11 – 12 Jun 2015

The Invention of Defect

Disability, Femininity, Technicity
As the shadowy other to normative conceptions of health, productivity, and capacity, the defect marks the limit of our expectations about what a body can do. In the history of Western thought, both the female and the disabled body have been aligned with such corporeal deficiency, seen as less capable than their male, able-bodied counterparts. Such conceptions of the defect(ive) frequently draw on an association between the organic and the mechanical, the natural and the artificial, the spontaneous and the automated. But these slippages and crossovers are far from one-sided in their invocation of a distinction between living bodies and machines. For the history of the defect is also a history of bodily potential—of figures whose apparent dysfunction is easily converted into a source of invention, generation, and productive change. Far from merely signaling the interruption or breakdown of a healthy bodily system, the defect has also emerged historically as its creative force, the seed or motor of its persistence.

This two-day symposium explores this multi-faceted nature of the defect, starting from two distinct, but subtly related epistemological and social sites—one ancient, one modern. In addressing the gaps and overlaps between biological and technical conceptions of deficiency, error, and impairment, we will have occasion to consider the complex imbrications of medical discourse and imagery with its philosophical, social and technological registers. We will ask whether and how the category of the defective might be reclaimed as a source of errant potential, rather than remaining confined within teleological frameworks of development, necessity, and reproduction.

Mara Mills is an Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University and a Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Her first book project details the significance of phonetics and deaf education to the emergence of “communication engineering” in early twentieth-century telephony. Her second book project, Print Disability and New Reading Formats, examines the reformatting of print over the course of the past century by blind and other print disabled readers.

Emanuela Bianchi is Assistant Professor in Comparative Literature, with affiliations in Classics and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, at NYU. She is the author of The Feminine Symptom: Aleatory Matter in the Aristotelian Cosmos (Fordham, 2014). She works at the intersection of ancient Greek philosophy, contemporary continental philosophy, and feminist and queer theory.


ICI Berlin
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Mara Mills
Emanuela Bianchi

Organized by

S. Pearl Brilmyer
James Burton
An ICI Berlin event

In English

First published on:
Rights: © ICI Berlin
Cite as: The Invention of Defect: Disability, Femininity, Technicity, symposium, ICI Berlin, 11–12 June 2015 <>