This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
Join the discussion on discord (https://discord.gg/zsMTBcnTcC) or on our Round Table Discussions on 12 November 2022 (https://us06web.zoom.us/j/89886254918). See www.fantastikajournal.com for details
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Podcast by: Eda Begüm Erer
Proof That Tony Stark Has a Heart:
A Look at the Notion of the Cyborg and Transcorporeality through the Bodily Modification of Heart Surgery with the Help of MCU’s Iron Man
Keywords: Medical Humanities, Bodily Modification, Cyborg, New Materialism, Transcorporeality
Content Warnings: Blood, Medical Violence, Depression
This paper serves as a prologue to a larger book project on our metal connections to the world. Focusing on the metals inside the body, including braces, joint replacements, pacemakers, and particularly to my personal interest, stents and how metal is used to redirect the blood flow inside the body, I hope to analyze the different ways in which our bodies have been made desperate for metallic help. Focusing on Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg and what feminist ecocritic Stacy Alaimo terms as the “transcorporeal” existence of the human body, I look at the ways in which metal helps us be in optimal health, and the existential connotations and horror of a necessary cyborgness of living. To offer visual and emotional stimuli beyond personal experience, a popular cultural figure, Iron Man, is considered. The medical trauma and emotional suffering the character Tony Stark goes through after a life altering injury that makes him a figure that is more-than-human or better-than-human, is altered by showing his emotional and romantic growth which is emphasized by the famous saying for his arch reactor, what keeps him alive and a superhero, “the proof that Tony Stark has a heart”. The metallic modification, as portrayed in the figure of Tony Stark throughout several box office hit movies, has results beyond it’s intended purpose: to keep the body alive, or more importantly, to keep it human. The metal appendage has
psychological consequences beyond its nonliving help to alter the body. In a day and age where this sort of medical marvel has started to be widespread beyond the scope of science fiction and superhero movies, we need to once again renegotiate our concept of bodily existence, wholeness and the cyborg. Perhaps, soon enough one day, the concept of having a heart, or having a body, needs to be altered.
About the Author: Eda Begüm Erer is an independent researcher who recently completed her MA in English Literature at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. She is currently preparing for her PhD studies. Her areas of interest include science fiction, dystopian narratives, ecocriticism and feminist new materialism.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 5: Cyborg Bodies, which will take place at 5pm GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Eda Begüm Erer who is an independent researcher who recently completed her MA in English Literature at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. She is currently preparing for her PhD studies. Her areas of interest include science fiction, dystopian narratives, ecocriticism and feminist new materialism.
This paper serves as a prologue to a larger book project on our metal connections to the world. Focusing on the metals inside the body, including braces, joint replacements, pacemakers, and particularly to my personal interest, stents and how metal is used to redirect the blood flow inside the body, I hope to analyze the different ways in which our bodies have been made desperate for metallic help. Focusing on Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg and what feminist ecocritic Stacy Alaimo terms as the “transcorporeal” existence of the human body, I look at the ways in which metal helps us be in optimal health, and the existential connotations and horror of a necessary cyborgness of living.
In the following excerpt about stents, mechanical valves and any sort of metallic modification to the heart, to offer visual and emotional stimuli beyond personal experience, a popular cultural figure, Iron Man, is considered. The medical trauma and emotional suffering the character Tony Stark goes through after a life altering injury that makes him a figure that is more-than-human or better-than-human, is altered by showing his emotional and romantic growth which is emphasized by the famous saying for his arc reactor, what keeps him alive and a superhero, “the proof that Tony Stark has a heart”. The metallic modification, as portrayed in the figure of Tony Stark throughout several box office hit movies, has results beyond it’s intended purpose: to keep the body alive, or more importantly, to keep it human. The metal appendage has psychological consequences beyond its nonliving help to alter the body. In a day and age where this sort of medical marvel has started to be widespread beyond the scope of science fiction and superhero movies, we need to once again renegotiate our concept of bodily existence, wholeness and the cyborg. Perhaps, soon enough one day, the concept of having a heart, or having a body, needs to be altered.
The idea of this podcast is scary. It suggests that my thoughts alone were not enough. They had to be transcribed on paper (or in my case, an old laptop that has been my companion since my senior year in the university), then they had to be read aloud to be recorded by a machine, my phone which holds all my information and all my entertainment, before it was recognized as a part of me.
The section I’m about to read is a part of a larger body of work that is on its way to existence. It is becoming, slowly, deliberately, through contemplation and literature review to put my thought into words, words onto paper, onto the keyboard, on recording. The working title of the book is called “Metal is My Body”. The book is not about an artificial way of living, of becoming robots; instead it looks at the smaller ways in which metal permeates or becomes a part of our bodily existence.
