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Tactile PoeticsTouch and Contemporary Writing$

Sarah Jackson

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780748685318

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: January 2016

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748685318.001.0001

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Digital Technologies and Prosthetic Possibilities

Digital Technologies and Prosthetic Possibilities

(p.120) Chapter 7 Digital Technologies and Prosthetic Possibilities
Tactile Poetics

Sarah Jackson

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter's examination of the non-human hand is informed by Jacques Derrida's challenge to the assumption that the hand is exclusive to the ‘humanual’. Recognising a growing interest in haptic technologies and the relationship between the screen and eye-contact, it addresses the role of the hand in the ‘hominizing process’, interrogating Derrida's refusal to neglect the non-human hand by considering prosthetic limb in the recently restored Fritz Lang film, Metropolis. Discussing the ways that the prosthetic supplement disrupts the opposition between the natural and the artificial, it draws attention to the co-implication of the human and the non-human that features in the film's defining handshake. Questioning the manipulations of the hand in haptic technologies and digital retouching, the chapter opens up questions regarding the virtual and spectral mediation of contact.

Keywords:   digital touch, hand, handshake, humanual, non-human, prosthesis, virtual touch, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Fritz Lang

‘Hence the hand, and the fingers–and we are coming to them,’ writes Derrida in On Touching.1 Yes, the hand, and the fingers: we are always coming to them, picking them up, pointing, holding and handing them over. And this chapter examines the hands that feature throughout Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis: ‘It was their hands that built this city of ours, Father. But where do the hands belong in your scheme?’ asks Freder to Joh Frederson, the founder of Metropolis and head of the city of subterranean workers.2 Although the protagonist’s father is liable to dismiss the manual workers, the viewer is continually reminded of the hand’s presence. Not only is manus, the hand, embedded within the manual worker, but young Freder’s passion for the hand-of-man overrides his father’s will to turn a blind eye to the hardships his regime inflicts. An immediate example of the hand’s deciding role in Metropolis comes early in the film, when Freder departs from the Eternal Gardens to venture underground. Here, he watches a man whose impossible task–with his two hands–is to align three hands on a clock face so that they touch at intermittently flashing lights. The worker, it seems, is missing a limb–that is, until Freder rushes to give him a helping hand. It is, for Freder, a call to arms.

But this isn’t the only hand. Their sheer number invests them with a certain monstrosity (see Figure 7.1).3 The viewer is repeatedly presented with such images–hands extending, hands raised in terror, hands waving, hands grasping, hands writing, hands on hearts and of course the handshake that concludes the film (see Figure 7.2). Although the director, Lang, came to reject this signifying handshake, describing it in interviews as ‘embarrassingly naïve’, Derrida’s discussion of the hand cannot help but shake up established readings of the film.4 In Metropolis, we are always coming to hands–and last but not least, we are coming to prosthetic hands, which play out the tension between the human and the machine at the level of each individual digit. (p.121)

Digital Technologies and Prosthetic Possibilities

Figure 7.1 A scene from Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang (Berlin: Universum-Film AG, 1927; restored Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, 2010)

Holding Up My Hands

Before going any further, however, it’s important to hold up my hands and to situate this chapter’s turn to cinema in light of existing research in the field of ‘haptic visuality’.5 The term ‘haptic’, as Abbie Garrington notes,

should be understood as an umbrella term denoting one or more of the following experiences: touch (the active or passive experience of the human skin, subcutaneous flesh, viscera and related nerve-endings); kinaesthesis (the body’s sense of its own movement); proprioception (the body’s sense of its orientation in space); and the vestibular sense (that of balance, reliant on the inner ear).6

She continues, ‘Every aspect of that quartet of somatic experiences is troublesome to define, isolate and understand.’7 While this chapter does not seek to reproduce existing discussions of the haptic, it is important to address the reasons why a reading of the relationship between the haptic and technology might be particularly pertinent to a study of film. (p.122)

Digital Technologies and Prosthetic Possibilities

Figure 7.2 A scene from Metropolis, dir. Lang (1927/2010)

There has been a recent surge of interest in the haptic and the cinematic medium. Revisiting the materiality of the screen and rethinking the body in phenomenological terms, film theory has made a noticeable move back towards corporeality. Rather than conforming to ‘a model of spectatorship which aligns vision (and, by synecdoche, cinema) with distance, illusion, absence and separation’, recent theorists, Laura MacMahon, notes, ‘seek to consider cinema in terms of contact, immediacy, sentience and touch’.8 Central to this is the work of Laura Marks, who refers to the haptic as ‘the combination of tactile, kinaesthetic, and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of and inside our bodies’.9 In ‘haptic visuality’, she notes, ‘the eyes themselves function like organs of touch’.10 Drawing on and adapting the work of art historian, Aloïs Riegl, and Deleuze and Guattari’s account of smooth and striated space, Marks distinguishes haptic from optic visuality by explaining:

Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture. It is more inclined to move than to focus, more inclined to graze than to gaze.11

(p.123) Her theory of cinema considers ‘the ways cinema appeals to the body as a whole’; rather than focusing on touch as something that occurs at a particular point on the surface of the body, haptic perception allows us take into account the ways in which the cinematic medium immerses us in a bodily experience.12 For Jennifer Barker in The Tactile Eye, this way of thinking

opens up the possibility of cinema as an intimate experience and of our relationship with cinema as a close connection, rather than as a distant experience of observation, which the notion of cinema as a purely visual medium presumes. To say that we are touched by cinema indicates that it has significance for us, that it comes close to us, and that it literally occupies our sphere.13

Barker, like Marks, reads cinema as having a very ‘close’ connection with touch. McMahon, however, critiques this tradition, and proposes a reading of cinema as ‘a medium of simultaneous contact and separation, proximity and distance’.14 Drawing on the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, she argues that cinema offers us ‘a privileged space for understanding touch as a figure of withdrawal, discontinuity and separation rather than under its more traditional guise as a marker of immediacy, continuity and presence’.15 Rather than returning to existing scholarship on the relationship between the technical apparatus of the film and the possibilities of touching, however, this chapter shifts its focus to ask what technology can tell us about the relationship between the human and the humanual. My focus is Derrida’s challenge to the opposition between the human and the machine at the level of the hand. In particular, I examine the manipulations and manoeuvres of the prosthetic limb: what happens to humanualism, I ask, when the hand is severed?

Hands and Humanualism

Let’s start over: we are always coming to hands. They get up to all sorts, in all sorts of ways. In fact, the motif of the hand has been of interest in Western philosophy since Aristotle at least, who argued that ‘the hand is a tool of tools’.16 It is this privileging of the hand as fundamental to sense by Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and others that Derrida takes up in Le Toucher–Jean-Luc Nancy, where he notes that ‘there is a Kantian hand, and there will be a Husserlian hand, and a Heideggerian hand, and so forth, which have traits in common but do not overlap’.17 Where many of the theories come together is in their (p.124) positioning of the hand as the primary organ of touch. Derrida notes, ‘At the top of the organs of touch is the hand, the whole hand, its surface and fingers.’18 The hand thus takes on an elevated role in our relationship with the world. Steven Connor demonstrates this investment in the hand in The Book of Skin:

The hand is not a mere part of the body; rather it represents the body as such, like a homunculus, for it is the body’s capacity to reach beyond itself, as well as transformingly towards itself. The hand is the body’s possibility.19

Moreover, for Aristotle in On the Parts of Animals, man’s possession of the hand is bound up with his intelligence. He argues:

It is not because they have hands that human beings are most intelligent, but because they are the most intelligent of animals that they have hands. For the most intelligent animal would use the greatest number of instruments well, and the hand would seem to be not one instrument, but many; indeed it is, as it were, an instrument for instruments.20

The hand, Aristotle argues, is what makes us human. Such a belief, Derrida points out, leads to the assumption that ‘human beings touch more and touch better. The hand is properly human; touching is properly human: it is the same proposition.’21 The history of the hand, then, is bound up with what Derrida refers to as the ‘hominizing process’.22

But what is the nature of this relationship between the hand and the human? In phenomenological terms, Derrida argues, it seems to boil down to the hand’s ability to simultaneously touch and be touched, the hand’s role in the body’s relation to itself. The hand enables what he describes as the ‘pure, psychic auto-affection of the touching-touched’.23 ‘But why only the hand and finger?’ he asks. ‘Why not my foot and toes? Can they not touch another part of my body and touch one another? What about the lips, especially?’24 Thus, while ‘the hand’s privilege can be explained’ on account of its self-reflexivity, the ability of other parts of the body to touch one another leads Derrida to argue that this ‘phenomenological nobility’ is ‘not necessarily justified’.25 Re-reading the role of the hand in the hominising process, he overturns the assumption that the hand is exclusive to the ‘humanual’.

