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Accepted Paper:

Embodying the machine: “epistemological vulnerability” following fieldwork experiences with exoskeletons  


Denisa Butnaru (University of Konstanz)

Paper short abstract:

My presentation focuses the experience of vulnerability in building knowledge after fieldwork, where the researcher’s own body was used for the conception of a technological device, namely an exoskeleton. I name this experience “epistemological vulnerability”.

Paper long abstract:

Current developments in robotics, among which exoskeletal devices, have known a constant increase. Originally called “extenders” (Kazerooni 1990), robotic exoskeletons, are “a class of robots that extend the strength of the human hand [or leg n.n., D.B.] beyond its natural ability while maintaining human control of the robot” (Pons, Ceres, Calderon 2008: 8).

Wanting to understand how these technologies transform the realities of the bodies for which they are intended, and thus their embodiment, I conducted fieldwork in centers where exoskeletons are designed, in the frame of a project the PI of which I am. I was allowed by colleagues in robotics to take part in a test for an exoskeleton developed for persons with motor impairments. In this experience, data collected from my walking and breathing during the test was further used to build the algorithm of the device. This brief autoethnographic experience made me sensitive to how the knowledge about my own able body contributes to forge forms of knowledge for impaired bodies. For the interval of the experiment I was “decorporalized” (Crary 1990: 39), quantified (Nafus 2016), and needed to quickly develop technological literacy in order to respond to what my colleagues from engineering sciences needed. Being “objectified” made me in my post-fieldwork stage sensitive to a form of “epistemological vulnerability”, by which I mean my taking responsibility in shaping the object of scientific worlds but also of human bodies other than my own, while simultaneously constructing my own scientific object.

Panel Speak02a
After Fieldwork: exploring responsibilities and vulnerabilities of ethnographic research I