Tekhnema 4 / "The Temporal Object"/ Spring 1998

RE: Mourning

David Wills

How would one describe the object that occurs in the case of a lie, a slip of the tongue, a memory, not to say a forgetting? I don't mean the utterances called a lie or a slip of the tongue, or the recollection called a memory – those we can conceive of as objects in a rather ordinary sense – but instead the event that occurs to produce those utterances. The question might as well be asked in the case of a translation, a commentary, an exegesis. What status can we give to the passage occurring between such texts and those they rely upon; similarly between lie and truthful statement, between slip of the tongue and intended utterance, between memory and incident, that is to say between such objects and the points of departure upon which the conception thereof has come to be based? Can such a movement across a kind of void – for we understand that to be the condition of every utterance finally, after Derrida – achieve the status of an object? Of course, as is suggested most clearly in the case of memory, such an event or passage does not occur one time only. There is the passage from perception, let’s say, into memory (or forgetting), and the reverse passage whereby that memory is recollected back to consciousness. But the same can be said in each case: the lie takes place as a displacement from truth, and as long as it inhabits the structure of the lie, it continues to re-evoke that truth, whether or not the latter be made explicit. Similarly a translation cannot be conceived of as functioning without reference back to the original, and that original is just as surely conceived of in the perspective of a future translation, interpretation, commentary, whatever. Obviously, given this coming and going, something occurs, some thing goes on, and one might expect there to be a name and a status for it. And obviously, given Derrida, there are any number of terms, beginning with "différance," that might be brought to bear to describe such a spacing, that of the supplement, and an abundant literature that seeks to account for its status.

Within this perspective falls a recent project that recasts, or rather attempts to provide a focus for, such "phenomena" in terms of what I call "prosthesis,"1 using (and abusing) that term in order to describe not just the prosthetic objects that are attached to a given body, an artificial limb attached to a father’s thigh, a commentary attached to a textual corpus, and so on, but also the effect of a passage from one state to the other, say for argument’s and simplicity’s sake, from the natural to the artificial state, and back again. The priority and order is above all what is called into question once the emphasis is placed on the passage or the articulation itself. This relation is given its most problematic formulation in terms of a distinction, and a lack of distinction, between on the one hand the prosthesis that is my father’s wooden leg, and on the other hand the prosthesis that I call the text that talks about my father’s wooden leg, and that does so intermittently in the course of an academic discussion of prostheses, and textual artificiality and contrivance in general. Be that as it may, I have no desire to repeat the exercise, perhaps too overblown for its own good, and moreover,

my father died

something occurred in between to attribute to the exercise a particular case of nullity and the void,

my father died

thereby bringing it to a sudden close while at the same time bringing home to me the fact that this had never ever been about anything but mourning, neither that whole project nor this more particular line of questioning concerning what occurs in the spacing between truth and lie, memory lost and recalled, translation and original, and so on. Wherever the relation between one object and another has the structure of loss, wherever there is passage across a type of void, quite clearly mourning occurs; and more specifically, wherever two objects occur, one as some form of repetition or representation of the other, indeed even when one is a supplement to or difference from the other, then there is mourning. To the extent that relations of difference can be defined as prosthetic, then the general structure of those relations will be the structure of mourning. Perhaps the whole history of hierarchization of relations of difference is to be interpreted as a problematic of mourning, the ideology of the prior being about a refusal to mourn. This suggests that every articulation, to the extent that it also signifies a disarticulation, a radical divergence, a type of irrevocability, functions through mourning, operates as a labor of mourning.

