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  • Prosthetic Gods
  • Hal Foster (bio)

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.

—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)

In the first part of this century much modernist practice and marxist discourse still treated the body and the machine as separate entities, with the first often projected as a natural whole, the second as an autonomous agent. So opposed, the two could only conjoin, ecstatically or torturously, and technology could only be a “magnificent” extension of the body or a “troubled” constriction of it. Even with the new machines of speed and representation of the Second Industrial Revolution (e. g., automobile and airplane, radio and film), technology remained a demonic supplement, an addition to the body that threatened a subtraction from it. After Marshall McLuhan and Mark Seltzer I will call this paradox of technology as extension and/or constriction of the body the double logic of the prosthesis. 1 Here I want to consider its role in the models of art and subjectivity espoused by the most technophilic of high modernists: the Futurist F. T. Marinetti and the Vorticist Wyndham Lewis, two competitors in the wartime avant-garde, two complements in machinic fantasies and protofascist politics alike. 2

Today this double logic of technology is an historic limit that we gaze back upon: the very terms “body” and “machine” seem almost archaic, and they are no longer seen as so discrete. Yet this double logic governed the machinic imaginary of high modernism, underwrote its utopias of the body extended, even [End Page 5] subsumed in new technologies, as well as the dystopias of the body reduced, even dismembered by them. In this way it also circumscribed the modernist politics of the machine: for the most part one could only resist technology in the name of a natural body or accelerate it in the search of a postnatural body on its other side. More complementary than opposite, this restrictive advocacy of resistance or acceleration was as pronounced in modernist practice as it was in marxist discourse of the period, and it marks a structural limitation of both formations. 3

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Figure 1.

“The ‘image of God’ with a gas mask.” From Ernst Friedrich, War Against War! (1924; Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1987).

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Figure 2.

“The war-wounded proletarian at his daily ‘sport.’” From Ernst Friedrich, War Against War! (1924; Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1987).

After the military-industrial mass death of World War I, the first position, resistance in the name of a natural body, became difficult to hold. Even before the war this difficulty could be sensed in a movement like expressionism, which, even as it insisted on a natural body, also registered in its very distortions the impossibility of this ideal, of its immaculate restoration. After the war, affirmations of a natural body were mostly therapeutic or compensatory, and they did not last long (e. g., the ambition of the early Bauhaus to reintegrate body and object in a medievalist recovery of craft). The 1920s were dominated by two tendencies: on the one hand, various returns to the figure, often neoclassical in nature, most of which were reaction-formations against the mutilated bodies of World War I as well as the fragmented figures of high modernism; and, on the other hand, various machinic modernisms, most of which [End Page 6] were also concerned to make over this body-ego image that had been damaged in reality and representation alike (figs. 1 and 2). 4 If the neoclassical reaction proffered the nostalgic balm of an imaginary body that was pellucidly intact, the machinic reaction looked to the very mechanization of the modern body for a new principle of corporal order. At base, however, the first reaction was no more “humanist” than the second: both tended to treat the body as if it were already dead, an uncanny statue in the first instance, an uncanny mechanism in the second—that is, as if...

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