To me this idea started long before I found myself a student of the humanities.
It was after I saw Anakin Skywalker burn and remade into Darth Vader in the movie theater in 2005 but before Marvel movies gained such a worldwide existence with the release of the first Avengers movie in 2012. I’m giving quite the time frame for it, but it encompassed my teenage years. All my existential questions, my identity was by part shaped by these movies, these characters, enmeshed in my own teenage traumas.
A little bit of context before I start earnestly. I got two pulmonary stents in 2009, with some mild complications. I was almost thirteen years old, in love with fantasy and science fiction and full of doubt about my own body and the realization that it was different than my peers.
I was and am perfectly healthy, for someone like me.
That differentiation was the key.
It started with a consolation, my intellectual journey, how it ended up in the figure of Tony Stark? I can only blame the widespread cultural worship for the character.
I write this on a computer, it is quite a good one, bought for me by my grandmother as a graduation present. It looks pretty and shiny, and metal… not what I wanted, but it works well.
I want a Macbook so bad.
I don’t know why.
I see in academia that nature writers, environmentalists, ecocritics do this exercise a lot. They write down what they see the moment they are writing about their research. They connect their external world to their writing to create a sort of a ecosystem, an ecology in which their work can prosper.
I am writing on my computer gazing at,
the forest outside my window
the squirrels chirp outside
the dogs bark
I am sitting in a Starbucks booth, with two other people typing on their notebooks, a bitter taste of coffee in my mouth, paid through an app on my phone to collect points, holding my pee…
That, is the only natural thing about my circumstances.
It started as a joke between my father and I. No big deal you see. He had gotten a platinum disk on his neck two years earlier. I would be getting some metal enhancements myself.
It meant a lot I think, to a girl who already loved science fiction and clung to fantasy as a lifeline.
I was offered my first computer, a white sleek macbook, as a present after. I connect the dots differently now, having being embraced in feminist and posthuman theories. I don't know if this meant the same back then, I just remember my life being changed completely. And I don't remember if it was the stent or the computer that did it.
All my life I've been told my heart is not a big deal.
And it is not, not really.
But all my life it made me feel inferior nonetheless.
Not working at the maximum, or indeed sufficient capability without enhancements.
Cyborg enhancements enhance something less, something broken. This may not be strictly true, but it is what I learned growing up. We don’t at least, not yet, seek them out to enhance something that is already complete. That we need them suggests some sort of lack on our parts. All the characters I felt close to and wrote about, it was an attempt to make peace with this.
But characters like Darth Vader, or the Winter Soldier, they wore their metal. It was not something they were proud about, but it wasn’t something they could hide.
Tony Stark could take off the majority of the metal that made him Iron Man and the rest was hidden away under heavy metal themed tshirts.
We always put metal above the skin, how is it so fundamentally different to put it underneath? Why is it the skin that delineates our borders? This is an issue feminist studies studied extensively. Stacy Alaimo, in her book Exposed, notes that “material feminist sense of the human as undeniably corporeal” (Alaimo, 5). Any notion of trans corporeality, porosity and exposition in her work arises from the acceptance of this one material fact. To talk about delineating, or discussing the position of the metal vis a vis the body, first we must talk about it in its bodily existence. Alaimo, through the concept of trans corporeality offers a reality in which different material bodies (not only human) are intermingled. She writes, “for the trans- corporeal subject, ethics and politics are always here and
now, practiced through and within fraught, tangled materialities.” (Alaimo, 7).
Indeed feminist new materialism, alongside its male or dare I say, scientific counterparts, is interested in the relations of the human body as a corporeal thing with it’s surroundings. While names like Alaimo talk about porous borders that allow interaction, or intra-action in Karen Barad’s terms with others, the cyborg alterifications of Haraway.
Perhaps it is wrong of me to put my roots in the parts of posthumanism that study the insignificant human body among the rest of the nature when my focus is very egoistical. I am, for the scope of this paper alone, solely interested in the human body. My body.
Even Tony Stark is a distraction.
But a lot of the confusion stems from this exemption of the human existence from the rest of the universe. It is us who alienated the metal from the organic in the first place.
Let me introduce a quote from posthumanist Katherine Hayles here:
“If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories, rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortalitiy, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival.” (Hayles, How We Became Posthuman).
Quoting Bruno Latour, Alaimo writes “we have never been human” in the first place. The divide between us and the nature was a faulty one to begin with. Any step that followed after that took us to this complex ill-fitted cyborgness of being is guilt-ridden with our own ignorance and short comings.
I don’t want to include prosthetics into the scope of this talk.
