biohacking II: my life in magnetic vision

After writing that last post on biohacking, I’ve been thinking more about the body as a (media) system, or a system of language, with internal mechanisms keyed to its survival. As a friend put it, “food is a medium through which we communicate with the body,” and to add to that, food may be a way for the body to speak back to us as well.

Is everything we do to the body communication?

I’ve lurked sites like BME for decades, long before I got my first tattoo, while I was figuring out what parts of my ears to pierce, when I was working up to scarification. It was on BME that I first read about magnetic implants, when I was still in college and afraid to relinquish control long enough to allow an artist to exact permanence on my skin. The procedure involved inserting a magnet deep into a finger (or other body part), after which the magnet would move in response to electromagnetic fields and transfer that sensation to the surrounding nerves. The result: an anatomically internal sense of the electromagnetic spectrum as an extension of touch.

I had zero diagnoses at the time but I felt disabled enough that I wanted this, badly.

The procedure wasn’t perfect when I first read about it. Dip-coated silicone coatings could easily degrade, exposing the body to dangerous rare-earth metals and compromising the magnet. Shatter the magnet and you risk the same toxicity, migration, rupture, nerve death. I remember reading about Shannon Larratt compromising his magnets and having them removed. I’d seen more gruesome images than those photos, and his removal went without a hitch, but I could imagine a foreign body corroding under my skin, killing my fingertip sensation utterly, because I’ve never been so lucky.

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia a few years after I read about magnetic vision. I started modifying myself that same year. Everything on my body doubles as a commemoration and a teaching tool, and certain modifications—piercings and scarifications in particular—offer new ways of interacting with and experiencing the world. After all that, plus living with a condition that already complicates my sensory experience of myself, others, and the world, implanting a tiny magnet into my finger didn’t seem so terrifying.

Exactly three weeks after I had the procedure done, the magnet is no longer a foreign body vibrating alongside my finger pad. It is my finger itself. It is my nerves, jangling, when I run my microwave, shouting an interruption when I walk through security gates, humming in C major to accompany my electric toothbrush, reminding me that there is so much more to the world than can be seen or felt by the body as we are born.

If Aaron Swartz is open-access’s story to move the world, Shannon Larratt was the story that moved mine. Founder and editor of BMEzine, he progressed through a series of mental health issues and (mis)diagnoses; credited body modification as an art that helped him somewhat heal; expressed concern over censorship and the perception of and prejudice against modified individuals; was diagnosed with tubular aggregate myopathy; and committed suicide. He left behind a note addressing the marginalization of the body-modified by medical institutions and personnel, suggesting that he did not receive appropriate treatment for his pain given that, to doctors, he looked like a stereotypical drug addict. He wrote that “a patient should have the right to a pain free life, even if that comes with some risk.”

Naturally this resonates with me.

I think there are parallels between the kinds of discrimination encountered by the body-modified and the disabled, especially when the disability is invisible. I occupy the intersection between the two. In a hospital gown being prepped for surgery, I am visibly modified in non-mainstream ways while my documented disability remains invisible, perhaps even more so, obscured by the impenetrable choices I have made to mark and augment myself. It’s as though voluntary modification equates voluntary disability and patient-blaming, as in “Why would you do this to yourself? Didn’t it hurt? And you say you already have chronic pain? Don’t you know the health risks of letting someone who isn’t a medically trained doctor put a scalpel to your skin?”

This, more or less, is a series of conversations I’ve had with primary care physicians, ER nurses, and med students. Even my (male) surgeon, when I returned for a post-appendectomy checkup, asked as his second question, “So what’s all that on your legs?,” pointing at my thighs, while my glue-filled navel still awaited his appraisal.

Visible modifications test social tolerance, proclaim the body as a site of public identity, and challenge dominant culture. Every time I read about magnetic vision, I read it as a strange opposite: a liberating subversion of the voluntary disability narrative I’m so used to experiencing. After all, once the incision heals there’s no sign the magnet is even there. I would know it, like I know the pain I live with, as intimately as any of the five senses and the ways in which fibromyalgia has disrupted my sensory processing. Like fibromyalgia, no one would be able to look at me and know the magnet was there, that I experience “feeling” differently. Unlike fibromyalgia, the magnet would be a sensory processing disruption I chose for myself, and a disruption that promised to be a cyborgian re-enabling.

If you don’t know, fibromyalgia creates a white noise throughout the body, all of it pressure- and pain-related. Physical “feeling” takes on a whole new meaning. A light touch can be excruciating, while hard pressure–so similar to my day-to-day–is easily overlooked. Focused pain distracts from the usual aches and can be relieving. A relaxing massage is like being crushed with a studded mace. And new sensations are so difficult to register and compute when your brain is constantly trying to triage and make sense of the routine pains of gravity, barometric pressure, simply existing. I’m easily disoriented by a change in scenery as common as getting off and on the subway. Even bodily memory, the visual field, and proprioceptive systems of self-reference are not impervious to disruption.

What this boils down to in dominant, normative, ableist discourse is damsel-in-distress physical/intellectual fragility, or (no joke, verbatim) “You must be BDSM kinky.”

If my body resists normalized notions of “feeling” and “self-reference,” and I exist in such a binary discourse, then I have little to lose through sensory augmentation that queers that discourse, and possibly a lot to gain.

