The Uncertainty of Placing: Prosthetic Bodies, Sculptural Design and Unhomely Dwelling in Marc Quinn, James Gillingham and Sigmund Freud

It is no longer the case that conversations around prosthesis begin and end with the question of deficiency. But this was not always so. To stress this, David Wills, for instance, in a forthcoming article entitled “Preambles: Disability as Prosthesis” points to ways in which the genealogy of prosthesis is so often conceived of as a discourse of deficiency.1 Here Wills argues that the matter of identity in Disability Studies as well as the identity of Disability Studies itself, along with the place of prosthesis within these discourses, has previously been organized, unlike most other “minority studies,” around “lack or deficiency.” That is, the form of the discipline of Disability Studies, the identity of its figures of articulation, and those prosthetic bodies of enunciation are always already found wanting. Prosthesis is the mark of this deficiency. As such a mark, it registers itself as a substitute for something that is no longer there, thereby drawing attention both to what is missing and the absence remaining. Wills goes on to remark, somewhat caustically: “Disability cannot ever be other than deficiency, incompletion, inadequacy, terms which, within the metaphysics of presence as transcendent positivity, not only are by definition negative, but, more pertinently, explicitly connote non-integrality. The disabled are thus by definition ‘incapable’ of identity inasmuch as identity refers to an uninterrupted-organic-sameness-present-to-itself-in-its-wholeness-and-singularity.”2

But as Wills contends, and rightly so, since the deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence, a deconstruction that has been ongoing arguably since the inception of metaphysics, this kind of argumentation is neither efficacious nor for that matter valid. In this instance, the dismantling or taking apart of the edifice of what he names this “metaphysics of plenitude” is grasped through a realization of the constructed nature of the human body, what that body is, and does, and what and how it means. Against the myths of the essentialist and organicist conceptions of the body proper, or proper body, Disability Studies can present a body that is a structuring principle, a lacuna, and a constituting part of this metaphysics of plenitude, thus ironically laying bare the deficiencies of this very metaphysics. Dismantling and assembling are inseparable. The organically integral body is itself, as Wills goes on to say, “always already imperfect, mechanical, in relations of dependence, originarily disabled or incomplete; what I, in short, would call prosthetic.”3

There are two definite and tangible consequences of how such a reconsideration of prosthesis refutes discourses of deficiency. The first is the dawning realization that a prosthesis is never simply the addition of a foreign element, an attachment, an extension, an augmentation of the body as such—as Immanuel Kant would have it in the second part of his Critique of Reason4. Rather, to designate and define the form of the prosthetic body is to show that the organic and the artificial, meat and machinery, like the normal and the pathological and the ordinary and the monstrous, are always and already of one another. An originary technicity. To distinguish between the inside and the outside of the body misses the point. What matters is the continuous articulation of the ever-changing contours of these heterogeneous surfaces. This, then, is not a question of deficiency but simply a matter of how bodies as assemblages arrange themselves differently. The second consequence is to grasp not only that the human body was never whole but that the body per se, and not just the disabled body, must be conceived of as a body that is always and already fragmented, in bits and pieces (corps morcelé). Jacques Lacan has a fairly lucid account of this. For Lacan, the subject’s “coming-into-being” (le devenir), its desire to see itself in its totality, as a totality, is realized at the expense of a misrecognition: having previously seen and experienced itself as fragmented, constituted by disjointed limbs and jarring surfaces, the subject must assume an image of itself, identify itself, as complete. In recognizing the totality of its image, this forced unification, while necessary for a de-alienation from that original fragmentary experience to take place, requires this very misrecognition—that it was, is, and will persist as corps morcelé.5 This too, then, is not a question of deficiency since the original fragmentariness of the subject’s understanding of its own bodily self, never far from view, is never taken apart so much as it is always and already apart, a part, an arrangement of parts.

Prosthesis, Sculptural Design

Disability Studies, and the prosthetic body, continue to work their way into the humanities, employing and addressing not just discourses of literature, sociology, medical sociology, social policy, and empiricism but also philosophies of the visual arts from painting and architecture to photography and cinema. Strangely, the discourse of sculpture, or the point at which sculpture and design come together has been fairly unmoved by the topic of the prosthetic body. (Seldom explicit at any rate. Lennard J. Davis’s article on the Venus de Milo is a rare exception.6) This is so strange because of its very obviousness. The prosthetic body is never not a design issue, a design matter, a matter of sculptural design. If anything, it is always already, perhaps first and foremost, a question of sculptural design. This goes beyond sculpture exhibiting itself as just a literal dramatization of the more theoretical issues discussed above, although it is this too. More important is how sculpturing, or sculptural design instructs, renders precise, and explicates these theoretical concerns anew. That is to say, the prosthetic body is always a question of crafting forms, planes, and surfaces, a figure conjured up by the will to physicality, materiality, formality, anthropomorphism, figuration, and formlessness. So too is it a matter of ingenuity and inventiveness, especially in terms of how it navigates the treacherous ground between the staging of the real and illusion, representation, and idealization. It is also shaped by the challenge of inaction, automatism, and Pygmalion-like animation. One cannot but invoke the uncanny motifs of the puppet, the mechanical marionette, automata, and toys in the discourse of modernity, and before. The prosthetic body, as an assemblage, a partial object, as fragmented-ness personified, and as desiring machine too demands that we strive to cope with it, whether in public or private, as an intimate, shared, playful, pressing, and moveable encounter with sculptural design.7 That all of this turns on the uncertainty of placing is a point to which I shall return.