First, I am not qualified to talk about the experiences and feelings of those who live with prosthetics every day. I can't even begin to imagine what people with prosthetics feel and deal with those feelings.
Visible, feel-able metal is not the point of this chapter, I am interested in the metal you hide.
My metal is beneath, unseen, unfelt but there nonetheless.
I couldn't feel it but it made me feel different.
But where did this difference stem from? Why did it exist? And why had I become so uncomfortable in a body that had physically become more comfortable?
Could this little difference make me cyborg as my father and I had joked? Did I want to become a cyborg? Just why did I have so many questions about something that had to be done to save my life in the long run?
Donna Haraway, in her famous Cyborg Manifesto writes that:
“A cyborg is a hybrid creature, composed of organism and machine. But, cyborgs are compounded of special kinds of machines and special kinds of organisms appropriate to the late twentieth century. Cyborgs are post-Second World War hybrid entities made of, first, ourselves and other organic creatures in our unchosen 'high-technological' guise as information systems, texts, and ergonomically controlled labouring, desiring, and reproducing systems. The second essential ingredient in cyborgs is machines in their guise, also, as communications systems, texts, and self-acting, ergonomically designed apparatuses. (1)
According to Haraway
“A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. … Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility…. [she continues] the
boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.” (Haraway, 149)
Haraway's cyborg is the brainchild of a socio-feminist mind. She is the female warrior who stands up against the white male Christian minds of the world, a hero of postmodern times.
I, like the most of my generation, saw the highest grossing movie of all time, Avengers: Endgame in the theaters. Everyone clapped for the scene where the female heroes arrived to save the day.
The iron suited Tony Stark's wife, who debuts as a suit-wearing warrior for the first time here (as opposed to the previous Iron Man movie where she was first rescued by a suit then made a super hero through chemical means), is aptly named, "Rescue".
A woman, who starts as a secretary, to rise up to the rank of CEO and then savior, as well as a mother. Would it be rude to say Pepper is more than a cyborg than Tony, who almost died for it in the deserts of Afghanistan, a perfect hero origin story?
The cyborg question today is not about women alone as it was when it first started in Donna Haraway’s idle thoughts. But it was women who felt uncomfortable enough in their bodily existence to raise the question
I had felt uncomfortable enough, in various different ways to get there too.
It has been more than a decade, but I remember worrying, not about the technicalities of it, but that I was on my period and that the doctors would see. Even when I was laid down on the cold operation room with dozens of screens to track the catheter ( a regular procedure, turned into a nightmare in a child's mind) I was worried about blood seeping down my gown because I was too young to wear tampons.
Does this make you uncomfortable? This weird switch from metal stents to the metallic scent of my own blood that scared me more? There was a time I wouldn’t have been able to include this in my writing, but that part disintegrated into the narrative of the women who sought out bodily independence and identity through such daily worries. It is the reason why we claim, or are branded as “more corporeal”.
I have never been too womanly, nor cared about nature enough to warrant my academical interest in it in the last couple of years. Writing my master's thesis, my focus was on the science fiction aspects of it even though the female characters crept along the lines to seek me out.
I’m not too sorry to add Tony Stark to that long list of characters, as one might with Victor Frankenstein, the father who gave birth to his science project. Whose relationship with his science was wholly material and maternal to the cost of his own bodily integrity.
Indeed most ecofeminists, do not alienate male characters from their research. The stand is against masculine heteronormativity when it is unjustly celebrated. When the masculine is associated with the intellect. Which might be the case for Tony Stark, but is shown not to be true in his stark contrast against other male characters such as Captain America or even Hulk in his interactions with the team and with his children, included here is Peter Parker or MCU’s Spiderman.
Haraway interrupts here:
"By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. In the traditions of 'Western' science and politics - the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other – the relation between organism and machine has been a border war.(150)
Iron Man exists, because it has to.
Iron Man exist in Tony Stark’s effort to change his fathers company that sells guns to one that sells clean energy and technological advancements for the betterment of humanity.
On the other hand, there is still something deeply wrong with the way feminism is shown on popular fantasy. The extreme strength alienates both the man and the woman. Carol Danvers, Rey from Star Wars...
Take a step back.
What makes Tony Stark so special?
In the first Avengers movie, confronting the man who stole his fathers attention all his childhood years, Tony Stark faces Captain America, Steve Rogers.
“Big man in a suit of armor, take that away and what are you?” – Captain America
“Um...genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” – Iron Man
Tony Stark is all that, but he is still deeply human underneath, with a body that is weaker than the rest, kept alive by metal. Without the arc reactor in his chest that allows him to be a superhero, he wouldn’t even be alive.
The whole of Ironman 3 explores that narrative, Tony without his suits, without his wealth. Living as a mechanic.