I had the procedure done on Friday the 13th by Brian Decker of Pure Body Arts—incidentally the artist who did both of my scarifications. I chose my left ring finger as it’s both the weakest finger on my non-dominant hand and, given its symbolism, an interesting site to “queer” in the sense of transgressive body technologies. The procedure involved an injection of local anesthetic, an incision in the top of my finger, jamming a spatula into the incision to deepen and widen the cut into a flesh pocket, and the insertion of a small neodymium magnet in a bio-polymer shell coating. After the anesthetic, all I felt was textural: the puncture of the knife, a strange internal pop under the pad of my finger as tissue was crushed aside, the cold hard entry of the magnet, the single stitch. My fingertip was numb for a few hours and seemed to remain swollen until I removed the stitch on Day 7, but I experienced new sensations almost right away. They felt like an alien vibration on the side of my finger. The magnet may have been inside me, but it wasn’t yet me.

I went by myself so I couldn’t document the procedure, but this is what my finger looked like from Days 1-4 of the primary healing process:

The only sign I’d had anything done was the bluish bruise on the side of my finger and the blue thread at the top. With the stitch cut out, there was an X-shaped scar that is starting to fade into a callus. After that disappears, my magnet will be invisible to the naked eye.

In the first week, the magnet felt like a trapped creature desperate for freedom. It was sore and throbbing for the first couple of days, and buzzed with an intensity to match the electromagnetic field it had found. I spent the first few days yelping every time I used my microwave or blender. I realized, as a physical sensation, where my hard drives are located in my laptops. I wasn’t supposed to play with it too much but I couldn’t resist picking up paper clips and staples. In a single week I progressed from discomfort on magnetic attraction to comfortably being able to lift a bottle cap, though not for long. As the nerves recovered, I felt the usual electric shocks along with the new vibrations and experienced phantom vibrations in my middle and pinky fingers of the same hand, and even in the ring finger of my right hand.

In the second week, I lost some sensitivity as the swelling went down and scar tissue started to form. I remained conscious of the small bump on the right side of my finger pad, and the healing incision still twanged when bumped. My finger felt more familiar to me once the stitch was out. New experiences included sticking to my refrigerator if I got too close, and I was charmed by my magnetic stacking measuring spoons, which exerted a pull like a crooning voice. By the end of last week, I regained total surface sensation on my fingertip and began to be less conscious of the magnet as it settled, quietly, into me. The time it stood out most starkly was when I walked out of a library and felt, like an internal shock in my hand, the strength of the security gate.

This past week, my third week of magnetic life, my finger has been mellow. It no longer feels like “the magnet,” an invader unwillingly placed under my skin; now it’s part of my flesh, a button-sized biological irregularity I might as well have been born with. The vibrations are no longer anatomically distinct. The same way you might touch a hot pan and instantly know it’s hot, when I’m near an electromagnetic field I instantly know it’s there.

What’s funny, though—and to synthesize everything I’ve written here—ordinarily I can’t instantly tell a hot pan is hot. I’ve scalded my hands a number of times as a result. I sometimes, albeit stupidly, reduce the utensils I have to wash by turning frying bacon with my fingers. By extension, I often don’t notice when I suffer minor injury. I’ve accidentally shaved a chunk of flesh off my leg before and only noticed because I was tracking blood when I walked out of the bathroom. Paper cuts, scissor cuts, knife cuts are sensorily meaningless to me. I cut my fingernails to points—an easy modification to deal with hard-to-open packages—and never notice the damage I inflict on myself when I scratch an itch or clench my fists.

What the magnet has done for me is reveal, tactilely, that the body is not a walled garden, that its walls are not the only way to feel, that (to cop from Massumi, hopefully correctly) the sensory surfaces of the body can exist within it, that intensity can leap from the air to inside its known, outward materiality, that the incorporeal dimensions of the sensory event can stem from an incorporeal-corporeal, a place buried behind the body’s visual field and sensory walls… a new, incipient subjectivity? (Massumi, 2002, 14).

What I’m really saying is that, on top of compounding the sum of my worlds, magnetic vision has mitigated my tactile dysfunction.

When it comes to touch, I tend to rely a great deal on my visual field to tell me if what I’m touching is dangerous or safe. The fact that my sense of touch has changed, that the air itself can be tactile when I’m least expecting it, has shifted my attention inward, to the body, to my proprioceptive system of self-reference. I feel more now, which is enough of a reminder that a hot pan will cause feeling. I have a better sense of the space I occupy, and the awareness that there are invisible curves and corners in the world has made me better about the real curves that trip me, the real corners I can’t seem to fully walk around. I feel as though the simple act of reading space allows me to take up more space. And there is something charged and erotic in the act of writing on my laptop, the mediator of almost all my creative and academic thoughts; I can feel how it purrs and sputters when I type and save, when its fans turn on, when the hard drive whirs, and it feels as alive as what I put into it, it’s reassuring, it feels like knowledge production with the machine instead of just on one. Through the fibro-fog, novel sensations give me new clarity.

I wouldn’t say it’s a remedy. I wouldn’t say it couldn’t prove to be a kind of remedy, given time. Right now, all I can say is that it’s reconstituted what “touch” and “feeling” are for me in more ways than one. In becoming more aware of space, I am more aware of myself in space, and space as a medium, in relation to invisible fields I may or may not encounter as I walk, as I catch trains, as I sit and type. Where I might have intellectually considered what items in my life are made of, I am now instantly, physically aware of everything ferrous, an unasked-for molecular insight that has nevertheless expanded my intuitive understanding of materiality.

How can this be anything but communication, between the mind, the body, and the external spaces we modify with technology and thoughtlessly move through or use? It’s certainly a reminder that the body is a media system, that by teaching it new languages we stand to redefine disability, feeling, proprioception, mediation.

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