For the moment I would like to stay with the far from exceptional confluence of disability, prostheses, and sculptural design, a vivid union that is perhaps most readily available in our recent cultural imaginary through the highly visible figure of Aimee Mullins. Mullins, the American double-amputee paralympian athlete, appeared provocatively in a Nick Knight photo shoot for the fashion magazine Dazed and Confused in 1998, adorned the catwalk, Barbie doll-like on a revolving pedestal in fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s 1999 Spring-Summer Collection in London, and sprinted through the desert landscape of a television advertisement for the British internet service provider Freeserve in 2000.8 Up until 2000, she was outfitted with leg prostheses produced by Van Phillips, the designer of the ultra-modern Flex-foot, who was also responsible for fitting her with the prototype graphite legs used in her Freeserve advertisement that were modeled on the hind legs of fleet-footed cheetahs. Since then, Mullins has been using prosthetic limbs designed by Dorset Ortho-paedics, an orthopaedic prosthetic clinic based in Bournemouth, England, which, parenthetically, allow her to wear four-inch heels. (Dorset Ortho-paedics was apparently recommended to Mullins by Heather Mills, fellow model, athlete, and amputee, the then girlfriend now fiancée of Paul McCartney.)

As one would expect, the subject of design per se was never an issue for the devotional gush surrounding Mullins’s appearances. Tabloid, popular magazine, and serious journalistic conversation alike concentrated on the effects of its production, on the wow-factor, on how the beautiful, sexy athlete became—although this language was rarely used—the figure of the quintessential prosthetic body, characterized perfectly in a more academic setting as a Cyborgian sex kitten.9 Throughout, effort went into maintaining her seamless presentation—the victory of technology over deficiency. What mattered was that the seams were overlooked, the joins didn’t show—even when they did. Her status as an amputee was simply an autobiographical detail, albeit a significant one, but it was never played up as an aesthetic, erotic, or ergonomic fact in and of itself.10 The irony of this is most telling, etymologically at any rate, if we survey the catwalk, a showcase for haute couture—a term that takes us back, via Old French to cousture, seam, and Latin, conseure, to stitch together—presenting us with its first amputee model.

The celebrations surrounding the figure of Aimee Mullins are merely the most visible—because most fashionable, aesthetic, erotic, and commercially palatable—illustration of disability, prosthesis, and sculptural design coming together. There are of course numerous other instances of this confluence that, because they are either less agreeable or have fallen out of view, are publicized, exalted, or praised less often. The examples that follow briefly, while certainly not random, look to give a sense of the various patterning of this convergence. To begin, we could pinpoint Cambodia where five international organizations, active through fifteen workshops located across the country, produce and distribute prostheses made from local materials, vulcanized rubber in particular, to many of the 40,000 amputees “disabled” by the indiscriminate use of antipersonnel mines since the beginning of the Cambodian Civil War.11 Or we might be intrigued to discover that between 1942 and 1944, Charles Eames and Ray Eames (née Kaiser), influenced by a combination of the “Machine Aesthetic” and “Organic Modernism,” composed their first mass-produced objects out of plywood, and that these crafted pieces were not furniture but leg and arm splints made for the United States Navy.12 Further, we can seek out the German-Jewish surgeon Jacques Joseph (1865–1934), the founder of modern aesthetic rhinoplasty, whose practices in fin de siècle Berlin concentrated on so-called vanity rather than real surgery. Joseph, by upholding the contemporary veneration for Albrecht Dürer and looking to Greek ideal form in order to find models of aesthetic beauty, sought to bring “happiness” to his patients by, say, transforming “Jewish noses” into “gentile contours.” He chipped away at bone, removed cartilage, and carried out exact suturing, operating tools that are still used today, thereby endorsing Sander L. Gilman’s remark that for him, Joseph, “the aesthetic surgeon is really a sculptor: he uses hammers and chisels and shapes an object—just like an artist.”13 Likewise turning to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s article on human locomotion of May 1863 gives us a similar characterization of the American inventor B. Frank Palmer as a “Surgeon Artist” who shapes wooden limbs “very much as a sculptor finishes his marble, with an eye to artistic effect.”14 Harking back to craft production and anticipating Fordist assembly lines, Palmer saw prosthesis as part of social reconstruction after what he identified as the “melancholic harvest” of limbs, the Civil War that was to shape 30,000 amputees between 1861 and 1865. Passaging back to the Renaissance, we might imagine the impact of Thomas Wilson’s 1553 Art of Rhetorique which, as Wills points out, is not only the first known printed use of the term “prosthesis” but also pictures it in such a way as for it to take a “precise typographical form.”15 Concomitant with Wilson is Ambroise Paré who in 1552 also brings rhetoric and medicine together by practicing, as Wills remarks, “ligature of the arteries instead of cauterization following amputation and so inaugurates modern surgery and the possibility of artificial limbs.”16 In Book 23 of his Oeuvres, parts of which had already been published in 1561 and 1564, along with limbs Paré was to focus in on even more individualized prosthetic devices, all illustrated with diagrams, such as artificial eyes made from round objects or painted leather, papier-mâché noses, and so on. Which is to say nothing of the attention he lavishes on cords, pullies, threads, screws, buckles, and springs.17 The Venus tradition from antiquity, along with ancient sculptures such as the Belvedere Torso, is self-explanatory—although I shall touch upon it later. What does need further elaboration, albeit in an abbreviated manner, is one of the earliest artificial members ever discovered, the prehistorical neolithic skull and its delicate auricular prosthesis carved from a seashell, the spondylus Graederopus to be precise, found by archaeologists in 1955 while excavating a megalithic chamber tomb at Roque d’Aille in the Var, dating from the third millennium B.C.18

