembered. We are interested, in other words, in culture anywhere that it exists.
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