This paper argues that the depiction of organ transplant in The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene, 1924) recalls both the Derridean notion of hauntology and the centrality of the hand in phenomenology. In Derrida’s philosophy, hauntology indicates that the presumptive self-sameness of any given presence is always already contaminated by the spectral traces of its others; thus, pureness/completeness cannot be achieved. Nevertheless, Derrida emphasizes that this inevitable contamination paradoxically stimulates an insatiable desire to arrive at a state of pureness/completeness. The same desire can be found in the phenomenological accounts of the hand as primary corporeal extension potentially enabling an unmediated contact with the world. The aim behind this phenomenological postulate is to reach the things themselves, and, for Derrida, it is this aim that is doomed to failure.

The Hands of Orlac pictures a collective nightmare, still prominent today, regarding organ transplant in which the acquired organ acts independently of the recipient’s will. After receiving a murderer’s hands, the film’s pianist protagonist begins to believe that the hands remain spectrally tied to the murderer’s proneness to kill, thereby continuing committing crimes unbeknownst to the pianist himself. It later turns out that the hands bear no attachment to the murderer’s body. By raising the question of whether the murderer’s predispositions haunt the pianist’s grasp of the world following the surgery and by jubilantly showing in the end that the hands do not harbor cellular memory, the film plays out the fears concerning contamination and the desire for purity in relation to hand transplant. In doing so, the film not merely resonates with the Derridean notion of hauntology and the phenomenology of embodiment but also creates room for reflecting on the recurring anxieties surrounding organ transplant in light of these two paradigms.                       

About the speaker

Ahmet Yuce is a Ph.D. candidate in the Moving Image Studies program at Georgia State University in the US. His research interests are surgical/medical visual aesthetics, film-philosophy, phenomenology, and poststructuralism. He presented papers at SCMS, LACK, Rendering (the) Visible, Derrida Today, NECS, and Film-Philosophy conferences.

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