The Uncertainty of Placing19

The historical and geographical diversity of instances from which one can draw to affirm a certain consistency in the confluence of disability, prosthesis, and sculptural design is expansive. Some of the examples given here speak of the appalling atrocities of war, others tell pleasing anecdotes, and others still are simply somewhat peculiar. In all cases, they testify that the prosthetic body—however its organic, disabled, mechanized, or otherwise disposed parts are arranged—is always and already a place of dismantling and assembling as well as one of discord and disquiet. It is this question of place, or what I am calling the uncertainty of placing, that is the logic and vitality of this confluence. And it is an etymological one. Prosthesis, from the Greek prosthesis, and the French prostithemi, as PROS-, tithemi, denotes “place,” or “placing.” With this in mind, my preceding and following remarks are framed by this question of place, by the uncertainty of place, the place of prosthesis, prosthesis as uncertain placing. (Disability Studies is itself no stranger to the matter of placing and its uncertainties, a topic that characterizes the challenges of the built environment, access, locale, mobility, intimacy, and so on, as well as its very disciplinary positioning.)

In this way the matter of prosthesis as sculptural design can be invoked as a question of placing. To put this another way, prosthesis is always already organized in such a way as for it to be both in place and out of place. Placing is caught up in the circumstances of dwelling both within and extrinsic to a place as the never not shaky dilemma of an installation, a lodging, and of a displacing. It is disabling, enabling, and rarely dispassionate. Such a placing is always an occupation, an upsetting, and a misplacing too, as well as an un-building and a relocating. It is heimlich and unheimlich simultaneously. More than the feeling of unease that is brought on by the unfamiliar within the familiar, the uncertainty of place already knows that the homely is unhomely—and that the uncanny is canny too.

Having suggested that disability, prosthesis, and sculptural design are bound together, and having pointed to how sculptural design has a certain kind of place that is both defining of and dependent upon the seam between disability and prosthesis, I would like to address this place directly. Accordingly, I will attempt to ask what it means to dwell in the place of prosthesis, a prosthetic place that is in place and out of place in fractious and untimely ways because of how it takes place. To this end I will go on to consider three episodes, contested events, or cast studies. The first is the public curatorial placing of some of Marc Quinn’s recent sculptures of amputees in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2001. The second is the theatrical placing of prostheses in a few photographs taken for James Gillingham of Chard, the embodiment of a Victorian surgical-machinist as artist, circa 1915. The third is the private spectral placing of a “monstrous” oral prosthesis in Sigmund Freud as a response to his mouth cancer, first diagnosed in 1923.

Cast Study I: Situating Marc Quinn’s Amputees

Between January 30, 2001 and April 1, 2001, the English sculptor Marc Quinn exhibited eight sculptures at the Victoria and Albert Museum (hereafter V&A) in London. The sculptures were on display as part of a group show entitled GIVE & TAKE, curated by Lisa G. Corrin, then Chief Curator at the Serpentine Gallery. Its aim was to bring contemporary works of visual art into dialogue with the V&A’s historical collections and settings, thereby permitting us to conceive of the latter as also contemporaneous.20 Along with this ambition, and along with an aspiration to question the shaping of history, taxonomy, and so on, Quinn’s sculptures were placed in the Eighteenth-Century British Sculpture Gallery already in use by neo-classical figurative sculptures such as Antonio Canova’s Theseus and the Minotaur (1782) and The Three Graces21 (1814–17).

Now Marc Quinn is best known specifically for his 1991 sculpture Self, a cast of his own head made from nine pints of his own blood, the quantity of blood carried in and by an adult human body. In general, he is highly regarded for using his own body to provide both the subject of and the literal material for his work. By employing his blood, along with his own feces, as well as marzipan, bread dough, wax, latex, rubber, polyurethane, rope, acrylic, plaster, bronze, Perspex, stainless steel, glass, silver, and ice, Quinn articulates the capacity of sculpture to cast and recast the contours of his human form. His sculpture, from Self and Template for My Future Plastic Surgery Aged 80 (1992) to the No Visible Means of Escape series (1996–8) and Shit Painting (1997) offers a decidedly prosthetic aesthetic. Certainly it is altogether distinct from the more explicitly prosthetic assemblages of a Cindy Sherman, a Stelarc, or an Orlan, but nonetheless here too the human form, Quinn’s corporeal self, is fabricated and re-fabricated, its parts are of one another, and it is fragmentary and fragmenting ceaselessly. But in GIVE & TAKE for the first time since his 1987 sculpture Faust, Marc Quinn exhibited sculptures of something other than himself, and of someone other than himself. The eight sculptures he exhibited here with their pristine surfaces unblemished by chisel marks are life-size marble portraits, made by craftsmen in Pietrasanta, Italy, of amputees who, according to the exhibition’s blurb, have been “deprived of one or more limbs as a result of birth, illness or accident.”

