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Accepted Paper:

Reconsidering “Embodied Liminalities”: Exoskeletal Devices between De-Skilling and Re-Skilling  
Denisa Butnaru (University of Konstanz)

Paper short abstract:

Focusing on the implementation of powered exoskeletons in working sectors and their potential of digital surveillance, this contribution aims to deconstruct narratives built around increase of productivity at the expense of destroying workers’ bodies and of de-skilling them.

Paper long abstract:

The concept of “embodied liminality” (Turner 1982) has a long history in anthropology. Current technologies, such as exoskeletons, developed for some stages within supply chains, raise questions about what future corporeal capitals are stake in these environments. Exoskeletons enter a long history of technologies shaping worlds of working, but especially worlds of working bodies. Logistics and automotive sectors are among the most concerned for such applications. Still, unlike other gadgets functioning with software that have a concrete impact on productivity, their peculiarity is that they are literally attached to human bodies. In this regard, exoskeletons physically shape what these bodies ‘can’ in specific working environments. As some of these devices may record the movements of their users, questions about the traceability and accountability of the wearer’s performance occur.

The aim of my presentation is to discuss from a socio-anthropological perspective the feasibility of such politico-economical projects. Whereas media scholars advance the category of “embodied computing” to describe “humans as blended entities” (Iliadis and Pedersen 2018), the facts I observed during a multi-sited ethnography conducted over several years contradict this view. Narratives of efficiency and innovation are rather construed around conceptions of “de-skilling” and “re-skilling” the workers’ bodies and their professional capitals. Whereas the use of powered exoskeletons may indeed compel to reimagine current technopolitical corporealities in worlds of work, these devices also highlight that “bodies are not universally quantifiable” (Moore and Robinson 2016: 2782), requiring the establishment of novel critical epistemologies to assess these transformations.

Panel P42a
Managed by the machine: AI and the new politics of supply chains
  Session 1 Wednesday 8 June, 2022, -