Liquid hands in a liquid modernity [symbolism, realism – and then what?] {rather graphic, viewer discretion advised, long, difficult}

Liquid identity and liquid hands

One might assume that the “value” or “importance” of hands os the same. It is not. Watch this. Everything these days is in motion. Things are not as they used to be. On second thought, try reading below ; )


Shifting liquidity

People run around wondering where – in the world, on earth, in time, in identity space – they “are”. In a sense, Paul Gaugin posed the question then that it so relevant today: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? His painting carries that title.


Faces and hands are, appearance wise, at the core of who we “are”.

Missing part of a face or a hand constitutes a complicated problem – there are practical, pragmatic aspects, but then there are representative and communicative aspects as well. And these reach over into the symbolic aspects of who we “are”, what we “represent”. While the widely publicized Deborah Roach [twitter] is a competition winning pole dancer, she is also an arm amputee.


We might not practically require right (or left) hands at any given moment or in any given situations and yet, their absence still may matter in terms of representing what and who we are, and then obviously, symbolically. Conversely, asking people to not believe in symbols may constitute a sacrilege in a broader sense. Overcoming that notion oneself, as a amputee, requires a conscious effort.

If then, the symbolic role of a missing part of an arm does get in the way, maybe secondarily in a practical way – which it does in all things related to communication, in all the domain of symbols – then we seem to have an overlap between pragmatism on one hand and symbolism on the other. Looking different is seen as being different. And being different is seen as a threat. Threats make people feel insecure. And insecurity may lead to aggression – in any form.


Depending on how modern you are, this may be no surprise to you as you see this with widely open eyes – but the world as we knew it when we grew up back in the 70s, that is about to walk out the door since quite a while now [1]. Nowadays, fully blown symbolism, that is all the rage.


Compared to fully blown symbolism, today’s relevance of applied and actual pragmatism shrinks.

Fully blown realism and pragmatism these days – i.e., the “real grunt”, dealing with weights and hammers and hard work, ploughing acres, turning over bodies, carrying furniture – has lost a lot of social value and pride compared to just a few decades ago.

When considering what can be bought as commercial components for prosthetic arms, as arm amputees, we get neither the “real grunt” nor the “fully blown symbolism”, really. They sell us fragile bits for dream prices, and then these parts disintegrate at the snap of a finger.


While the public view and social realities are changing, we (as arm amputees) are not part of it today – just as we were not part of it years ago.

It is a totally different question whether at all we should go down the route of “being arm amputees” in terms of adopting a label [link]  – but that question notwithstanding, it seems that I had come here to write this before you got here to read this, so, there. We can buy stuff to put onto our hosed arms, as arm amputees, in terms of “fixing the damage”- but, what is it? What is that stuff that we can buy? What is its meaning, its significance? Why that and not just a furry sleeve?

So, the apparent necessity of a hand in symbolism, in its symbolic nature, is totally mental. It is only happening between our ears. It only contains imagery and our reactions to it. The real, pragmatic and objective necessity of a hand lies in its role to hold, grasp, physically act, and only there. That is where we will draw the line. Given any situation, one could boil it down to the question “is physical touch involved” – and if the answer is “yes”, that given situation is a realistic or real one; are the answers “no”, then we might be dealing with symbolism. And that is the distinction we are after here.

Current state of the art

Sure, stuff may be “on the way”. Hasn’t the new stuff always been around the corner, “10 years from now”. Now, some things never cease to amaze but really they are stale, old, been that for decades. Old dog, old tricks, watch this, it never ceases to amaze.


You may wish this would not be so totally obvious. That nothing truly new comes along. You may actually sell prosthetic parts you may want to make us believe “solve” the issues.

But, are we that stupid? You seriously think that arm amputees believe anything there? We cannot communicate clearly because we miss a hand or so? Generally?


The current reality is painfully apparent.

We know that any currently available commercially available prosthetic arm constitutes an oversimplification, an illegitimate simplification, a cartoonesque reduction, both practically and symbolically.