There are three evident purposes to the placing of Quinn’s sculptures in the V&A’s gallery. Firstly, they are meant to come into dialogue with the earlier neoclassical sculptures already there, thereby working toward modifying traditional models of aesthetic beauty that are premised on conceptions of the intact body. Secondly, in order to do this they draw attention to the fragmented properties of these earlier sculptures that, through either the ravages of time, iconoclasm, or by design have become or were always already fragmentary. In making the familiar strange, we come to realize, if we hadn’t done so already, that some of these earlier sculptures too are born without legs, are armless, and so on. Headless even. In an acéphalic state. Not so much sacrificial sculptural ruins as forever immaculate themselves. Grasping this distinction denies the art historian, the viewer, the possibility of “facing the gaze of the missing part that must be argued into existence,” as Lennard J. Davis remarks so astutely in his discussion of the Venus de Milo.22 To use Davis’s words, the art historian, the viewer, cannot “restore the damage, bring back the limbs, through an act of imagination”; this is a phenomenon much like, as Davis points out, the experience of “phantom limbs” for some amputees.23 Confronted by Quinn’s sculptures in dialogue with traditional neoclassical sculpture in the Eighteenth-Century British Sculpture Gallery, the art historian is not permitted to ignore, avoid, or fail to see this absence in order to substitute or replace it with presence. They can no longer execute their acts of supplementary restoration to “make good” the deficiency. It is not a question of loss, there is simply no deficiency. Thirdly, a consequence of this is that, by initiating an encounter with us, these “deprived” amputees are displaced from the edges of discourse to the core of conversation, they become beautiful in and of themselves, and a flawless sense of self is bestowed upon them. The strange has been made familiar. In being individualized through the naming of the sculpture’s titles, they can take up a singular identity—which is at once familiar and familial. The titles of Marc Quinn’s sculptures, listed here in alphabetical order, are Jamie Gillespie (1999), Peter Hull (1999), Catherine Long (2000), Selma Mustajbasic (2000), Stuart Penn (2000), Helen Smith (2000), Alexandra Westmoquette (2000), and Tom Yendell (2000). Together they are known as Group Portrait.

Or so the arguments go. These are claims that are certainly evinced by the sculptures themselves, by the curatorial tactic, in the V&A’s accompanying blurb, and in the viewer’s experience of dialogue with the work itself. It is also born out, albeit in a more utopian, quixotic, if incriminating manner in an interview conducted by Germano Celant with Marc Quinn for the catalogue accompanying Celant’s Milan exhibition Marc Quinn in which Celant asks:

The disabled people that you have portrayed survive thanks to artificial limbs; with these prostheses they manage to run, to ride bicycles and to shoot arrows. Do you think that the new dimension is this dilatation and sublimation that comes from the machines, those in the gymnasia or those of the phantom limbs? The body with prostheses is perhaps the first and greatest vision of the future that awaits us, in which prostheses, computers and other machines will be increasingly important. Is fiction turning into reality?

Quinn replies:

I think it’s really important to acknowledge the difference between reality and symbolic function. I mean, in the collective imagination the prosthetic body is a symbol of the future and our relation to technology. But for the people who have to use prostheses, it’s quite a different issue. They are useful but they are also not; in fact some of the sitters have stopped using their prostheses because they feel they are more about conforming with the normal body image society gives them than with making their lives better. So really fiction isn’t becoming reality, what emerges is the difference between fiction and reality.24

Ignoring Celant’s unconditional celebration of the enabling qualities of prosthetic technology and, conversely, Quinn’s talk of its debilitating character too, specifically in terms of its conforming aesthetic imperatives, I would like to question what else is going on, or failing to take place, in this exchange. For while there is evident purpose to this public placing of Quinn’s sculptures—whether at the Fondazione Prada, Milan, at the Kunstverein Hannover, or at the V&A, London—there is also an unacknowledged prospect that elicits a question of eroticization. In particular, it is a question of the dynamic between eroticization and deeroticization. This is a question raised by Lennard J. Davis, who distinguishes between our desire to eroticize the Venus de Milo while simultaneously deeroticizing people with disabilities in general—Davis employs specifically the writings of Pam Herbert, a quadriplegic with muscular dystrophy, as his counterpoint. For Davis, as I have already mentioned, the argument is that the Venus de Milo can be eroticized through the discourse of ideal Western beauty because the art historian has learned how to wilfully “fill in the gaps” while people with disabilities, disabled women in his example, are consigned elsewhere. In fact, they’re assigned largely to a discourse of the monstrous female body which, Medusa-like, horrifies us into petrifaction. This repulsion is of course the horror of confronting deficiency, lack, absence that is so familiar to us from psychoanalysis, and, because of this, is applied to and born of the disabled body too.

But if we are to claim that there is no deficiency, no lack, that there is no absence, as I have been arguing, then we find ourselves somewhere very different altogether. If the body, and not simply the disabled body but all bodies are always and already in bits and pieces, and things take place because of this, we are in no way bound by the limitations intrinsic to psychoanalytically induced anxieties. We’ve moved away, then, from amputation as an uncanny signifier of symbolic castration. Nor is our field of vision prevented from gazing at so supposed a grotesquery. Quite the opposite. If anything, we are drawn to gaze, without anxiety—castration anxiety, or otherwise—because the Venus de Milo, Pam Herbert, and Marc Quinn’s sculptures are, quite simply, part of our modified prosthetic vocabulary, and, in so being, are eroticized because they are amputees. It is the absences of the gaps themselves, not our efforts to disguise them, that are explicitly and knowingly eroticized by the discipline of art history and historians of visual culture. Looking to extend Davis’s invaluable critique, let me propose that it is not only the case that art historians must argue missing body parts or missing limbs back into existence through acts of the imagination so that they might disavow the fact of this deficiency. Also, perhaps more so, they actually love such bodies as and because they are fragmented. And this love is of a sexual, or at least erotic nature. Perhaps the art historian of Greek sculpture is an apotemnophile, someone interested in the desire to have a limb removed which, as Alphonso Lingis has argued, has a very real connection to the dynamics of sex and art.25 Perhaps—and this is my preferred option simply because of its moderate character—viewers of the visual arts are undeniably acrotomophiles in general, sexually excited by the stump(s) of others. Perhaps they’re just “wannabees.” Or simply “devotees.” If any or all of these prospects seem likely, then there is an explicit and explicitly erotic quality to our encounter with Marc Quinn’s sculptures of amputees, extended into the realm of the gallery in order that this private fondness might take place in public. Attending to the sculptural design of these prosthetic bodies, made possible through questions raised by Disability Studies, exposes us as members of the public, in a moment of mutual exhibitionism, to a flirtatious dialogue in this unpredictable sphere.