In fact, addressing Husserl’s Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution, Derrida points out that ‘where the sense of touch is in question (let us come back to it), it is practically man only that comes into question, and especially the fingers of the human hand’.26 ‘The “animal”’, he notes,

(p.125) never seriously comes up, though it is a living being–not even the body proper of animals whose members or organs resemble hands, and even with fingers! And what about opportunities for so many handless animals to touch and be touched in countless ways!27

This is a point he also makes in ‘Heidegger’s Hand (Geschlecht II)’, where he refers to the ‘irreducible bond’ between the hand and ‘the question of humanity’: ‘For here the question is nothing less, I venture to say, than the problem of man, of man’s humanity, and of humanism.’28 He points to Heidegger’s argument in What is Called Thinking? that humans are different to animals because they have hands:

Apes, too, have organs that can grasp, but they do not have hands. The hand is infinitely different from all grasping organs–paws, claws, or fangs–different by an abyss of essence. Only a being who can speak, that is, think, can have hands and can be handy in achieving works of handicraft.29

Heidegger’s statement here suggests that in being deprived of a hand, animals are also unable to think or speak. The difference between man and animal, for Heidegger, is that the hand enables the human to signify:

The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes–and not just things: the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hands of the other. The hand holds. The hand carries. The hand designs and signs, presumably because man is a sign.30

The signifying hand, then, is the proper characteristic of man.

Notwithstanding the question of whether or not apes can be considered to have hands, Derrida shows that man’s ability to ‘demonstrate’ is not quite as ‘natural’ as it might seem. In ‘Heidegger’s Hand (Geschlecht II)’, he turns to Hölderlin’s poem ‘Mnemosyne’, discussed by Heidegger in What is Called Thinking?, and cites ‘the famous stanza’:

We are a monster void of sense

We are outside sorrow

And have nearly lost

Our tongue in foreign lands31

In particular, Derrida examines the translation of ‘zeichen’, from the line ‘Ein Zeichen sind wir’, as ‘monstre’ rather than as ‘sign’. Drawing out the monster that links the signifying hand with the act of demonstration, he writes, ‘I would first like to stress the “we … monster”’:

(p.126) We are a monster, in the singular, a sign that shows and warns, but all the more singular since, showing, signifying, designating, this sign is void of sense (deutungslos). It calls itself void of sense, simply and doubly monster, this ‘we’: we are a sign–showing, informing, warning, a pointing as sign toward, but in truth toward nothing, a remote sign [à l’écart], at a distance from the sign [en écart par rapport au signe], a display [montre] that deviates from the display or monstration, a monster that shows [montre] nothing.32

‘What is un monstre, a monster?’ Derrida asks.33 Drawing out the monster that links the signifying hand with the act of demonstration, and playing on the ‘monstrosity of monstration’, he observes that ‘to demonstrate’ also means to ‘monstrate’, and perhaps also to be ‘monstrous’. Thus, for Derrida, ‘the hand is a monstrosity [monstrosité], the proper characteristic of man as the being of monstration. This distinguishes him from every other Geschlecht, and above all from the ape.’34 Man’s hand, then, is always on the verge of becoming monstrous or ‘unnatural’, perhaps even ‘inhuman’, a proposition that I’ll return to with respect to the monstrosity of Rotwang’s artificial hand in Metropolis.

In short, Heidegger’s division of the human and the non-human is, for Derrida, ‘dogmatic’.35 Reducing and homogenising all animals to that which is other than human, he points out, ‘takes no account of a certain “zoological knowledge” that grows, becomes differentiated and more refined regarding what is brought together under this so general and confused word “animality”’.36 Conceptualising the human in opposition to the animal is to ignore difference–not least between the different species of animal. And by accepting this opposition as natural, we turn a blind eye to the fact that the human, too, is an animal. For Derrida, an anthropocentric privilege erases difference and leads us to ‘neglect what is not “human flesh”, outside of the human world, and sometimes even in the human world, technical prosthesis, animals etc.’.37 The ‘anthropotheological thinking of flesh’, he writes,

does not leave any spare room for a questioning of technics […] nor of the animal, or rather animals, nor of the hominization process that produces what is termed the hand in ‘everyday’ language, nor of the possibility of prosthetics onto which spacing in general opens, and so forth.38

Challenging Heidegger’s argument that the signifying hand is the characteristic of man, Derrida shakes up the humanualism that links the human and the hand. But rather than further interrogate the hand in relation to the animal, this chapter now turns to other non-human possibilities, taking up Derrida’s refusal to ignore the ‘technical supplement’ or the ‘prosthetic possibilities’ of touch.39 It does so through a (p.127) consideration of the prosthetic hand in Metropolis–a hand that works to complicate the division between the human and the machine.