My own object, in introducing things in this way, is to prepare the reader for something she cannot be expected to receive as anything but, at best a lapsus, at worst a lie. I'll bury it, shortly, in the midst of an anecdotal recounting, in the guise of an autobiographical fiction, in order to have it pass better for the truth. Not in order to valorize a fictional writing that would be the repository of a more authentic truth, because more spontaneous, closer to its creative source, for by relating a quasi-scientific discourse such as academic criticism or philosophical reflection to autobiography and fiction one seeks rather to undo those oppositions on the basis of which different types of truth value are ascribed to one and the other. When I say "in order to have it pass better for the truth" I mean to emphasize once again the passage between the so-called lie and the so-called truth. The same emphasis applies in the case of any number of other relations that might be expected to arise between the two types of text, between academic treatise and autobiographical recounting. One might, for instance, expect the latter to function as a figurative representation of the former, such as a metaphor, and the whole text with its two types of subtext might be read as a metaphor of prosthesis in general. In fact, if I seek to complicate the relation seemingly irremediably, suspending it, attempting to inhabit it, it is in order to prevent any simple figurative representation from forming, to produce some sort of rhetorical monstrosity, as monstrous as a wooden, or rather steel leg attached to a body of flesh, or as monstrously defiant in the face of physiopsychological categories as a phantom pain felt by an amputee. More mourning, therefore.

A question persists: for having buried a passage between lie and truth, a form of mourning, in the midst of an anecdotal recounting, as I promise to do, will I for all that have incorporated it or introjected it, according to the distinction developed by Abraham and Torok in L’Ecorce et le noyau? Will it continue, encrypted, to inhabit the body or corpus in which it occurs, or rather achieve the type of ingestion that permits an end to mourning? In the absence of the more detailed analysis that the question requires, I might simply suggest that as long as the prosthetic relation is in force, that is to say as long as the passage I described between object and lost object continues to be operative – such a condition of substitution or juxtaposition being the condition of possibility for prosthesis – then there cannot but be encryptment. Even on the most banal level we can see that the object traditionally called a prosthesis – say a wooden leg – is itself hidden away, for the prosthesis is traditionally conceived of in order to conceal, in compensating for, a deficiency. The deficiency that is the artificial leg in comparison with the natural one must therefore represent an encryptment.2

However, in the relation between incorporation and introjection, we see repeated the structure that operates between truth and lie, original and translation, body and prosthesis, and so on, a repetition, representation or difference, a relation I have insisted upon as one of mourning. From this point of view there would be a mise en abîme of mourning within mourning, an encryptment of incomplete mourning in a completed mourning; and by the same token both incorporation and introjection might be said to function within a more general structure of prosthetic adjunction.

In any case my father died, and this has never been about anything else. About mourning my father’s death, obviously; that was an explicit motif in a book that sought to negotiate loss preemptively by means of a treatise on prosthesis that could not but deal with the fact of an amputee father. About mourning the end of that book, in the desire to bring to an end a certain enterprise of critical writing that had been my emphasis or obsession for about ten years but that continues to outlive itself awkwardly in a number of ways,3 not the least of which being the reborn desire which has me adding postscripts such as this one after his death. But above all, about mourning the prosthesis that stood – and fell, as I maintained above as figure or paradigm for all that, the wooden leg that was no longer a part of the body that had carried it for more than fifty years, and which was no longer therefore a prosthesis, no longer existing in its prosthetic relation, in its passage and in its effect of mourning, with respect to that body. Its incorporative effect as if extrajected; thrown into an outside of mourning for an end of mourning.

It happened from one day to the next. One day I spoke to him by chance, by tragic happenstance, as he called across multiple timezones to inform me that a cousin had died in a helicopter crash. Then he walked down to the end of the right-of-way leading from the house to the street to put out the garbage. There being no young sons left to carry the rubbish bin and indulge in a fake race back to the house, the receptacle was wheeled on a small trolley he had put together. He returned to the house feeling strange, sat down in his chair, and insisted on keeping on the cap that my mother wanted to remove to make him more comfortable. My sister called me the next day to recount that he had had a small stroke. She said he had been hospitalized and was feeling agitated and confused. When I asked her "how so confused?" she said "well, he said to Mother that he wanted to go home and began to make as if to put on his clothes. When she asked him how he expected to get home he simply said to her ‘you will carry me.’" She didn’t, she couldn’t, she never could; she went home without him and he died that night.