In the MCU I had three favorites. (Tony Stark, The Winter Soldier with the prosthetic arm and Nebula, the cyborg girl who suffered.
Haraway- woman body and speculum
Donna Haraway, along with feminist philosophers like Luce Irıgaray see the speculum as a huge step in the establishment of woman identities and female empowerement. The idea of the speculum is connected to the idea of sight, which Haraway finds disturbed with the introduction of cameras and pornography. Technology blurs the boundaries between empowerment and violation. Such violation is in the nature of surgery, where the human body is necessarily penetrated without consent. A part of this narrative is necessarily sexual and turns toward questions of rape, but bodily and personal integrity is hardly a matter of concern when one’s life is on the line.
I can’t feel my stents, yet the hardly visible scar on my bikini line has bothered me more than those on my chest from open heart surgeries, which were arguably there from the start – from the moment I looked into the mirror and saw them as a part of myself. It is worth questioning why something a lot “less” bothers me “more” besides the obvious factor of teenage or preteen trauma.
I gave my constant to surgery, or my parents did because it was the less invasive, easiest way. I was fortunate enough to avoid open surgery. Yet the fact that it was something that was done on a place where I must not be touched, on my period nonetheless, bothered me more than doctors seeing my breasts, something I have never been shy of, growing up that way.
Pepper is the only one Tony trusts to penetrate his body like that.
Back to Tony.
[stark and Potts carry out an arc reactor transplant]
Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts: Don’t ever, ever, ever, ask me to do anything like that, ever again!
Tony Stark: I don’t have anyone but you.
arc reaction in a case: “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart”
How does this relate back to me? Are my stents proof that I have an heart? Certainly, I’ve seen my heart through many mediums over the years, once every year I’m reminded that it beats, and beats in a certain way that changes may cause new bodily modifications in my future to ensure my life on the planet. This alone does not make me a cyborg in a way it does Tony Stark. But I am a part of medical set of representations, connected to machines through modifications to make sure they continue to sustain me. It’s such a small part of metal that has changed my bodily existence and my mental frame, forever. No one put a hand inside my chest to put it there – they might have done and they did for other things- and this didn’t turn me into a superhero – though they say your battle scars show that you are a superhero, that you have survived.
What is unseen seems like a figment of imagination.
Stacy Alaimo defines trans-corporeality as thus:
“Trans-corporeality means that all creatures, as embodied beings, are intermeshed with the dynamic, material world, which crosses through them, transforms them, and is transformed by them. While trans-corporeality as an ontology does not exclude any living creature, it does begin with the human, in order – paradoxically perhaps-- to disrupt Western human exceptionalism. The figure/ground realtion between the human and the environment dissolves as the the outline of the human is traversed by substantial material interchanges.” (Alaimo, 1, Trans-corporeality)
“Some people say progress is a bad thing. But try having a magnet in your chest keeping you alive” (Iron Man 3, 2013)
Avengers: Endgame came to the theaters April 2019. It became the highest grossing movie of all time, and its most engaging scene was the death of Ironman after the Infinity Gauntlet, one of his own making, burned away half his body. Tony Stark died with his wife saying, “You can rest now”. On his funeral, instead of a corpse, the arch reactor, encased with the letters “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart” was set to the river.
Tony Stark is one of the exceedingly rare characters in fiction who manages to establish himself a cyborg, first through external intervention by a doctor to save him, but later completely through his own efforts and autonomy. He continues to be Ironman even after his hear is fixed, after all is said and done and he wakes up form surgery in Iron Man 3, he realizes that the cyborg identity he has built for himself has surpassed his bodily dependence on the metal.
His choices for it are intermingled with his relationship with his wife, but through that connection he finds courage to realize what most men don’t, that his connection with the metal is one of his own choosing and connection.
We live in a time where our freedoms have become our prisons. I wouldn’t be able to write or read this text without the metal around me. I wouldn’t be able to breathe properly without it either. The rest of the little but vital metal connections in my project, like keys and weddings bands and needles all play a part in our connection and interaction with metals that force our physical and psychological borders. At times we find their worth more than our own bodily existence. They matter more, not just in value but in that their existence is more corporeal than our thoughts, our feelings and ideas that have now come to depend on them.
My body is metal.
From the iron in my blood to the stents on my pulmonary artery to the glasses I wear to see what I’m suppose to say right now.
We live in a time where metal connections are inescapable.
For some, this prison is more internal than the others.
Tony Stark’s journey until the end and the way he has learned to manage his relationship with the metal gives me hope.
And I hope this little excerpt that you are listening from a headphone or a speaker makes you think. Hit pause, and the connection is no longer there. But are you still connected to the metal?