Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America / Edition 1

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After World War II, the United States underwent a massive cultural transformation that was vividly realized in the development and widespread use of new medical technologies. Plastic surgery, wonder drugs, artificial organs, and prosthetics inspired Americans to believe in a new age of modern medical miracles. The nationalistic pride that flourished in postwar society, meanwhile, encouraged many Americans to put tremendous faith in the power of medicine to rehabilitate and otherwise transform the lives and bodies of the disabled and those considered abnormal. Replaceable You revisits this heady era in American history to consider how these medical technologies and procedures were used to advance the politics of conformity during the 1950s.
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Editorial Reviews

CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 2006


"An insightful, sociocultural analysis of the impact medical advances had on the American psyche and body during the 1950s. . . . The book is balanced to provide the rigorous research a historian would need and to be accessible to any reader with a general interest in science and society.

Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Serlin's remarkable book illuminates the culture and politics of postwar America by investigating intersections of race, class, gender, medicine, and technology. . . . Serlin provides a thick descriptive context, effectively mobilizing an impressive array of primary sources . . . and secondary literatures on a wide range of topics, from important studies of Cold War culture, to the history of prothesis technology and scientific knowledge on hormones, and the publishing history of Ebony.

— Jill Fields

American Historical Review
The essays largely succed in suggesting that postwar Americans utilized medical options for reengineering the body in ways that validated the dominant social order. This important insight is only the most ubiquitous of the many to take away from this valuable consideration of American culture.

— M. L. Tina Stevens

Technology and Culture
Serlin shows the power of cultural studies at its best, informed by a careful understanding both of the technology itself and of its reception.

— Edward Tenner

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226748849
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 232
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

David Serlin is associate professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego. He is coeditor of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics and Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS Activism.
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Read an Excerpt

Replaceable You
Engineering the Body in Postwar America
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-74883-2

Chapter One
The Other Arms Race

IN THE NOVEMBER 1946 issue of Fortune, famous photographer Walker Evans presented some views of perfectly ordinary men walking the streets of downtown Detroit in the late afternoon. Evans, a master of social realism whose photographic work for the Farm Security Administration in the mid-1930s culminated in his masterpiece with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1939), had moved into a new phase of his career, this time focused largely on representations of postwar labor. Evans's pictures of American working men in a variety of guises-in broad-brimmed caps and overalls, or in work pants and white T-shirts-were familiar to the American businessmen who made up the vast majority of Fortune's readers. Since the 1920s they had been accustomed to looking at images of men who marked physically the masculine exuberance and patriotic spirit embodied in icons of American commercial production. Even into the 1950s, a disproportionate number of advertisements in Fortune that depicted men at work showed blue-collar workers.

For Evans, such icons of American labor were fundamental to the health of the postwar economy, since they promoted the strength and vitality of the American workingman. The text that accompanied the Fortune photo-essay (which may have been written by Evans himself) observed:

The American worker ... is a decidedly various fellow. His blood flows from many sources. His features tend now toward the peasant and now toward the patrician. His hat is sometimes a hat and sometimes he has moulded it into a sort of defiant signature. It is this diversity, perhaps, which makes him, in the mass, the most resourceful and versatile body of labor in the world. If the war proved anything, it demonstrated that American labor can learn new operations with extraordinary rapidity and speedily carry them to the highest pitch of productive efficiency. Though it may often lack the craftsmanly traditions of the older worlds, American labor's wide spectrum of temperaments rises to meet almost any challenge: in labor as in investment portfolios, diversification pays off. There is another thing to be noted about these street portraits. Here are none of those worn, lusterless, desolated faces we have seen so frequently in recent photographs of the exhausted masses of Europe. Most of these men on these pages would seem to have a solid degree of self-possession. By the grace of providence and the efforts of millions including themselves, they are citizens of a victorious and powerful nation, and they appear to have preserved a sense of themselves as individuals. When editorialists lump them as "labor," these laborers can no doubt laugh that off.