Differential Relations

Although we tend to separate the human and the animal, the living and the dead, and the natural and the artificial, Derrida asks that we open ourselves to the way that the biological and the technical are always co-implicated in the other. Technology is not something separate from, outside or after the human. In fact, as Christopher Johnson points out, technology always ‘exceed[s] the “human” in the narrow sense of the term, to include the animal, the animate, or, to anticipate, the articulated’.40 For Johnson, the question is not so much ‘what is technology’, but a question of ‘where we decide to establish the boundary, the margin, the line of demarcation between what is and is not technology’.41 This line of demarcation has been taken up by a number of theorists. Considering the opposition between the human and the technological, Timothy Clark, for instance, notes:

Neither term acts as the anchor in relation to which the other can be understood. Thus technology cannot be understood as a tool of the human on the one hand; nor can the human be understood as an effect of technics […] The identity of humanity is a differential relation between the human and technics, supplements and prostheses.42

He adds here that ‘the seeming illogic of this sentence, defining the human partly by relation to itself, works precisely to dislodge the concept of the human from any identity whose “origin” is not always split, supplementary’.43 The human and technics, then, refuse to occupy distinct and divided categories; instead, they exist in a relation of différance.

The differential relation between human and technology is perhaps most clearly played out in Metropolis through the figure of the Machine-Man. This is the inventor Rotwang’s memorial to Hel, Joh Frederson’s late wife and his own lost love. Unveiling the Machine-Man to Joh, Rotwang cries, ‘24 more hours of work–and no man, Joh Fredersen, will be able to differentiate the Machine-Man from a mortal–!’ In creating the ‘Machine-Man’, Rotwang clearly attempts to create an object that both imitates and supplants the human. Seeing the Machine-Man, and desperate to quash the dissent that is brewing among his workers, Joh later directs Rotwang to give the robot the likeness of Maria, the object of his son’s affection and who he perceives as having a central role (p.128) in the workers’ demonstrations. Rotwang, for his own jealous reasons, agrees, delivering the ‘false Maria’ to Joh with a hand-written note:

She is the most perfect and most obedient tool that a man has ever possessed! Tonight you shall see how she holds up before the eyes of the upper hundred. You shall see her dance, and if only one single person recognizes the machine in her, I will call myself a bungler who never succeeded at anything! C. Rotwang.

Rotwang’s Machine-Man, accordingly, is held up as human. The Machine-Man plays out the relation between the machine and the human, signified by the hyphen that yokes together these terms in its own name. At the same time, however, the co-existence of the ‘real’ and the ‘false’ Maria–played of course by the same actress, Brigitte Helm–arouses in us a suspicion that perhaps the human and the machine can never be quite so easily distinguished.

In his discussion of the robot in Prosthesis, David Wills refers to a transferential relation between the human and the machine. The robot, he remarks, ‘is not only a replacement for but a refinement of the human, a type of superhuman’.44 The robot’s task in Metropolis is to emulate the human. However, all robots, explains Wills, must repeat their task ‘endlessly, effortlessly, without error’.45 Performing ‘beyond human capability’, then, there is always the risk that the machine might ‘surpass the original in its functioning, simply do the job better; or rather do all sorts of other jobs the original could not conceive of’, resulting in a suspicion ‘that the robot might also surpass the human in the area of the nonmechanical, that is, in thinking’.46 This leads Wills to conclude that ‘in terms of thinking, of intelligence, the distinctions between the human and non-human or extra-human, the natural and the artificial, simply enfold’.47 Transgressing borderlines, the robot forces us to question our sense of ourselves, and perhaps this is what makes viewing the false Maria’s mechanical and monstrous movements so discomforting.

Playing on our suspicions, the Machine-Man in Metropolis thus works precisely to force the question of the human. In many ways, the film offers a precursor to what later became known as the Turing Test. This well-known ‘imitation game’ was designed by Alan Turing in the 1950s to answer the question ‘can machines think?’48 The first stage of the game involved three people: ‘a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman.’49 Turing goes on to ask, ‘“What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide (p.129) wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?’50 Lang’s Machine-Man participates in a similar game, but crucially the interrogators are able to both see and touch the false Maria as she attempts to persuade the workers that she is wholly human. Although Freder grasps the truth, crying ‘You are not Maria–!!!’, the test does not fail entirely, for it is only at the arrival of the ‘real’ Maria that suspicions are confirmed to the workers. The fact that Maria has to be, as Thomas Elsaesser puts it, ‘split in two, in order to fulfil all the symbolic tasks required,’ plays out Derrida’s insistence on the ‘“technical” intrusion of the other’.51 Moreover, Turing himself points out that the results of the game ‘will not be quite definite until we have specified what we mean by the word “machine”’.52 Like the animal, the machine refuses to be reduced and homogenised, and the division between the human and the non-human begins to falter. Indeed, Clark insists that ‘One thing even a partially successful Turing test must underline is that the essence of the human can never be, has never been, separable from a certain technicity.’53 This follows Derrida’s assertion in ‘The Rhetoric of Drugs’:

