Uncanny Prosthetics: A Survey through J. Stuart Blacktonâ€™s short movie ‘The Thieving Hand’
â€œArtificial limbs do not disrupt amputeesâ€™ bodies, but rather reinforce our publicity perceived normalcy and humanity. Artificial limbs and prostheses only disrupt what is commonly considered to be the naturally whole and abled body.â€
â€œBL: Why do you want to dance?
VP: Why do you want to live?â€
â€˜The Red Shoesâ€™ movie, 1948
The Concept of the Uncanny Feeling: Interpretation of the Unhomely
â€œWith every tool, man is perfecting his own organs -whether motor or sensory-, or is removing the limits to their functioningâ€. [Freud, 1930] Pointing to an addition, an extension, a replacement, or an enhancement, prosthesis has become a staple in the tropes that are utilizes by scientists and scholars, who are concerned with interactions between the body and technology in modernity, as they figure ways of conceiving prosthetic lives in our posthuman times. [Smith, Morra, 2006] The surveyÂ herein, work toward an uncanny examination of the amputees’ prosthesis through the paraphrasing of the thieving hand film.
Therefore, primarily we elucidate the meaning of that notorious concept. How can we define the â€œUncannyâ€; is it a disturbing weirdness? Is it something bizarre, odd, ominous, or scary? Is it gruesome or spooky? There is an ambiguity in the concept of the uncanny, which appears both in the word -linguistically-, and the realization of the sentiment itself. It belongs to the realm of the frightening, but occupies a somewhat detached space from what seems to be merely fearsome.
Jentsch defines the uncanny as â€œbeing a product of intellectual uncertaintyâ€. However, Freud suggests that â€œHeimlich has a meaning as a word that develops unto an ambivalence until it finally coincides with its exact opposite, unheimlichâ€ [Vidler, 1992]. According to Freud, the uncanny takes the characterization of being uncanny only because it is secretly all too familiar, and hence it is repressed.
Prosthesisâ€™ meaning depends on the root of the Greek word â€œprÃ³sthesis” [which means addition/ application/ attachment] and it is defined as a supplement or attachment to the human body. It does more than simply extend the body, because itâ€™s introduced in bodies that in Freud terms are somehow â€œdeficientâ€ or â€œdefectiveâ€, or in Le Corbusierâ€™s terms â€œinsufficientâ€. [Wigley, 1991] However, a prosthesis illustrates a wider range of additions concerning the human body; from the internal to the external part of the body. Life, defined by Kant as the organization of matter, can thus be defined prosthetically as the technical organization of matter, one whose source is both within and without the body. [Caygill, 1997]Â At its best, the prosthetic is no longer lifelike but becomes life itself, inserting itself into the unseen biological processes. [Smith, Morra, 2006]
Uncanniness in Prostheses
Nowadays, advances in fabrication technology, reinforce the unconscious doubt about whether, a hand for example, is a prosthetic or a real one. According to Masahiro Mori â€œwhen we realize that a hand, that at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we end up experiencing an eerie sensation. [â€¦] thus, we lose our sense of relevance, and the hand becomes then uncannyâ€. If it starts to move though, this eeriness sensation intensifies. Freudâ€™s concern on this issue was about the difference between a personâ€™s relationship to his body and such a prosthesis, which keep tries to be and yet cannot be the self. For him, consciousness was itself a prosthetic attachment, worn as a kind of â€œgarmentâ€ like any other tool. [Wigley, 1991]
Expressionism in Cinematography: Prosthetic Memory and the Uncanny Surrealism of â€œThe Thieving Handâ€
As a result of the prostheticâ€™s amputation and displacement from its mortal context, the animate and willing human beings who use prosthetic technology passively disappear into the background, and the prosthetic is seen to have a will and life of its own. Thus we move from techno-fetishism to techno-animism. According to this seductive uncanny fantasy and wittingly life of limbs and objects, â€œmy prosthetic leg can go dancing without me and also can â€˜willâ€™ me to join it in what, in effect, is a nightmarish danse macabreâ€. [Sobchack, 2006]
The â€˜Thieving Handâ€™, is a pseudo-surrealist live action short movie, centering on a false limb. The film involves a one-armed street cobbler helping an upper class, who repays the favor by purchasing him an eerily animate artificial limb. Then, he discovers that the arm and hand are obsessively, frantically pickpocketing passersby without his volition. Unable to control the hand, the vendor sells it to a pawn shop, from which the limb crawls back and reattaches itself to his body. When he is ultimately jailed for his unconscious crimes, the limb finds its rightful owner, a thief, and the thieving body becomes whole again.
