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  • Animating Absence:The Motion Capture of the Phantom Limb
  • Nathan Blake (bio)

Before Silas Weir Mitchell coined the term “phantom limb” in 18711 based on his observations of American Civil War veterans, he wrote a fictional case of quadruple amputee George Dedlow who, after discovering that his legs are gone, continues to sense their presence.2 When his remaining arm is removed, he calculates that “half of his sensitive surfaces” have been destroyed and concludes that the loss of any part “must lessen this sense of his own existence.”3 Thus “diminished,” Dedlow finds himself at a séance. After contacting a number of deceased loved ones, the medium raps a pattern on the table: the serial numbers of Dedlow’s legs, which have apparently been cataloged by the U.S. Army Medical Museum. At this point the protagonist recounts:

Suddenly I felt a strange return of my self-consciousness. I was re-individualized, so to speak. A strange wonder filled me, and, to the amazement of every one, I arose, and, staggering a little, walked across the room on limbs invisible to them or me. It was no wonder I staggered, for, as I briefly reflected, my legs had been nine months in the strongest alcohol. At this instant all my new friends crowded around me in astonishment.4

While this reunion is short-lived—the ghostly legs soon fade—and he remains an unhappy “fraction of a man,” he finds some solace [End Page 247] that when he dies he “shall rejoin the lost members of [his] corporeal family.”5

Mitchell believed that such phantoms were psychical replacements of physical parts and that these proxy manifestations revealed how gravely the self could be fractured by amputation.6 Yet this paranormal medium, as a channel of translation between present and past, presence and absence, life and death, stasis and animation, held the possibility of reconstituting the patient into a sensible or at least imagistic whole. As I argue throughout this essay, other forms of media are just as fantastic as Mitchell’s fiction in their perceived ability to animate phantom limbs and imbue their subjects with vitality. Specifically, this essay considers how phantasmagorical media contribute to notions of physical and social reintegration from the Civil War to the present in order to explore the implications of contemporary motion-capture technology used for gait analysis and prosthesis integration for wounded veterans. While there is a growing field of scholarship on the use of motion capture for digital cinema and video games, and there is no shortage of research into its applications from medical science and engineering perspectives, there is currently no scholarship that explores the social and cultural dimensions of the systems developed for individuals recovering from severe injury or limb loss. In addressing this lacuna, I consider (1) the ways in which these recording and animation systems have informed the popular imagination of the technologically enabled body through the trope of the amputee veteran as a heroic overcomer and (2) the ways in which war trauma and recovery, as embodied by limb loss and prostheses, align with such imaging technologies.

To delimit the historical intersections of scientific imaging and the amputee veteran, I look at three wartime eras and their corresponding media: first, the American Civil War, the photographic image, and the mimetic prosthesis (crafted for appearance) through the studies of Silas Weir Mitchell and Oliver Wendell Holmes; second, World War I, the cinematographic motion study, and the mechanical prosthesis (crafted for function) through the long-exposure photograph, or chronocyclegraph, of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth; and finally, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and digital motion-capture analysis and therapy, particularly as it is implemented through the Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN) system. Together, this far-reaching span illustrates the ways in which processes of imaging and animation of the human body are also instrumental in representations of ingenuity and efficiency that ultimately disavow, and in a sense render invisible, the traumas of war embodied by amputee veterans. [End Page 248]

Motion capture,7 now commonly used as a cinematic technique in which gestures and expressions of a subject are mapped onto virtual characters, is integral to ergonomic...


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pp. 247-268
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