It is hard to imagine a more telling lapsus on my father’s part. Clearly something had already snapped. Less because in saying "you will carry me" he wanted to say "you will drive me" or something similar, and no longer knew what he was saying, and more because he knew better than any of us what carrying meant, knew, from half a century of wearing an artificial limb, that one carries whatever, from one perspective at least, has no life of its own, that one carries across the void of disjunction and loss, that one mourns what one carries according to the logic I have just described, and that in asking to be carried he was already lost to us. I learned it all like a crash course. I, who could never carry him either, however much I longed to, to cradle him in my arms like in some amniotic-imagined wholeness as free of impediment as the small body he would propel off his knee high into the air or hoist on his shoulders to bear me across the house to his bed where there were no more nightmares and the combined warmth of his and my mother’s bodies to soothe us all back to sleep, I would soon learn that in wanting to carry him all those years ago I was precipitating events toward the very moment when it would came to pass, when I would carry my father with the help of my brothers and sisters no farther than was necessary to bury him.

The wooden leg remains. I never realized that; however unbelievable, disingenuous or fallacious it might sound, in ten years or more and 350 pages of reflecting on it, it never occurred to me. I don’t believe, at any moment throughout an essay that treats of nothing so much as of figures or configurations of restance, that that fact is made explicit. Even though I wrote that he, dreaming of a rapturous reconstituted wholeness after all, never wanted to be buried with it. I swear that it never occurred to me to have to deal with it. I arrived in Auckland three days late: one day is normal, geography determines it; a second day because when this all occurred my passport was on its way to the Czech Republic, or at least the Washingtonian synecdoche of it, in search of a visa in preparation for a voyage in the opposite direction; a third day because a volcano erupted. I was arriving just in time to carry him to his grave. The matter came up after my brothers met us, in the early dawn of transpacific and transhemispheric extenuation, at the airport. I had never thought about what to do with his prosthesis; I had never really thought about what to do with his prosthesis. My mother wanted it out of her sight so it was consigned temporarily to the closet in the bedroom I grew up in. Seeing it again, disembodied, as I often had, I reacted with familiar mild surprise, but it had no special effect on me. Before we knew it, a day after the funeral, when the matter came up again, it had disappeared. My zealous brother-in-law, who, we thought, was just taking it further out of my mother’s sight, to his house, had in fact returned it to the Artificial Limb Center. Already my mother was beginning to have second thoughts; each of us feeling the first stirrings of proprietary rights. The next day my mother called to claim it back and was told it was the property of the state, indeed of the Crown. By this uncanny but perfectly logical metonymy the grand royal prosthesis would reclaim its subject. But in fact there were two artificial legs in question, the original and the replacement. I don’t have the time to sound that abyss of an original and a replacement within the structure of the artificial; suffice it to say it was all that was needed to break the metonymic link with the Crown. The wooden leg, not the first, but the one that he acquired at almost exactly the same time he began producing sons, was replaced in later years by a lighter model, the former having therefore been consigned to the back of a wardrobe for some time already. Because my mother knew the director of the Artificial Limb Center she was able to get him to agree that they could not really use the old one for parts or anything and that he would give it back to her and her heirs. It fell to me to retrieve it.