Cast Study II: The Theatrical Staging of Gillinghams of Chard’s Suspended Animation

At least in part, eroticization may well also be a motive behind a group of photographs taken of Gillinghams of Chard’s products—the company made artificial limbs and body armature beginning in 1866. The photographs were taken for a Gillinghams advertising catalog circa 1915. Above and beyond this purely commercial purpose, these photographs, housed in the archives of the Science Museum’s Osteogenesis Collection, exhibit portraits of female amputees displaying their wares. Some of these women have been invited to lift up their shirts, others to remove their over-garments, in order that a potential customer might see more precisely the quality of the products crafted by Gillinghams. In giving in to this request, the amputees assist in the selling of the callipers, body supports with underarm stirrups, leather bodices, corsetry, and artificial limbs that are Gillinghams’s speciality. In so doing, they expose their arms, the napes of their neck, the tops of their thighs, the shadow effected by the point at which the tops of their thighs and buttocks meet, revealing skin that has been trussed up by the confines of straps, (garter) belts, and buckles. Skin is squeezed and molded by the bondaged tautness of its restricted lacing, the back-straightening contraptions have a sadistic edge, and the hints of undergarment betray a less than prudent photographer inviting our voyeuristic gaze. With a twist of the hips, the women turn away from the camera, to obscure their faces, to remain anonymous, disguised, to keep their modesty intact, their identity a secret. By averting their gazes, they also endeavor to frustrate the attention we might lavish upon them, which could, in turn, distract our eye from more properly consumerist desires.

This is, then, a dual seduction, at once commercial and erotic. Another group of the same collection of photographs related to Gillinghams of Chard were taken for the same commercial purpose as those previously mentioned, in the same interior setting, the studio, with matching lighting, scenery of painted backcloths, props, and drapery. They are staged in the same way. But unlike those other portraits, or populated photographs, these are all either occupied by body parts, parts of bodies, or no bodies at all. This is certainly the case for the two photographs reproduced here. They have been vacated of humanness, or, they are about to become populated. They drift away from and toward the ghost of an inhabitation. There is a hallucinogenic quality, a dreamlike character to the theatrical arrangement of these prosthetic limbs and body armature, as I have suggested elsewhere.26 This is the case because, instead of the familiar arrested movement of human animation we have come to know as portrait photography, here we are offered a stranger morphological animation of an un-human sort in which, through narrative, display, and humor, autonomous limbs act out the scene that takes place. Ornamental, luxurious, arranged, posing, they occupy center stage. And they do so in a way that is not so much human as it is of the assemblage’s human-ness. Like personality traits, the limbs, joins, and seams are sutured, stitched together, surface to surface, akin to some comic Frankenstein’s monster in the making. Suspended, hanging, they incarnate the machinations of a contemplative puppet master. They are almost animating.

Not only under the sway of another’s will, they are also, in themselves, performative. Such is their uncanniness. For even as still-lives and as subject-less objects, they are nonetheless still portraits—both portraits of objects and portraits that are still. In this way, these prostheses are not deficient, none the worse for having misplaced their bodies of enunciation. They articulate without the need for support from the human forms that—through modeling, wearing, and a will to verisimilitude—previously inhabited or were attached to them. (Such is also the predicament for those bodies that may go on to occupy or affix themselves to these arrangements.) They can model and sell themselves. Within the frame of the photograph it is the human body, then, that is uncanny. It is both familiar in its spectral absence and, drawing on the definitions of the uncanny that Freud looks to supplant, also new and alien to the assemblages themselves. In a reversal of Kant’s position on prosthesis, it is the foreign or alien presence of the human that would be the addition to, the augmentation of the prostheses as such.

These photographs, taken for and as illustrations of Gillinghams of Chard’s prostheses, come about just a couple of years before Freud completed writing his paper on the uncanny. As we will recall from it, “[d]ismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, . . . feet which dance by themselves . . . all of these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when, . . . they prove capable of independent activity in addition [my italics].”27 Freud of course does not believe in the veracity of such independent activity, tied, as it always is, to dreams and phantasies of the recurrence of repressed infantile complexes—for Freud there is little that does not go back to intrauterine dwelling. As such, Freud shows why it is that, within a psychoanalytic comprehension of neurosis, this kind of uncanniness takes place because of its proximity to the castration complex. The fear of losing an eye and the consequent fear of going blind, for instance, is, metaphorically, a substitute, or what Freud calls a “substitutive relation” between the eye and the male organ. But, as we shall go on to see, metaphors aside, perhaps Freud could have been more attentive to the potential of such “independent activity in addition.”

