Prosthesis | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University


by David Wills; foreword by Jacques Derrida

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2021
392 pp. illus. 4 b/w. Paper, $27.50
ISBN: 978-1-5179-1155-3.

Reviewed by: 
Gabriela Galati
March 2022

“[…] the longing for security of the parental arms is articulated, other than by means of a simple regression, through a sense of the inanimate and of the infirmity that announces the future and the future of death, so it is a nostalgia that is also a mourning, prosthesis is nothing if not that, coming to terms with loss, learning to accommodate a lack, talking forward towards a cure that is also the acknowledgment of death […].” (Wills, 2021, p. 128).

Prosthesis was first published in 1995. This new edition includes a preface by Jacques Derrida, who introduced a presentation of the book at his seminar “Le témoignage” at the École des haute Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, also in 1995. As the author makes clear in the introduction to this new edition, even if he felt the impulse to “domesticate” some of the experimental spirit of the book he resisted it (p. xvii), and so this new edition is mostly identical to the first.

Derrida points out in his introduction that the book brings together prosthecity with the author’s autobiography in order to build “a history of familial prosthesis” (p. xii). Consequently the theoretical, the fictional and the autobiographical are intertwined all along the text. The result is evidently experimental, linking academic writing with autobiographical narrative, and literary experimental, and often exhilarating style.

In each chapter Wills analyses a prosthetic dimension through the works of authors of such different fields as Charles Conder, William Gibson, Sigmund Freud, Peter Greenaway, Ambroise Paré, Raymond Roussel, and Jacques Derrida, whilst in the first chapter he analyses the biographical origin of his own (prosthetic) writing.

The hypothesis of the book, as Wills states, on page xiii, is the very premise of the posthumanities, that is to say “a theory of the human animal in its relations to technology and a hypothesis according to which the animate in general will have always, from the get-go, been negotiating with the inanimate”, or in other words, to conceive of the human animal as an always-already prosthetic being in order to re-dimension prostheticity as a supposedly “exclusively human capacity” which would position the human above all the living in an ontological hierarchy.

In the first chapter, Wills exposes his own relationship to prostheticity through the history of his father, a father with an amputated limb, and a wooden leg which would bring waves of pain and spasms that the father would go through repeating a line from Virgil, as if it were “an incantation” with a soothing effect: “the hoof strikes the dusty plain in a four-footed rhythm” (p.3). It is in this sense that Derrida talks about Prosthesis as a prosthesis on prosthesis and of writing as a prosthesis for Wills. In the autobiographical passages, always involving his father and his prosthesis, and which appear in every chapter in the book, the author adopts a particular style close to a flux of consciousness, using little or any punctuation, and in particular no full stops. This style appears to be performative, which is what grounds and activates Prosthesis—the theoretical reflection and the author’s biography.

In fact, Wills evidences how prostheticity is related to the two modes of writing embodied in the book, namely, theory and fiction: “Prosthesis is the writing of my self as a limit to writing—the relation to or limit of both my father’s wooden leg and a series of texts. It is the writing of my relation to prosthesis, and its writing switches in and out of a classic analytic mode” (p. 18). The question that writing is always a prosthetic act, because “the ‘I’ is always prosthetic”—every “I” is traversed and conformed by “the natural and the unnatural” (p. 19), the organic and the inorganic, flesh and steel (or wood)—traverses the whole book in a performative way: the book is a prosthesis (of the author), in the same way as writing is a prosthetic event (for everyone).

Writing about prosthesis implies evidently not only writing about the inherently prosthetic dimension of all writing, but of other prosthetic relations, among them technology, and in particular “the high technological” (p.25) in which the consequential and linear logic of the mechanical is replaced by the binary logic of computation (idem). In this sense, prostheticity is relatable to “communication as information transfer” (idem); still, not as pure linearity but as the circularity and recursiveness of cybernetic systems (pp. 25-6).

However posthuman, dichotomies are evidenced in the book: The father’s wooden leg according to Wills condenses “the duality of every prosthesis, its search for emulating the human and superseding the human” (p. 26). The author opposes, as competing conceptions of the human and more-than-human, or other-than-human, the mechanical emulation of the human, namely, the robot, which still keeps “a body,” to the reduction to the binary, or the almost merely electronic, specifically, Artificial Intelligence (p. 27). If the mechanical is easier to identify with the body, the opposition, at least today, is not completely evident: even if two fields of separate research, robots do use sophisticated AI systems (i.e. Boston Dynamics’ “dogs”), and this is something to which Wills hints at anyway when he writes at the end of the passage, “It is hard to know whether the force of analogy has ever abandoned the field in favour of something that might be called purely mechanical, of the electronic” (p. 27).

Whether robotic or electronic, and beyond the apparent dichotomy, the relevant issue at stake in this passage is, regarding any prosthesis, in the first place that “the prosthetic possibility determines the shape of the human, the artificial determines the natural” (p. 28), and in the second place, that any prosthesis, wooden, binary, or robotic, always implies the possibility of outclassing the human, of performing better (idem), and eventually taking over. And, beyond all this, the most evident fact of the prosthetic nature of writing, whether fiction, criticism or in any form, is that writing is “writing prosthesis”, is “being prosthetic” (p.30).

Different aspects of artificiality are approached through varied authors. For instance, in “Mentone, 1888” Wills analyses Charles Gonder’s A Holiday at Mentone (1888). The question in this painting is the question of representation: what point of view is offered, what is included in the painting and what is excluded. In this painting case, the question relates to narrative, and what happens in the fringe between realism and impressionism (p. 36). At the same time it relates to the impossibility of avoiding narrative to describe any painting (p. 37). The point is, as the author states later in the same chapter, that abstraction will challenge this relation, at least in relation to a traditional narrative (p. 58).

In “Africa, 21st Century” Wills reads William Gibson’s famously coined concept of “cyberspace”—“a hallucination we all agreed to have” (1982; 1984), and the possibility to “jack in” as the inherent prostheticity of Gibson’s characters (p. 71). This reading is coherent with the main aforementioned hypotheses of Wills’ book that “there never was any idea of the human constituted without reference to prosthetic articulations, relations to supposed external otherness; what seem to be the possibilities of subsequent prosthetic attachments—principles of non integrality, detachability, and replacement—are in fact the constituting principles of the human mechanism” (p. 71).

The prosthetic quality of theorising, and possibly of all knowledge, are the core topic in the fourth chapter, “Berchtesgaden, 1929” (p. 92), which looks into Freudian theory, and in particular, proposes the hypothesis that in parallel to this first idea, there is a second that runs against the first, that threatens to turn it upside down, and “It is such effects that will fo, here also, by the name of prosthesis” (p. 94).

The long quote from page 128 included as an incipit of this article can be considered as a perfect synthesis of the whole book: It shows how prosthesis has a close relationship with the acceptance of loss, and the inevitability of death, hence the link to the inanimate, the inorganic, the external that becomes internal, the artificial that is also natural, scholarly writing that is also autobiographical, and death, that from within, animates the alive.