The town I grew up in has its own Artificial Limb Center now, annexed to the hospital where he died, instead of in the big city eighty miles away where I met my father once before when I had just begun university and we were far apart except for the hour or so I spent with him there while he was deprived of his leg while it was being repaired. So I drove his car across town in the early winter mist to the Artificial Limb Center, located between the Sexual Health Center and the Child Development Center, and I am certain that neither of those branches of the medical industry had their own locales when the Artificial Limb Center was restricted to the big city, but now they are all three together down a hill opposite the hospital, the Child Development Center, the Artificial Limb Center and the Sexual Health Center, there is much to be said about that adjunction of the pediatric, the prosthetic and the erotic, about more than the evolution of health care, it would concern various articulations of the Oedipal – how a child relates to a father defined as lack, how castration operates in terms of artificial replacement as much as in terms of amputation or deprivation, and so on – I parked the car and walked through the glass doors to meet Claude Dobbs whose name I automatically read as Claude Dubois, not only instinctively gallicizing his surname in response to the French first name, but also prosthetizing it, as if it seemed to my unconscious that someone who dealt in wooden legs must have a name to match, in any case Mr. Dobbs came hobbling towards me and I identified myself and he disappeared and returned with my father's old leg, a veritable artisanal product that he remembered well having made it himself, sure enough, there on a small metal plate attached to the back of the thigh was a serial number and a rudimentary signature, two simple indentations of a nail punch that Mr. Dobbs informed me were the marks of his name, we have to presume that there has never been a great risk of counterfeiting in the artisanal production of wooden legs, and in that respect I can only hope that Mr. Dobbs and the state institutions he represents, all the way to the Crown, remain ignorant of the present project, I became aware then for the first time of the marks of a name that my father had borne all those years, the leg suddenly transformed into a work of art, a unicum made to measure, if only to the extent that that signature, like any such, inscribed the terms of an articulation that implicated us as countersignatories in the world at large, reinforcing the fact that the prosthetic body, inasmuch as it lacks integrality within a classical conception of the unitary self, on the other hand functions so much more explicitly as an agencement that connects it with other bodies, in this case my own, and conversely that of Mr. Dobbs, reinforced each time my father came to him to have some work done on it, each time he received it from my father or gave it to him to wear once again. Mr. Dobbs hands me the leg and wishes me well, for he has handed me a leg that I cannot ever wear and must bear beyond all befitting some distance still, and I walk out into the carpark mist with the scent of rosemary and persistent winter flowers, it is both light and a dead weight in my arms, I am carrying him and stumbling as I do, much more so than when I carried his coffin, reeling in the ambit of more legs than I need and none enough to steady me, in this moment of extreme incongruity understanding perhaps for the first time what a prosthesis really is, the implacable imposition of a burdensome work of mourning, carrying what remains of him for a second time within as many days and weeping uncontrollably, carrying this leg that has about my age and sobbing through the days, nights and years of the recurring nostalgia that is my life, carrying this uncanny sculpture of absolute and impossible separation, carrying what else remains of him after the rest has been laid to rest in a freshly dug grave, this solid phantom of cold metal that remains a part of him, I am thereby irrevocably prosthetized once more at this perplexing midpoint of my life, disarticulated, divided between the real memories I have of him, how he bore heroically, stoically, and pathetically, with courage, dignity and humanity, accepting as part of him for over half a century this cold and foreign gift, how he would give us part of his apparatus to carry or otherwise bear for him from time to time, something difficult for a child to take on even if I would never be presumptuous enough to suggest it was anything like his own burden, we would take his crutch or cane, bear it back to the water’s edge when he dived in to swim, I have recounted all that, dealing with it in our own way, I went about trying to give him something as difficult and complicated back, drawn inexorably into the economy of prosthetic exchange I gave him inhospitable ideas, insuperable distance, finally an unreadable book, I wrote it knowing that one day he would return to me the purest and simplest and most intolerable thing imaginable, namely his death, his departure, his absence, and his body to carry, so I carry this part of him divided between the real experience and memory of it and the complete surprise of this no less real and material phantom, surprised by its remaining status, its status as restance, overwhelmingly nonplussed now by its structuring effect upon my life to come, this that it is given me to carry, not in the sense of destiny or convocation or even inheritance although it could be any and all of those, but in the sense of what simply occurs within and in excess of the economy of prosthesis as an overwhelming fact of mourning, with uncertain step and eyes glazed with tears I stumble through the heavy air carrying what he bore, his patience my passion, the chagrin and impulsion of this writing that must now come to a close, the closure that is my father’s death, that hereby bids him farewell, turns a page and confronts what remains, what is carried over, transferred and translated from a child trundling armsful of impedimenta to a middle aged man unable to shake this pall, immobilized with a grief that is his old wooden leg returned to me to stake out what remains of my own body and life stretching into an imprecise distance but always always within reach of this haunting.

The wooden leg, as prosthetic object, is to be conceived of within this perspective as an object of mourning. Not just an object representative of my departed father, what remains like anything else – memory, photograph, writing – as a sign of his absence and as a measure of progress within the work of mourning, but mourning itself having attributed to it the status of object. The "disincarnated" leg, no more worn by my dead father but carried maladroitly by his messenger son, performs rather than signifies nothing so much as disarticulation itself, the passage into disjunction, that of mourning. Mourning is the structure of that passage or that articulation, negotiating loss and separation within an impossible and necessary relation of adjunction and belonging, never more explicitly represented than in the case of prosthesis.