There is no natural originary body: technology has not simply added itself, from the outside or after the fact, as a foreign body. Or at least this foreign or dangerous supplement is ‘originarily’ at work and in place in the supposedly ideal interiority of the ‘body and soul’. It is indeed at the heart of the heart.54

Thus, while the destruction of the false Maria is so often taken as a reinforcement of the opposition between the human and the machine in Metropolis, a careful reading of the Machine-Man exposes the coimplication of the technological and the human. The technological supplement is already at the heart of the heart.

Prosthetic Possibilities

The Machine-Man plays out the differential relations between human and non-human in overt terms. But let us return to the hand: if the human and the machine are co-implicated, what bearing does this have on how we understand the hand? In his essay, ‘Heidegger’s Hand’, Derrida insists, ‘One cannot talk about the hand without talking about technology.’55 And in On Touching he argues that the ‘“question of the hand,” which is also a history of the hand, as we know, remains–should remain–impossible to dissociate from the history of technics and its interpretation’.56 Derrida’s thinking of the hand, then, is bound up with his thinking of technics. Similarly, the hand has a central role in Lang’s (p.130) representation of human and non-human relations. It is significant that when Rotwang introduces the Machine-Man to Joh Frederson in Metropolis, the first thing that moves is the hand. Moreover, Rotwang’s own prosthetic hand plays out Derrida’s ‘“technical” intrusion of the other’. And it is to this prosthesis that we now turn.

In his account of ‘Structures of Narrativity’ in Metropolis, Alan Williams argues that ‘the opposition between the mechanical and the human is present also in the nature of the film’s protagonists’:

Of the three principal traitors in Metropolis, only John Frederson [sic], who will be transformed into a hero at the film’s end, is wholly human. The robot is, obviously, a machine, but Rotwang is also in part, having lost his right hand and replaced it with a mechanical one during the robot’s construction.57

He continues, ‘Thus the inventor is an embodiment of this central tension: he is half human and half machine, on the metonymic level of the hands.’58 In fact, from the start, Rotwang is handed to the viewer by way of his prosthesis. In the first scene in which he appears, his false hand reaches out towards the edge of the frame, the stilted drumming fingers drawing attention to his (in)ability to manipulate the digit (see Figure 7.3). We can’t get away from this prosthesis, which extends towards the viewer. Shortly afterwards, Frederson arrives and pulls back the curtains to reveal the Machine-Man, during the creation of which Rotwang lost this hand. The Machine-Man, then, not only works to represent the deceased Hel, but is, according to Thomas Elsaesser, ‘a phallic representation of Rotwang’s missing hand’.59 The sequence unfolds through a series of handy interactions. Rotwang points, places his hand on his heart, then raises it in front of Joh’s face. But it is the false hand that Joh reaches for, which Rotwang withdraws and waves monstrously in the air, exclaiming, ‘Do you think the loss of a hand is too high a price for recreating Hel–?’! and ‘Now, Joh Fredersen–?! Isn’t it worth losing a hand to have created the man of the future–the Machine-Man–?!’ (see Figure 7.4). In withdrawing from Joh’s touch, turning away and holding up his hand as if it belongs to the other, Rotwang demonstrates a strange and monstrous relation to his own limb. Here, he performs David Wills’ notion that the prosthesis is ‘necessarily a transfer into otherness’; it is, he proposes, ‘the figure for differential, and differantial, relations in general’.60

In Prosthesis, Wills shows us that the usual divisions no longer hold firm. The prosthetic supplement, he argues, draws attention to the ‘sense and function of articulations between matters of two putatively distinct orders: father/son, flesh/steel, theory/fiction, translation/quotation, literal/figurative, familiar/academic, rhetoric/medicine, (p.131)

Digital Technologies and Prosthetic Possibilities

Figure 7.3 A scene from Metropolis, dir. Lang (1927/2010)