From its focus on the American worker's ability to be "resourceful" and "versatile" to its insistence that what characterizes American labor is individual pride-"a solid degree of self-possession"-and not union affiliation or a European (read socialist) working-class identity, Evans's text exemplified the compulsive need among many commentators in the postwar era to correlate the male American worker with the qualities of a certain brand of normative masculinity: independence, reliability, efficiency, resiliency. With the excitement of industrial production from a military economy still fresh, using one's body remained one of the primary ways that citizens (and, despite Evans's protestations, men who identified as organized members of the American working class) forged identities and affiliations with industrial economies. In the years immediately following World War II, vast pockets of the United States were still heavily industrial. Many older cities in the Northeast and Midwest relied almost exclusively on steel, coal, iron, lumber, and oil as well as the nexus of related industries including railroads, automobile and appliance manufacturing, production of chemicals and plastics, and shipping and storage technologies. In this industrial milieu, the image of the blue-collar man still carried substantial power as a dignified symbol for corporate strength. The prominent service-oriented FIRE industries (finance, insurance, and real estate) that we now associate with large American cities for the most part represented only one segment of their diversified financial output. The image of the city as a hive of gleaming office towers housing white-collar corporate capital was still only a dream of urban planners, economic theorists, and real estate moguls that would not be realized in cities like Detroit until the 1970s.

Evans's 1946 photo spread for Fortune was characteristic of images of the workingman's body in action, found in abundance throughout mass culture. One could trace these icons of the masculine work ethic to images by Progressive Era photographers like Lewis Hine or, somewhat later, works by muralists and photographers who created public art for the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s. Film representations of ruggedly masculine American men like James Cagney and Clark Gable were enjoyed by Depression audiences who found admiring such handsome figures a convenient escape from the economic deprivation of the era. During the work shortages of the Depression, conservative critics had sounded a note of fear over the perceived erosion of masculinity among American men. Their worst fears were realized in the early 1940s when the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of women in the labor force, combined with the prolonged absence of men from traditional positions of family and community authority, began to give a new shape to civilian domestic culture. Many were displeased by new configurations of family and marriage, not to mention the new sexual divisions of labor on the home front. In the best-selling Generation of Vipers (1942), for example, Philip Wylie coined the term "Momism" to describe what he perceived to be the emasculating effects of aggressive mothers and wives on the behavior of passive sons and husbands as a consequence of the reconfiguration of traditional gender roles. One could argue that after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the war that followed it, the bodies of American men were marked simultaneously by their solidity and their fragility, the dual norms of American heterosexual masculinity. As Walker Evans's photographs demonstrate, the two constituent aspects of the male body-its relation to productive labor and its relation to heterosexual masculinity-took on increased significance.

Professional and public discussions of workingmen, as well as representations of them working, became more complex as a result of the return of veterans-many of them wounded, disfigured, or traumatized-to positions in civilian society. One of the foremost concerns of the era was what effect trauma and disability would have on veterans' self-worth, especially in a competitive economy defined by able-bodied men. Social workers, advice columnists, physical therapists, and policymakers during and after World War II turned their attention to the perceived crisis of the American veteran, much as they had done after the Great War some thirty years earlier. As Susan Hartmann has written, "By 1944, as public attention began to focus on the postwar period, large numbers of writers and speakers ... awakened readers to the social problems of demobilization, described the specific adjustments facing ex-servicemen, and prescribed appropriate behavior and attitudes for civilians." Recent studies of disabled veterans of the two world wars have emphasized that such men often carried collective and national anxieties about the transition from wartime to civilian labor and its relation to the precarious status of the male body. For many workingmen these anxieties seemed hardly visible. But many male veterans of World War II with visible (and not-so-visible) disabilities came back to a country where, among other changes they encountered, gender roles were far less comprehensible or predictable than they had once seemed. How did normative models of masculinity affect disabled veterans who had to compete against the reputation and image of the able-bodied American workingman?

This chapter examines the status of disabled veterans of World War II, looking closely not only at veteran amputees but also at the design and representation of prosthetic devices developed for amputees who wanted to return to the workplace. I read the stories of veterans and their prostheses as neglected components of the historical reconstruction of gender roles and heterosexual male archetypes in early Cold War culture. Like artificial body parts created for victims of war and industrial accidents after the Civil War and World War I, prosthetics developed during the 1940s and 1950s were linked explicitly to the fragile politics of labor, employment, and self-worth for disabled veterans. Discussions of prosthetics also reflected concomitant social and sexual anxieties that attended the public specter of the damaged male body. As this chapter argues, the design and construction of prostheses help to distinguish the rehabilitation of veterans after World War II from earlier periods of adjustment.

Prosthetics research and development were catalyzed, to a great extent, by the mystique attached to "medical miracles" and scientific progress in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The advent of new materials science and new bioengineering principles during the war and the application of these materials and principles to new prosthetic devices helped transform prosthetics into its own biomedical subdiscipline. The convergence of these two areas of research-making prostheses as physical objects and designing prosthetics as products of engineering science-offers important insights into the political and cultural dimensions of the early post-war period, especially in light of what we know about the social and economic restructuring of postwar society with the onset of the Cold War. By the mid-1950s the development of new materials and technologies for prostheses had become the consummate marriage of industrial engineering and domestic engineering.