To put it another way, mourning can hardly be conceived of without the body, and prosthesis is the inscription of disjunction upon the body, its incorporation, if we follow the reasoning of psychoanalysis we understand the developmental process to be the negotiation of a series of disjunction’s experienced with respect to the body – the mother’s breast, the turd, the phallus, the reflected wholeness, language – that are the basis for the psyche’s conception of the object, conceived of therefore through the work of mourning. In the case of prosthesis the body is attached, permanently or structurally, to an object as it were in the process of being lost, required to articulate that loss, to bear it as a fact of everyday existence and a constituent of the body itself. But what prosthesis thus gives a particular form to is not something limited to it, for it merely renders explicit the structure, or, should we say, the dynamic that is in play whenever difference cohabits the same corporal space, the becoming-other or becoming-object that passes or comes to pass by means of mourning. Hence the objects functioning as signs of absence that I referred in contradistinction to the "object" that is mourning (memory, photograph, writing), like the psychoanalytic objects (breast, turd, phallus, reflection, language), should in the final analysis also be conceived of prosthetically to the extent that their remaining status inscribes the trace of their relation to that from which they have been separated.

The aim of this insistence on a logic of paradox or contradiction is to posit a form of mourning, to inscribe it with a phenomenological and ontological status that would be akin to that Derrida argues for haunting, particularly in Specters of Marx, a hauntology that would of course deconstruct ontology in its current conception. The comparison is especially pertinent, first of all, because of the importance Derrida gives to mourning in that book, beginning with its subtitle, but more relevant still, because in any number of recent texts, from Specters to Echographies,4 the mourning that accompanies inheriting most consistently describes something like the becoming-technological. In Marx's case one can point to the alienation that transforms all labor into mourning, and in Heidegger’s a type of "ecologist" nostalgia for a thinking that would be pre- or atechnological. Derrida’s recent reflection concentrates more particularly on various disjunctive effects of the technological media, but let us remember that as early as Writing and Difference he identified death as the motor of a machine which functions precisely thanks to its autonomy with respect to a human source. The distancing, or spectral, effects of the technological media, beginning, as Barthes noted, with photography, are thus seen as a function of the rupture that is the condition of possibility of the machine, but which, as we have seen, is similarly the condition of possibility of objectification in general. The name for the structure, as early as Writing and Difference, was of course writing. We all know how, in functioning in the absence of, or after the death of its presumed author, it is the technological itself, and necessarily testamentary.

It was to be expected then, that a few difficult steps out a door and across a carpark with armsful of my father’s prosthesis would not be the end of the matter. He was long in the ground by the time the writing reached me. Three fragmentary documents that forever inscribe prosthesis not just within the structure of mourning but also that of debt. The first – let us be led, to begin with, by what seems to be an incontrovertible chronology – is an invoice by which the Waikato Hospital Board divides a prosthesis between its total cost and the share to be borne by him who bears it. Sufficient to tell the lie on Mr. Dobbs when he maintained that it belonged to the Crown, some eleven guineas or twenty percent of it able to be rightfully claimed by the estate. The receipt, the second document, is there to prove it, full payment of part payment of an artificial limb having been duly remitted two days after the date of the invoice. As I have already suggested, this transaction took place days before the birth of my father’s first son. The last fragment is of course the closest to home and, for me, the most terrifyingly overdetermined. On one side a name, that of my father in bold type under the letterhead and logo of The Gideons International, the organization, to which he belonged, that distributes bibles in schools, hotels, and so on. Once, in Amsterdam, I was tempted to steal a trilingual one but felt his eyes on me. On the other side, inverted, his handwritten words "This to David? The one you describe in Prosthesis." My mother sent me the three documents, stapled together, after she came across them among the personal papers in his desk.