Digital Technologies and Prosthetic Possibilities

Figure 7.4 A scene from Metropolis, dir. Lang (1927/2010)

(p.132) rhetoric/cybernetics, French/English, nature/artifice, public/private, straight/limping, and so on’.61 The prosthesis, he argues, confuses these oppositions. It participates in a dual economy, both conforming to and moving beyond the human; it marks a search, he says, ‘for a way between emulating the human and superseding the human’.62 Rotwang’s monstrous delight in his own artificial limb–the way he holds it up as if in triumph–plays into this confusion. On the one hand, the prosthesis is shaped and sized to fit the hand with the appropriate number of digits, thus making some attempt to replicate the severed ‘human’ hand. On the other hand, however, clad in black rubber or plastic, this false hand also draws attention to its own artificiality. It therefore exists in striking contrast to his other, ‘natural’ limb. Moreover, when Rotwang points to his own hand and moves his fingers, his awkward and uncanny manipulation of digits places it firmly in the ‘domain of robotic operations’.63 The prosthesis in Metropolis, then, moves in two directions at the same time–towards the human and towards the non-human. It conforms to Wills’ argument that its ‘relation to the other becomes precisely and necessarily a relation to otherness, the otherness, for example, of artificiality attached to or found within the natural’.64 Collapsing what Heidegger understands as the intimate relation between the hand and the human, Rotwang’s prosthesis clearly signals the blurring of borders. This leads us to conclude that the non-human is always at home within the human, and the artificial is always inscribed within the natural. Moreover, the technical supplement always exists from the start. It is, as Wills writes of his father’s artificial leg, ‘there from the very beginning’.65

Such handy differential relations are further extended in Lang’s film when Joh and Rotwang shake hands in the catacombs. It is, we note after Williams, ‘his right, mechanical hand’, a shaking that sparks the workers’ revolution and ultimately sets Rotwang’s downfall in motion.66 This is in fact the first of two handshakes that frame Metropolis. At the film’s conclusion, Williams notes, ‘[Frederson’s] transformation to hero will be signaled […] by his shaking for the first time a fully human hand’.67 For Williams, the film’s narrative finds its resolution in the move from shaking the non-human to the human hand. But Williams neither acknowledges the co-implication between the human and the non-human, nor the complication of a handshake. As Geoffrey Bennington points out:

A handshake is of course not a simple thing, either historically or phenomenologically. Somewhere between the ‘blow’ and the ‘caress’ that will occupy Derrida later in Le Toucher, supposedly a gesture of trust and confidence, whereby I extend my empty right hand (usually the right hand) toward the (p.133) other’s empty right hand, originally it would appear as proof that it is not holding a weapon, but which I then still use, in the very clasp and shake […]68

‘Not a simple thing, then, a handshake’, Bennington confirms.69 Following Derrida’s ‘tangent’ on Merleau-Ponty in On Touching, Bennington asks:

So do I experience the other (in the handshake) the same way I experience myself (when I touch my right hand with my left), or do I experience myself (when I touch my right hand with my left) the way I experience the other (in the handshake)?70

Pointing out that these two options are not in fact symmetrical, Bennington notes that Derrida reasserts Husserl’s insistence on the ‘radical apartness of the other […] constantly making the handshake the mark of separation as much as and in fact more than that of joining’.71 In a sense, the handshake extends touch in the direction of spacing; it opens up the gash or béance ‘at the very point’ of con-tact.72 And what happens to this spacing when the hand appears to be ‘doubly other’, as in the case of Rotwang’s prosthesis? If, as Derrida argues, the ‘supplementarity of technical prosthetics originarily spaces out, defers, or expropriates all originary properness’, then the contractual handshake between Joh and Rotwang plays out the remoteness of touch.73 Rather than sealing the deal, this handshake unseals not only their contract, but also the very possibility of contact.