Cast Study III: Sigmund Freud’s “Monster”

On April 25, 1923 Sigmund Freud wrote to Ernest Jones that he had “detected 2 months ago a leukoplastic growth on my jaw and palate right side, which I had removed on the 28th. I am still out of work and cannot swallow.”28 In The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Jones recounts that Freud had been in touch with the rhinologist Marcus Hajek who diagnosed his condition as leukopolakia brought on by smoking.29 Hajek recommended an operation, the first of 33 efforts made over the next 16 years to salvage Freud’s life by brutally redefining the contours of his mouth. Following a botched operation at Hajek’s clinic, and after huge blood loss, further incompetence resulted in the failure to carry out the usual precautions that prevent the shrinkage of post-operative scars. From then on it became more and more difficult for Freud to open his mouth, thereby further obscuring the unfamiliar composition of this interior shelter.

Growing ever more distrustful of Hajek, Freud turned to Felix Deutsch who, spotting a recurrence of the original growth, the return of an uncanny harbinger of death, recommended more radical operations. It was Deutsch who persuaded Professor Hans Pichler, the oral surgeon, to take on the case. As Jones reported, on September 26 Pichler and Hajek examined Freud together and found “a malignant ulcer in the hard palate which invaded the neighbouring tissues, including the upper part of the lower jaw and even the cheek.”30 Pichler operated on the 4th and 11th of October. In the first of these two operations, remarked Jones, “the external carotid artery was ligatured and the submaxillary glands, some of which were already suspiciously enlarged, removed. In the second operation,” he goes on to say, “after slitting the lip and cheek wide open, the surgeon removed the whole upper jaw and palate on the affected side, a very extensive operation which of course threw the nasal cavity and mouth into one.”31 Sigmund Freud is then fitted with his first oral prosthesis:The huge prosthesis, a sort of magnified denture or obturator, designed to shut off the mouth from the nasal cavity, was a horror; it was labelled “the monster”. In the first place it was very difficult to take out or replace because it was impossible for him to open his mouth at all widely. . . . Then for the instrument to fulfil its purpose of shutting off the yawning cavity above, and so making speaking and eating possible, it had to fit fairly tightly. This, however, produced constant irritation and sore places until its presence was unbearable. But if it were left out for more than a few hours the tissues would shrink, and the denture could no longer be replaced without being altered.32

Ernest Jones writes that Freud’s oral prosthesis, “the monster,” caused constant trouble. It could not be taken out or replaced easily, having to be modified every few days, it led to defective smoking, eating, and breathing, a change in his appearance, and, because it was ill-fitting, it caused unbearable irritation and sore places. It also made it difficult for him to speak, a change in the sound of his voice was noted, and not just in his native tongue.33 (One can only imagine the impact all this was to have on his working practices and thus the analytic situation.)

The incessant craving for comfort led to daily visits from Pichler for a period in 1923, to the styling of a second oral prosthesis in February 1924, and a third in October of the same year. In 1931, Professor Varaztad Kazanjian of Harvard University, another founding father of plastic surgery, was pressured into working on Freud’s prosthesis for 20 days, but, as Jones comments, the results were “very far from satisfactory.”34 In 1936, following painful treatment with Röntgen rays and radium, it was discovered, says Jones, that “the metal in the prosthesis was producing secondary radiation” as a consequence of which “another apparatus was built to obviate this.”35 During Christmas 1938, Max Schur removed a further segment of dead bone from Freud’s mouth, which offered relief for a while. In early 1939 Freud informed Jones that Dr. Harmer had told him that the recent treatment has had “an unmistakable influence on the appearance of the sore place.”36 But by July, Freud, attacked by a cancerous ulceration, was apathetic and unable to sleep. By August, the odor from the wound was such that his favorite dog is seen to shrink away from him in disgust. On September 21, Freud and Schur engage in by no means their first conversation on euthanasia. On September 22, Schur administered a small dose of morphine to Freud. On September 23, 1939 Freud is dead.

By way of Freud’s troublesome and somehow autonomous oral prosthesis as a harbinger of his imminent death, from September 23, 1939 right back to that fateful day in February 1923 we begin to picture him from the inside out. As the evidence of his war with the mutable conditions of his corporeal self, the sculptural design and re-design of his prosthesis scores itself into the matter of his very body, which is stripped away and reconstituted, taken apart and reassembled, the effects of which are both enabling and dis-abling. In the cavernous dwelling of his mouth, Freud’s oral prosthesis was in place, sometimes, and out of place at other times. It was at once placed and displaced, located and dislocated, lodged and dislodged, situated, erring, misplaced, replaced, and unsuccessfully effaced. It could not be a secret—Freud often had to keep it in place with his thumb, although he managed to disguise this to some extent by turning the action into an intellectual affectation. In this way, the disclosure of the enclosure is the disclosure of its secret. This inhabitation is a secret that is not a secret, a hiding that is betrayed by the man himself. Or let us put this upside-down, back to front. Perhaps Freud was betrayed by the prosthesis itself. This prospect is noteworthy. Freud possesses a haunted mouth. Like a phantom limb, his oral prosthesis, occupying a proper place and also being located in a non-place, takes place in the uncertainty of this invocation. Attaching and detaching, it haunts him and he haunts it. Sigmund Freud was not buried with his prosthesis. He gives up the ghost. Abandons it. It gives him up too.

