The Prosthetic Imagination of David Lynch

Tom McCarthy on the role of prosthesis in the American director's work
David Lynch directs Laura Dern in 'Inland Empire'

A fascinating article in the New Statesman explores the theme of prothesis in the work of David Lynch. It is an edited version of Tom McCarthy's "The Prosthetic Imagination of David Lynch", a talk given during the recent conference on Lynch's films at Tate Modern:
[...] For Freud, prosthesis is the essence of technology. "With all his tools," he writes in Civilisation and its Discontents, "man improves his own organs, both motor and sensory, or clears away the barriers to their functioning." Ships, aeroplanes, telescopes and cameras, gramophones and telephones - all these afford man the omnipotence and omniscience he attributes to his gods, thus making him "ein Prothesengott", a kind of god with artificial limbs, a prosthetic god. "When he puts on all his aux iliary organs he is truly magnificent," Freud writes, "but those organs have not grown onto him and they still give him much trouble at times." Man's technological appendages both enhance and diminish him. It's what Hal Foster, in his book Prosthetic Gods, calls "the double logic of the prosthesis": an addition that threatens, or marks, a subtraction.

This double logic is writ large in Lynch's films. That the father of Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), the central character in Blue Velvet (1986), is strapped up, astronaut-like, to apparatuses of the highest order is due not to some heroic cosmic voyaging, but rather to having been struck down by a heart attack, immobilised, made pathetic; meeting Jeffrey's gaze with his, all he can do is cry. As Jeffrey returns from visiting him in hospital, this same logic is expanded to provide the film's inciting incident - his discovery, in an open field, of a severed ear heralds the onset of a world of amplified, recorded and transmitted sound, where Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) sings into trademark Lynchean microphones, Frank (Dennis Hopper) and his entourage mime to tape cassettes and crackling walkie-talkies hold the key to life and death. This world is both exhilarating and threatening. And it has been present in Lynch's oeuvre since the opening seconds of Eraserhead (1977), where, to the sound of loudspeaker static and industrial noise, we see a sweaty, tar-coated figure "operating" the abject hero, Henry (Jack Nance), by cranking a lever in a signal box.

There is another way to think about prosthesis - as a form of puppetry. In his 1810 story-cum-essay "On the Marionette Theatre", the German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist recounts a meeting, at a fairground, with a choreographer who, watching marionettes being manipulated, marvelled at the way in which dance "could be entirely transferred to the realm of mechanical forces" and "controlled by a crank". "Have you heard," the choreographer asks the narrator, "of the artificial legs designed by English craftsmen for those unfortunates who have lost their limbs?" The implication is clear: prosthetic-clad man is like a puppet - which invites the question: who's the puppeteer?

This question is a central one for Lynch. His films abound in instances of control, in scenes in which control itself is dramatised. "I can make him do anything I please!" Frank boasts after he has captured Jeffrey. His other captive, Dorothy, he manipulates night after night, telling her: "Sit down!"; "Open your legs!"; "Don't look at me!" Dorothy then does the same to Jeffrey, holding a knife to his throat and hissing at him "Undress!" or, later, "Hit me!" - both of which he does.

In The Elephant Man (1980) - which, like Kleist's text, opens in a 19th-century fairground where puppets are displayed - John Merrick (John Hurt) is alternately bullied into standing up and turning round to order for the paying public, and more kindly but no less decisively prompted to perform the same manoeuvres by his doctor, who then teaches him to speak and tells him what to say.

Telling people what to say or how to move their body is part and parcel of making films, but there's a metaphysical dimension to it, too. For Kleist, puppetry lays bare a complex process through which man, robbed of the pure, naive grace of a puppet by self-consciousness, might regain it by advancing so far into knowledge that he re-emerges on the other side to "appear most pure in that human form which either has no consciousness at all or possesses infinite consciousness - that is, either in a marionette or in a god" - an event, the choreographer informs the narrator, that would constitute "the last chapter in the history of the world". [Read More]

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