Digital Retouching

I want to turn now, albeit briefly, to other unseen digits at work in the film. Three months after the premiere of Metropolis in Berlin, the film was ‘cut’ for the American market, and a second shorter German version was subsequently made. The ‘original’, writes Martin Koerber, was lost.74 Within a year, the film had become what Elsaesser describes as ‘a strange torso or changeling of a film, mutilated or merely mutated, depending on one’s vantage point’.75 The lost footage, I suggest, extending the metaphor, duplicates Rotwang’s severed limb. In 2008, however, a reportedly ‘untouched’ version was discovered in a museum in Buenos Aires by Paula Félix-Didier, who saw it as her duty ‘“to get the film into the right hands”’.76 Two years later, the restored and ‘digitally retouched’ version was released.77 The film’s lost limb was duly supplemented with the discovered footage and, like Rotwang’s mechanical hand or Derrida’s ellipsis, it was grafted on to the body as prosthesis. The film lives on. Significantly, however, the discovered reel (p.134) was a scratched 16mm dupe negative, and thus, writes Koerber, the resulting restoration ‘was missing image information on the left and top of the frame’.78 In these restored frames, we see a double severing. In Figure 7.4, not only is the tip of Rotwang’s hand cut off, but our eye is also drawn to Joh’s disembodied limb. Despite–or because of–digital ‘retouching’, the hand is ‘cut off’ on every level. So while Metropolis reminds us of the part the digit or finger has to play in the history of a film that works precisely to draw attention to the prosthetic possibilities of touch, it is clear from these severed scenes that digital retouching can only touch so much.

But what is ‘retouching’? And, to return to our earlier question, when is it tampering?79 Here, we might once again hear the echo of Derrida’s ‘final retouch’ of Nancy in On Touching–Jean-Luc Nancy, a section that is almost exactly repeated later in the book–but for one little re-touch: ‘Now, Jean-Luc, that’s quite enough, stop touching and tampering with this word, it’s prohibited, you hear.’80 To ‘retouch’ is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘to improve or repair the appearance of (a painting, composition, photographic negative or print, etc.) by small alterations or fresh touches; to touch up’. What, then, is the nature and destination of digital retouching? Once, artists would have restored damaged film ‘by hand’. And when I say ‘by hand’, I refer to our old assumption that although airbrushing was the most common technique, there was direct contact between the hand and film. With the advance of computer technology, it would seem that this contact is withdrawn and replaced by virtual touch or tele-tact.

In The Senses of Touch, Paterson cites a number of other examples of virtual touch, for instance ‘cybergloves’, the ‘virtual handshake’ and the TouchLabs in both the US and the UK where participants can move objects over the internet.81 Experimenting with evermore sophisticated haptic interfaces, the development of these technologies seems to suggest that touch is becoming increasingly disembodied. But what are the implications of virtual touch for an understanding of contact that is always mediated? Aden Evens remarks that ‘even the touchscreen, increasingly common not only in advanced tabletop computing but mostly in handheld devices, enriches digital touch only ambiguously’.82 There is an assumption, as Laura Marks remarks, that digital media are ‘fundamentally immaterial’, and that ‘to enter cyberspace or to use VR [Virtual Reality] is to enter a realm of pure ideas and leave the “meat” of the material body behind’.83 For Marks, however, digital and virtual media do not result in disembodied practices. ‘Though they seem to subsist entirely in a symbolic and immaterial realm’, she writes, these technologies ‘can remind us powerfully that they and we are mutually (p.135) enfolded in material processes.’84 Digital reality, then, has not ‘given up its body’; it is as embodied and tactile as any other ‘reality’. She uses quantum physics to prove that far from being ‘an agent of dematerialization’, the electron is a ‘physical entity’.85 Moreover, electronic technologies ‘occupy not a “virtual” space but a physical, global socioeconomic space’.86 Tele-tact, this might suggest, offers at least as much contact as physical touch. Perhaps what virtual touch really does is highlight the fact that contact is always a mediated experience.

Derrida addresses the implications of digital touching in On Touching. At the ‘Untimely Postscript, for Want of a Final Retouch’, he asks, ‘How is one to believe that touch cannot be virtualized? And how can one fail to see that there is something like an “origin of technics” there?’87 He goes on to note that ‘in California, a haptical museum does exist’ (although he adds, in parenthesis, that ‘it’s not proof of anything, just a sign’).88 There is a website, he explains, where visitors can experience ‘“remote touching”’.89 But although he seems to open up a thinking of tele-tact, Derrida’s use of the word ‘remote’ in relation to contact recurs elsewhere. In Paper Machine, he points out that typing on a keyboard means that ‘the written thing becomes both closer and more distant. In this there is another distancing or remoteness, re-mote here meaning a distancing of the removed, but also a distancing that abolishes the remote.’90 ‘Re-mote’ touch, then, at once distances and removes distance in contact. Thus, rather than moving into untouched territories, remote touching in fact performs the ‘ageless intrusion of technics’, as Derrida puts it, the prosthetic possibilities that have always been at ‘the heart of all the debates regarding the “body proper” or the “flesh”’.91 Whichever way you look at it, then, both material and digital touching can be considered at the same time embodied practices and invested with distance. The development of new technologies doesn’t necessarily change touch; rather, it alerts us to the ways that touch is always haunted by technicity, by time and by tact.