By elaborating the forms through which the uncanny feeling apÂpears we emphasize on two specific sources to examine the case of The Thieving Hand film. Firstly, the uncanniness that is prompted by automata and our doubt about â€œwhether a lifeless object might not be in fact animateâ€ â€“ and more precisely, when this doubt only makes itself felt obscurely in oneâ€™s consciousness. The mood lasts until these doubts are resolved and then usually makes way for another kind of feeling. [Jentsch, 1906] Freud himself focuses on the way dismembered limbs â€œhave something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when they prove capable of independent activity in additionâ€. This activity can have a psychical or a mechanical origin. As long as the doubt as to the nature of the perceived movement, and the obscurity of its cause last, a feeling of terror persists in the person concerned. If, because of its methodical quality, the movement has shown its origin to be in an organic body, the state of things is thus explained, and then a feeling of concern for oneâ€™s freedom from personal harm arises instead. [Freud, 1919]
Furthermore, for Jentsch the fear of amputation, and even more the fear of eye loss or injury was immense. He claimed that the fear of blindness is often regarded as a substitution or equivalent to the fear of castration. [Jentsch, 1906] On those two forms the â€œdoubleâ€ comes and supplement that feelingâ€™s experience. According to Lacan and his â€œMirror Stageâ€ theorem, the uncanny feeling can also be caused by reflection of oneâ€™s self or a bodyâ€™s part. [Alain Miller, 2013] The thieving hand expresses the somatic ramifications of mechanized production. Within Freudâ€™s canny/uncanny dynamic, the film takes the characterization of being uncanny, because the conscious limb is in fact so familiar, because of the workerâ€™s translation into a limb and because of the fate of the limbs.
â€œProsthetic memoryâ€ consists another element that could considered as uncanny, meaning the implanted memories and not the one thatÂ come from a personâ€™s lived experience in any strict sense. The beggar soon discovers that his body manifests memories of actions that it, or he, never actually committed, through hisÂ prosthetic arm. In fact, his memories are profoundlyÂ divorced from lived experience and yet they promptÂ his actions; they shapeÂ an identity for him. The experience of memory indeedÂ becomes the index of experience; if we have the memory, we should haveÂ the experience it represents. The armless beggar has the memory without having lived the experience. If memory consists the precondition for identity or individuality â€“if what we claim as our memories defines who we are- then the idea of a prosthetic memory reflectsÂ any concept of memory that posits it as essential, or organically grounded. Moreover, it makes impossible the desire of a person to own his memories as indefeasible property. Regardless ofÂ the filmâ€™s flirtation with the idea that memories might be permanently transportable, the thieving hand ends by rejecting that possibility, as soon as itÂ chooses to be with its proper owner.
As Robert Rawdon Wilson writes: â€œAny contemplationÂ of prostheses has to consider their potential failure and, even the junctureÂ under which they might go wrong or turn against their users. The consciousness of machines always includes a dimension of fear. There is also fearâ€™s most intimate radical, an element of potential disappointment; the prosthesis may not work, or may work inadequately, or may entail unwanted consequences.â€ [Wilson, 1995]
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Marquard Smith, Joanne Morra, The Prosthetic Impulse: from a posthuman present to a biocultural future, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2006
Ernst Jentsch, On the Psychology of the Uncanny, 1906
Sigmund Freud, Das Unheimliche, 1919
Sigmund Freud, The Unconscious, 1915
Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, The MIT Press, CamÂbridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1992
Mark Wigley, Prosthetic Theory: the disciplining of architecture, 1991
Howard Caygill, Stelarc and the Chimera: Kantâ€™s critique of prosthetic judgment, 1997
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge, London, 1992
Jacques Alain Miller, Culture/Clinic 1: Applied Lacanian Psychoanalysis, University of Minnesota Press, Saint Paul, 2013
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Yalom Irvin D, Existential Psychotherapy, 1980
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Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 1938
Robert Rawdon Wilson , Cyber(Body)Parts: Prosthetic Consciousness, 1995