This chapter uses the term "prosthetics" in two distinct though clearly overlapping ways. While the word obviously refers to artificial additions, appendages, or extensions of the human body, after World War II it referred increasingly to a biomedical and engineering subdiscipline-what mathematician Norbert Wiener, beginning in the late 1950s, would call "biocybernetics" or "cybernetic medicine." Before World War II, prostheses were made of organic, often familiar materials-such as leather, wood, glass, and metal-or were changed to accommodate the synthetic products of late nineteenth-century industrial processes such as vulcanized rubber or early plastics. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, prosthetic devices were constructed from a variety of new materials such as acrylic, polyurethane, and stainless steel. Furthermore, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, new biomechanical principles and cybernetic control systems had begun to be applied to the operation of artificial arms and legs. Because of these myriad changes, prosthetics themselves were entirely reimagined by the designers and engineers who made them as well as by the veteran and civilian amputees who wore them. The distinction between prosthetics as objects and prosthetics as science also enables us to reclaim both the ideological foundation and the material foundation of postwar prosthetics-to look at prostheses and the prosthetic sciences not merely as metaphorical tropes or linguistic conceits but as forms of embodied technology that predate our affinity for talking about cyborgs and cyberculture.

Many books of the past decade use the extended metaphor of the prosthesis to analyze the artificial objects that mediate human relations as well as cyberculture's mandate of virtual reality. In these works, a prosthesis can refer to any machine or technology that intervenes in human subjectivity, such as a telephone, a computer, or a sexual device. As a result, the prosthesis is regularly abstracted as a postmodern tool or artifact, a symbol that reductively dematerializes the human body. As Kathleen Woodward has written, "Technology serves fundamentally as a prosthesis of the human body, one that ultimately displaces the material body." Despite ubiquitous representations of prostheses or cyborgs in late twentieth and early twenty-first century culture, they hardly begin to understand the complex historical and technological origins of the body-machine interface for amputees and other prosthesis wearers. They also fail to give agency to the people who use prosthetic technology every day without glamour or fanfare.

Far from transforming them into supermen or cyborgs, prostheses provided veteran amputees with the material means through which individuals on both sides of the therapeutic divide imagined and negotiated what it meant to look and behave like a so-called normal, able-bodied workingman. For engineers and prosthetists, artificial parts were biomedical tools that could be used to rehabilitate bodies and social identities. For doctors and patients, prosthetics were powerful anthropomorphic tools that reflected contemporary fantasies about ability and employment, heterosexual masculinity, and American citizenship.


Long before World War II ended in August 1945-the month that Japan officially surrendered to the United States after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki-images in the mass media of wounded soldiers convalescing or undergoing physical therapy occupied a regular place in news reports and popular entertainment. In John Cromwell's film The Enchanted Cottage (1945), a young soldier played by Robert Young hides from society and his family in a remote honeymoon cottage after wartime injuries damage his handsome face. The Enchanted Cottage updated and Americanized the substance of Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's 1925 play of the same title. Pinero's drama focused on a British veteran of World War I who symbolized the plight of facially disfigured veterans (sometimes called les gueules cassés by their countrymen), who were often considered social outcasts by an insensitive public. In the 1945 North American production, as in the original, the cottage protects the mutilated soldier and his homely, unglamorous fiancée from parents and family members who take pity on the couple for their abnormal physical differences.

Many amputees who returned from war to their homes, hometowns, and places of work-if they could find work-suffered from a similar lack of respect, despite the best efforts of federal agencies like the Veterans Administration to meet their needs. Physicians, therapists, psychologists, and ordinary citizens alike often regarded veterans as men whose recent amputations were physical proof of emasculation or general incompetence, or else a kind of monstrous defamiliarization of the normal male body. Social policy advocates recommended that families and therapists apply positive psychological approaches to rehabilitating amputees. Too often, however, such approaches were geared toward making able-bodied people more comfortable with their innate biases so they could "deal" with the disabled. This seemed to be a more familiar strategy than empowering the disabled themselves.


Excerpted from Replaceable You by DAVID SERLIN Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Can Humans Be Rebuilt?

1 The Other Arms Race
2 Reconstructing the Hiroshima Maidens
3 Gladys Bentley and the Cadillac of Hormones
4 Christine Jorgensen and the Cold War Closet

Epilogue: The Golden Slipper Show

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