Thinking through the role of the hand in the ‘hominizing process’, this chapter has interrogated Derrida’s refusal to neglect the non-human by considering prosthetic hands in Metropolis. Exploring the way that Rotwang embodies both the biological and the machine at the level of the hand, we have considered the co-implication of the human and the non-human and suggested that there is no natural, originary body; rather, the technical supplement is there from the beginning. The handshake between Joh and Rotwang, then, is a complicated matter, not simply undoing the difference between the artificial and the natural, but shaking up the hand and our understanding of what it is (p.136) to be human. With its backwards glance, this chapter has thus moved some way towards what Martin McQuillan calls ‘the technology of the senses to come’.92 But for Mark Paterson, these senses to come open up a spectral dimension to tact. Paterson notes, for instance, that SensAble Corporation’s force-feedback device–a device that creates ‘credible illusion of tangible object in virtual space’–is named PHANToM (Personal Haptic iNTerface Mechanism). Describing his experience with a range of other devices–for instance the virtual interface developed at MIT TouchLabs in Boston–he explains that all the sensations generated by these technologies ‘are reproduced through software algorithms in the applications program interface (API), appropriately enough called “Ghost”’.93 Describing the ‘virtual possibilities’ of touch as ‘ghostly’, Paterson highlights tact’s haunted quality.94 Overturning touch’s association with a metaphysics of presence and immediacy, developments in virtual technologies do not simply demonstrate the ways that touch is mediated; rather, they expose the ways that it is always subject to a certain haunting. In the final chapter, I return to the interval that haunts touch, examining ghostly contact, the phantom limb and other spectral manipulations.



(3.) Figures 7.1 and 7.4 use the lost footage rediscovered in 2008 and restored in 2010, and are thus of poorer quality. See below.

(5.) In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Gilles Deleuze explains that ‘“Haptic,” from the Greek verb aptó (to touch), does not designate an extrinsic relation of the eye to the sense of touch, but a “possibility of seeing [regard]” a type of vision distinct from the optical’. He uses the term ‘haptic’ to refer to moments when ‘sight discovers in itself a specific function of touch that is uniquely its own, distinct from its optical function’ (Deleuze, Francis Bacon, pp. 189 n.2, 155).

(31.) Hölderlin, ‘Mnemosyne’, cited in Derrida, ‘Heidegger’s Hand’, p. 33.

(73.) Derrida, On Touching, p. 223. Works by Stephen Barker, Geoffrey Bennington, Martin McQuillan, and J. Hillis Miller, among others, bring invaluable insights to Derrida’s discussion of the hand, and in particular to his deconstruction of the ‘Hand-of-God’ in On Touching. Bennington, for instance, questions the hand Derrida extends to Nancy at the conclusion of On Touching, asking what kind of handshake is this–‘what kind of address, salutation, salute and welcome?’–while McQuillan considers not only Derrida’s discussion of tele-haptology in his ‘Salve: Untimely Postscript, for Want of a Final Retouch’, but also Nancy’s reciprocal retouch in Noli Me Tangere: On the Raising of the Body. In so doing, these critics address a number of important areas into which this chapter does not extend itself. Bennington, ‘Handshake’, p. 167; McQuillan, ‘Toucher II’; see also Barker, ‘Threshold (pro-)positions’ and Miller, For Derrida.

(79.) See also Chapter 4.

(80.) In a passage described by J. Hillis Miller as a ‘wonderfully ironic, intimate, friendly, but nonetheless devastating paragraph of apostrophic prosopopoeia’, Derrida writes: ‘“Now, Jean-Luc, that’s quite enough, stop touching and tampering with this word, it’s prohibited, you hear. You have to abstain from this ‘touching,’ and once and for all stop using this incredible vocabulary, this concept nothing can really vouch for, these figures without figure and therefore without credit. And besides, if I may remind you of this again, haven’t you yourself said ‘there is no “the” sense of touch’?”’ He repeats this a few pages later, with a slight retouch: ‘“Now, Jean-Luc, that’s quite enough, give this word back, it’s prohibited, you hear. You have to abstain from this ‘touching,’ and once and for all stop using this incredible vocabulary, this concept nothing can really vouch for, these figures without figure and therefore without credit. And besides, if I may remind you of this again, haven’t you yourself said ‘there is no “the” sense of touch’?”’ Miller, ‘Touching Derrida Touching Nancy’, p. 160; Derrida, On Touching, pp. 107, 138–9.