Freud’s oral prosthesis is certainly an instance of uncanny dwelling. For it is not the case that this foreign element, the unhomely, is extraneous to the home, that the unfamiliar is extrinsic to the familiar. Rather, the unhomely is already always of the home, belongs in the home, and the unfamiliar is forever already a structuring part of the familiar. Freud already knew this, theoretically at least, when, in 1919, he published his essay on “The Uncanny.” But it seems he didn’t know it personally until 1924. In this year he was compelled to know that his oral prosthesis was more than simply foreign to himself, an extension of his own body. And he knew this from Lou Andreas-Salomé. In a letter dated August 11, 1924, Freud, writing about his small-scale war waged with his “refractory piece of equipment,” asked Andreas-Salomé what she thought of “the analogous relationship to a substitute such as this, which tries to be and yet cannot be the self.”37 In her reply, dated September 3rd , she made it clear she understood—as he would go on to understand—that his prosthesis was not so much a departure from as it was a necessary component of the condition of the human body: “For that is after all the most quintessentially human thing in man, that he both is and is not his own body—that his body despite everything is a piece of external reality like any other, which can be identified by him with the help of his sense organs from outside himself.”38

Such is the uncertainty of placing: a body is by no means wholly owned by the body inhabiting it. It is not proper to, the property of, itself. To some extent, this is the most significant question to which this article has hoped to attend: the certainty that things, bodies for instance, are, in a host of ways, always separate from and imminent to arrangements of other things and also themselves. This was the reason for beginning the article by emphasizing how prostheses are never simply additions to the body as such, that the body is itself always and already in bits and pieces that fit together awkwardly, and that the figure of the prosthetic body is really the only way to make sense of these intricacies. As I proposed from the outset, dismantling and assembling are inseparable. The organic and the machinic are always and already of one another. The prosthetic body, in its many manifestations, is testament to this. And this is the case, in this instance at any rate, because of the extent to which it is a matter of sculptural design. Hence the need to foreground the task of sculptural design in the discourses of the body in general and the prosthetic body in particular. For surely the question of the body is and has never not been a question of design, and re-design—whether in the discourses of atomism, cosmology, anatomy, organicist or evolutionary theory, feminism, identity politics, queer theory, and so on. This painstaking, necessarily uneven prospect of re-design is very much the reason for having begun from the premise that the question of deficiency needs to be drawn out, exposed, and held accountable. For the prosthetic body, however differently-abled it might be, along with the discourses appearing from the emerging discipline of Disability Studies and elsewhere, cannot be bound to, further debilitated by, and endlessly forced to return again and again to this question of deficiency. No longer reiterating this question of deficiency, of lack, instead the challenge to the prosthetic body becomes one of modifications to the production of re-design.

Such is the need to be attuned to how something is worn, inhabited, dwelled in, how it is in place, and how it can find itself out of place. As we have seen, this is certainly the case whether we are addressing the interior contours of Freud’s oral cavity, the exterior armature and appendage of Gillinghams of Chard’s prostheses and their missing bodies, or the interaction between the body of the spectator and Quinn’s sculptural form. Having said this, it is no longer simply only a case of being sympathetic to the sensation of things being either in place or out of place. Rather, it is this, and it is also a need to be sensitive to the experience of things, bodies for example, coming into contact with one another, how different surfaces, some familiar, others unfamiliar, some both familiar and unfamiliar at one and the same time, touch one another. Sometimes things are bolted onto one another, other times one responds to the slightest hint of a caress. Such contact is founded upon intense pressure or an unmistakable ghosting. Either way, what matters is the attention one pays to the points of contact between things, between the human and the machinic for example, and how these points of contact indicate, demarcate, and circumvent our sense of the shifting extremities between and within things. This is not then just a matter of things being either in place or out of place. For things do not stay in place, nor do they remain out of place. Rather, they take place. As contested events, things take place, and the uncertainty of their placing is at the heart of their unhomely dwelling. Taking place drives the possibility of animation, the rhythms of thinking, the intensity of practice. It offers the prospect of being capable of “independent activity in addition.”

It obstructs it too.39


This essay was first published in The Prosthetic Aesthetic 46 (Spring 2002): 85–102.

