The Curious Case of Myoelectric Shampoo

According to Daniel Rose in “Active Ingredients,” we’ve got three things to consider as agents of material culture as we scrub our scalps in the shower: ingredients in a tube, plastic containers, and the writing on the bottle.  To Vivian Sobchack in “A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality,” her consideration of agency is a bit more complicated because it begins at the very consideration of how material culture scholars define and use the word prosthetic.  I was relieved to read this essay because it directly spoke to questions I have left resting in my brain from our first discussions as a class (in which Mike suggested a pen could be a prosthetic because it enhances the human body).

As excited as I have been to label the dolman as an active piece of culture gaining admission to Philadelphia society, I am equally hesistant to say it is a prosthetic made to enhance Miss Hassler herself.  On page 19, Sobchak offers what Sarah S. Jain wrote in “The Prosthetic Imagination: Enabling and Disabling the Prosthetic Trope,”: “…’technology as prosthesis’ attempts to describe the joining of materials, naturalizations, excorporations, and semiotic transfer that also go far beyond the medical definition of ‘replacement of a missing part.'”  It takes almost a Thomas Aquinas leap of absurdity to use the term prosthetic in terms of the metaphor discussed in this article, but Sobchack made me feel more comfortable to the point that I would consider Miss Hassler’s dolman in terms of prosthesis.  While it feels more natural to call only those things which directly replace body parts “prosthetics,” Sobchack explains Steven Kurzman’s case for the metaphor of prosthetic in a clear and workable way.  Given these parameters, the rest of The Prosthetic Impulse becomes easier to digest.

The Prosthetic Impulse offers much on Aimee Mullins (a double amputee, athlete, model and actress) and her different prosthetics.  What I wonder most in the discussion of Mullins is whether the various places she enters and experiences as well as the way she portrays herself matter in terms of which prosthetics she is wearing.  What I mean is this– is there some sort of significance to the metaphorical use of the word prosthetic within the discussion of Aimee’s “Cheetah Legs” and “Pretty Legs?”  What does it mean that objects which primarily function to replace also have different secondary goals– either to be athletic or aesthetic, even if both equally fierce?  I tentatively offer that I think this consideration supports the notion that prosthetics go beyond essential “replacement parts.”  It becomes fair to consider something like Marx’s Coat as a prosthetic because even prosthetics themselves are acting beyond their essential function.

Heading back into the world of shampoo (and how interesting that the consideration of shampoo in material culture brings about discussion of Wittgenstein and Duchamps?), I realize how sensible it is for Rose to discuss shampoo in object agency.  Essentially, as a person cleans his or her hair, the shampoo is the cleanser.  It is acting, even if the person herself is scrubbing.  It goes further, though, as Rose argues on page 67 that the the text on the shampoo bottle helps to “join cyborg and citizen,” that the material and text demand each other to act successfully in human society.  That’s essentially true, because a shampoo bottle needs a label for us to know that shampoo is inside the bottle.

The real meat of Rose’s argument comes a bit later though, as he gets to the point about Head and Shoulders as a brand name meant to inform the public that this shampoo can prevent dandruff from not only being in your hair, but also from falling to your shoulders.  Thusly, looking badly in public is averted, and a person’s anxiety level can be lowered.  To Rose, the shampoo has acted to enhance both a person’s appearance and mood.  Well, is Head and Shoulders, just like the glass legs of Aimee Mullins, a prosthetic?

Arguably, yes.


Dan Rose, “Active Ingredients,” in John F. Sherry, ed., Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook (London: Sage, 1995).

Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra, eds., The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future. (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006).

Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat,” in Patricia Spyer, ed., Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces.  (New York, NY: Routledge, 1998).

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