It is clear that there is a whole literature, a whole commentary, a whole theory, a prosthetic lifetime – my brothers’ and my lifetime – of signification crying to be released in these texts. The columns, the dates, the stamps, the signatures, the addresses, the imprints, the typefaces, the handwriting, the designs and accidents. You will appreciate that my resolve for there to be an end to this whole thing meets, hereby, stiff resistance. But I shall restrict comment to two matters. The first concerns the order. There is what I referred to as the incontrovertible chronology, that by which 11th June 1951 precedes 13th June 1951 which in turn precedes a date occurring sometime after the 1995 publication of Prosthesis, and which connects the writing of my name to the anticipation of his death. One day, knowing he will die one day, he decides to bring these documents to my attention. But that order is of course overturned by the existence of the note written by my father, as a result of which two documents that he kept for forty five years, let’s say for his own reference, and that never had anything to do with his third son’s academico-literary pursuits, suddenly find themselves realigned and redestined, the objects of a bequest. Whereas there was once the simple – but never simple – memory of an important event in his own life there is now an implacable machine transforming the two days transpiring between invoice and receipt into the gulf of delayed effects that is my lifetime measured by the forty-five year existence of this artificial leg. It is the one I carried through the carpark. It is the one that still throws me off balance and that will never let me go. It compounds through its multiple representations, articulations, reversals to reach and hold me in its familiar embrace. And the reversibility of its order insures a constant passing back and forth from father to son across the unsoundable abyss that is his death, staking out the diverse relays of a network that is nothing but mourning.

The second thing I will note, to end this, is the question mark. "This to David?" The question mark also occludes the passage to direct address, from the "David" of the question addressed to whom it may concern, to the "you" of the second sentence. Everything that concerns me here hangs on it. I can only suffer if I try to fathom the intention behind his hesitation. Am I deserving of this? Can he trust me with this? Should he burden me with this? Can I cope with this now that it really is detached? Will it reach me? Will I survive his death? Will the inheritance of it be disputed? And so on, interminably. is the diacritical mark itself the "this" that he wants to bequeath me, the digression through punctuation into a question of support, a cane or a crotchet that I describe in Prosthesis?5 Or else the injunction and the invitation to keep asking, reflecting, thinking, to keep trying to stay ahead of an uncanniness that lies in wait around every unforeseen or unexplored corner. The reverberations of such a mark once again set in train a mechanics, if not a machine, of haunting. It becomes the inquisitorial question that is asked with the help of certain instruments, the whole technology of the philosophical enterprise, that begs, cajoles, demands and extracts a response, but never the good one, asking with unremitting persistence what is this thing called mourning, its top and its bottom, its beginning and its end, it is suspension itself that keeps being posed and that keeps me suspended, tossed high in mid-life and in midair, thrown again off his knee as I used to be when the leg and I shared our childhood of attachment to him, a game of propulsion to imitate galloping horses, thrown again off his knee I find myself incessantly suspended with nothing else to do but wait for the falling to begin, all the time I need to contemplate the scope and perspective of it, suspended further than ever from his reach, further than I ever imagined for he is dead and postprosthetic and when I fall there is but thin air where his wooden leg used to be, it is as if in the spirit of some game that was never really thought through I had wrenched this limb from his thigh as I took my leave of him, so here I am carrying it in my arms and even if I shake it loose that will accomplish nothing more than allow me to watch it accompany me in my fall, I can in any case see nothing through the tears, nothing but the headlong, the years marking my precipitous passage and only more falling until death has me reach him and know there is an end and leave this thing behind, I suppose, I think, I hope, I cry, but never before knew so little as now.


1 See David Wills, Prosthesis. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995; Prothèse, Editions Galilée, Vol. I, 1997; Vol. II in press.
2 See also the effects I refer to as "anesthesia," cf. Prosthesis, pp. 148 ff.
3 In an as yet unpublished article I relate some of the question discussed in Prosthesis to "disability theory." Before the publication of Prosthesis I was unaware, as are most of my colleagues, of the existence of a tradition of disability studies that can be compared, mutatis mutandis, with any number of other currents involving identity politics - Black Studies, Gay Studies and Women's Studies.
4 Cf. Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, Echographies. Paris: Galilée-INA, 1996, pp. 148-149.
5 See especially Chapter 9, pp. 286-318.