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Uncanny Prosthetics: A Survey through J. Stuart Blackton’s short movie ‘The Thieving Hand’

“Artificial limbs do not disrupt amputees’ 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.”

Steven L.Kurzman

“BL: Why do you want to dance? VP: Why do you want to live?”

‘The Red Shoes’ movie, 1948

The Concept of the Uncanny Feeling: Interpretation of the Unhomely

“With every tool, man is perfecting his own organs -whether motor or sensory-, or is removing the limits to their functioning”. [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 survey 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 “Uncanny”; 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 “being a product of intellectual uncertainty”. However, Freud suggests that “Heimlich has a meaning as a word that develops unto an ambivalence until it finally coincides with its exact opposite, unheimlich” [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.

Stelarc – Ear On Arm

Defining Prostheses

Prosthesis’ meaning depends on the root of the Greek word “prósthesis” [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 it’s introduced in bodies that in Freud terms are somehow “deficient” or “defective”, or in Le Corbusier’s terms “insufficient”. [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] At its best, the prosthetic is no longer lifelike but becomes life itself, inserting itself into the unseen biological processes. [Smith, Morra, 2006]

Walter Pichler’s Portable Living Room and Sound Locator

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 “when we realize that a hand, that at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we end up experiencing an eerie sensation. […] thus, we lose our sense of relevance, and the hand becomes then uncanny”. If it starts to move though, this eeriness sensation intensifies. Freud’s concern on this issue was about the difference between a person’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 “garment” like any other tool. [Wigley, 1991]

The Alternative Limb Project – Sophie de Oliveira Barata

Expressionism in Cinematography: Prosthetic Memory and the Uncanny Surrealism of “The Thieving Hand”

As a result of the prosthetic’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, “my prosthetic leg can go dancing without me and also can ‘will’ me to join it in what, in effect, is a nightmarish danse macabre”. [Sobchack, 2006]

The ‘Thieving Hand’, 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.

Scene from “The Thieving Hand” short film

By elaborating the forms through which the uncanny feeling ap­pears 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 “whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate” – and more precisely, when this doubt only makes itself felt obscurely in one’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 “have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when they prove capable of independent activity in addition”. 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 one’s freedom from personal harm arises instead. [Freud, 1919]

Scene from “The Thieving Hand” short film

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 “double” comes and supplement that feeling’s experience. According to Lacan and his “Mirror Stage” theorem, the uncanny feeling can also be caused by reflection of one’s self or a body’s part. [Alain Miller, 2013] The thieving hand expresses the somatic ramifications of mechanized production. Within Freud’s canny/uncanny dynamic, the film takes the characterization of being uncanny, because the conscious limb is in fact so familiar, because of the worker’s translation into a limb and because of the fate of the limbs.

Scene from “The Thieving Hand” short film

“Prosthetic memory” consists another element that could considered as uncanny, meaning the implanted memories and not the one that come from a person’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 his prosthetic arm. In fact, his memories are profoundly divorced from lived experience and yet they prompt his actions; they shape an identity for him. The experience of memory indeed becomes the index of experience; if we have the memory, we should have the experience it represents. The armless beggar has the memory without having lived the experience. If memory consists the precondition for identity or individuality –if what we claim as our memories defines who we are- then the idea of a prosthetic memory reflects 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 of the film’s flirtation with the idea that memories might be permanently transportable, the thieving hand ends by rejecting that possibility, as soon as it chooses to be with its proper owner.

Scene from “The Thieving Hand” short film

As Robert Rawdon Wilson writes: “Any contemplation of prostheses has to consider their potential failure and, even the juncture under which they might go wrong or turn against their users. The consciousness of machines always includes a dimension of fear. There is also fear’s most intimate radical, an element of potential disappointment; the prosthesis may not work, or may work inadequately, or may entail unwanted consequences.” [Wilson, 1995]


Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1930

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, Cam­bridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1992

Mark Wigley, Prosthetic Theory: the disciplining of architecture, 1991

Howard Caygill, Stelarc and the Chimera: Kant’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

Mori M., The uncanny valley, IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, 1970

Yalom Irvin D, Existential Psychotherapy, 1980

Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny, Manchester, 2003

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Penguin UK, 2003

Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, 1938

Robert Rawdon Wilson , Cyber(Body)Parts: Prosthetic Consciousness, 1995

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