  1. David Wills, “Preambles: Disability as Prosthesis,” in Derrida Downunder, ed. Laurence Simmons and Heather Worth (Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 2001), 35–52. Thanks to David for making this article available to me prior to its publication. See also David Wills, Prosthesis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995) and his afterthought to this book, “Re: Mourning,” Tekhnema 4 (1998): 8–25. With Wills’s writing, for the most stimulating and provocative work taking place in the humanities on the “minority” discourse of Disability Studies, see Lennard J. Davis, Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body (London: Verso, 1995); Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, eds., The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997); and David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependence of Discourse (Anne Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000).
  2. Wills, “Preambles: Disability as Prosthesis.”
  3. Wills, “Preambles: Disability as Prosthesis.”
  4. See Howard Caygill, “Stelarc and the Chimera: Kant’s Critique of Prosthetic Judgment,” art journal (Spring 1997): 46–51. Caygill’s reading points out that Kant entertains the prospect of a radical prosthesis, but ends up pulling away from it because of his historically limited conception of the prosthetic potential of technology.
  5. This is not a position put forward by Wills here, although it does appear in Lennard J. Davis’s “Nude Venus, Medusa’s Body, and Phantom Limbs: Disability and Visuality,” in Mitchell and Snyder, The Body and Physical Difference, 51–70. Here Davis offers an astute Lacanian re-reading of Freud’s (and art history’s) insistence that we repress the fragmentary nature of the body—an insistence overcome by the disabled body’s demand that the viewer confront, acknowledge, and overcome the fact of this primary repression.
  6. Davis, “Nude Venus, Medusa’s Body, and Phantom Limbs: Disability and Visuality.”
  7. Tracking a psychoanalytic/anti-psychoanalytic trajectory of the machinic as part-object and desiring machine, Rosalind Krauss mentions Freud, Klein, Deleuze and Guattari, and Michel Carrouges who, in 1952, named the Bachelor Machine. See Rosalind Krauss, Bachelors (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 64.
  8. In 1999 Mullins was also one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World.”
  9. Many thanks to my former students on the MA in Visual Arts at Goldsmiths College for this so suitable designation.
  10. The appearances on Oprah and Rosie O’Donnell more than affirm the less than insignificant role of autobiography in Mullins’s profile.
  11. The celebrity face of the anti-landmine campaign in Angola, in the form of the late Princess of Wales and the footballer David Ginola, should be noted here. Thanks to Kay Dickinson for conversations about her travels in Cambodia.
  12. See W. Scott and C. Eames, “A new emergency splint of plyformed wood,” U.S. Naval Bulletin 41, no. 5 (1943): 1423–28.
  13. Sander L. Gilman, “Marks of Honor and Dishonour,” in Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999),149.
  14. Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Human Wheel, Its Spokes and Fellows,” Atlantic Monthly (May 1863): 567–80. See David D. Yuan, “Disfigurement and Reconstruction in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s ‘The Human Wheel, Its Spokes and Fellows,’” in Mitchell and Snyder, The Body and Physical Difference, 71–88.
  15. See Wills, “Cambridge, 1553,” in Prosthesis, 226. Wills says that the word “prosthesis” appears in the margins, and in Roman type rather than the black-letter gothic of the Rhetorique.
  16. Wills, “Preambles.”
  17. On Paré, see Wills, “Cambridge, 1533.” See also Jean-Claude Beaune, “The Classical Age of Automata: An Impressionistic Survey from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century,” in Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part One, trans. Ian Patterson, ed. Michel Feher, with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi (New York: Zone, 1989), 430–80.
  18. See Gustaf Sobin, Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 51–55. Thanks to Harry Gilonis for bringing the existence of this remarkable thing to my attention.
  19. Many of the ideas around place, placing, dwelling, and the uncanny emerge out of an engagement with the thought of Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida, and the hugely convincing writings of Anthony Vidler and Mark Wigley. See Mark Wigley, “Prosthetic Theory: The Disciplining of Architecture,” Assemblage 15 (1991): 7–29; Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992); Mark Wigley, “The Domestication of the House: Deconstruction After Architecture,” in Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture, ed. Peter Brunette and David Wills (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 203–27; Mark Wigley, The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), in particular Chapter 7 entitled “Dislocating Space,” 177–204.
  20. GIVE & TAKE was a collaborative exhibition between both the V&A and the Serpentine Gallery. See Leigh Markopoulous, ed., GIVE & TAKE, London, Serpentine Gallery, 2001.
  21. On Antonio Canova see Alex Potts, The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist (London: Yale University Press, 2000), 38–59.
  22. Davis, “Nude Venus,” 59.
  23. Davis, “Nude Venus,” 57.
  24. Marc Quinn, curated by Germano Celant took place at the Fondazione Prada, Milan from May 5 to June 10, 2000. The catalogue for the exhibition is published by Fondazione Prada, Milan. For a forceful critique of the “metaphorical opportunism” of technological fetishism see Mitchell and Snyder, “Introduction: Disability Studies and the Double Bind of Representation,” in Mitchell and Snyder, The Body and Physical Difference, 7n32.
  25. See Alphonso Lingis, “The Physiology of Art,” in The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, ed. Joanne Morra and Marquard Smith (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 73–89.
  26. Marquard Smith, “Prosthetic Nightmares,” in “the reInterpretation of dreams,” ed. Joanne Morra and Marquard Smith, parallax 6, no. 3 (2000): 93–104.
  27. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 14, Art and Literature, trans. James Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), 366.
  28. See R. Andrew Paskauskas, ed., The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones 1908–1939 (London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995), 521.
  29. Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (London: Pelican Books, 1974). The historical and biographical details reproduced here are culled largely from Jones’s account.
  30. Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 552.
  31. Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 553.
  32. Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 553–54. On Freud’s oral prosthesis see Scott Wilson, “Dying for a Smoke: Freud, Addiction and the Management of Life,” Angelaki 7, no. 2 (2002): 161–73. Thanks to Scott for supplying me with an earlier version of this article. Mark Wigley also mentions Freud’s prosthesis in his “Prosthetic Theory,” 8. The most extended philosophical and psychoanalytical speculations on Freud’s prosthesis take place in “Berchtesgaden, 1929,” chapter 4 of David Wills’s Prosthesis, 92–129. See also Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, bk. 3, The Last Phase (1919–39), 483–657.
  33. Jones recalls an anecdote in which Freud, visiting Yvette Guilbert, “turned to her husband with the pathetic remark, ‘my prosthesis doesn’t speak French,’” 559.
  34. Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 605.
  35. Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 621.
  36. Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 652.
  37. Freud’s letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé appears in Ernest Pfeiffer, ed., Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé Letters, trans. William and Elaine Robson-Scott (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1972), 137. They continue to discuss Freud’s prosthesis in letter exchanges throughout the rest of 1924. Mark Wigley mentions the first of these exchanges, see “Prosthetic Theory,” 8n6.
  38. Pfeiffer, Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé Letters, 138–39.
  39. This article was completed before the events of Tuesday, September 11 in New York and Washington, and their aftermath.