Now, just so we see clear here – stuff has been “on the way” since over 100 years now [link]. Even in our times, we have been hearing that same story over and over. Obviously – the mechanisms, the societal hierarchy, the symbolic power structure, quite possibly cannot have changed much if at all.


There is not much realism in engineering new or modern prosthetic arm parts, mostly. Yes sure, Hosmer makes great hooks! Exceptions see below. But we do not generally and by default get prostheses that really bear the full grunt, that hold up too well, when push really comes to shove – and while we can approximate these, why are we not there? And there is no symbolism we can partake in. There are absolutely no viable technical solutions to resolve the lack of our missing hand, symbolically.

My Appearance Test [link] as ultimate test to show just how well the act of at least symbolizing a hand works is failed, within split parts of a second, even by today’s hottest contenders.

But let us look at the technology first.

The prosthetic arms we wear today – the myoelectric arms and the body powered hooks – date back to times when people had other values than today. Maybe not massively different values, but sufficiently different. The social mechanisms that generate the current situation – amputees, insurance, prosthetic technicians, doctors, academic researchers, media – are similar in terms of their communication and power distribution as they were, say, 100 years ago – so to no surprise, the very same dynamics still play out.



Today’s myoelectric arms

Today’s myoelectric arm, including its recent “bionic” hand attempts, therefore dates back to developments of the 30s.

Its market introduction as “Russian Arm” [link] is a thing of the 60s. So really, we still wear Cold War symbolisms of the 60s when we wear an iLimb, a Michelangelo hand, a BeBionic or a Vincent hand; neither socket nor electric schematics are in any ground breaking way different from that. Wearing one certainly does not feel any cooler than using a 3 kg walkie talkie either, and trying to be human that way clearly requires one to be inhumane, so it does bring up hard dilemmata such as the Voight Kampff test [link] – also that dilemma, if I may remind you, is a birth of the late 60s (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which the movie Bladerunner was based was published by Philip K. Dick in 1968).

Old technology, old schematics, old problems, old dilemmata [link].


Today’s body powered arms

Wearing a hook, wearing a body powered arm, certainly is far more comfortable and convenient, far more practical and far more functional, also it may be a lot more healthy than embodying that Cold War electric rubber puppet. And yet, the body powered arm – in terms of its symbolism – (still) expresses the man-machine symbolism of an industrial society of the 20s maybe, when man was to function as clockwork cogwheel on production lines or in agriculture.

If you were to be able to successfully peel taters, manipulate strings, have a blazingly fast [link] prosthetic function, would you accept that you had to forgo a highly symbolic victory (that consists in putting up with a dysfunctional “bionic” anchor)?




Today’s surgery options

Even the approach to having grip function cut into the flesh of our non gripping stumps, having electrodes and suspension metal implanted or bolted into one’s body, at the expense of chronic infection portals or extreme cold sensitivity, at the expense of what many consider an acceptable appearance or smooth body surfaces, in order to leverage some transhumanistic Borg type technology or in order to get a bit of body morphed into submission, is not new.

Krukenberg modified arm stumps by splitting them, so they could be used as grippers.



Osseointegration is a more invasive Cyborg like approach, creating a permanent opening into a body at the end of a stump, to connect the prosthetic arm to it (a lot) later.


Bolting that type of approach into willing subjects has, however, so far and always been reserved to the “maverick” type “doctor” – and before Richard Branemark [link/post to follow later], there were Krukenberg [link], Sauerbruch [link], William Dobelle [link] and Todd Kuiken [link] – all with technical solutions that seemed to combine some weird looking body modification with achieving one little improvement at the expense of some serious disadvantages and possibly discomfort, several surgeries, massive cost and whatnot, with a rather clear symbolism represented by the archetype doctors as well as their willing subjects.

There is also fiction, about maverick doctors bolting up flesh, bringing amalgamated flesh-metal-hulks to life, that illustrates these stereotypes. Surely this may sound entertaining if not almost offensive, but then aren’t those also the people that tell us hook-wearing amputees bad things about hooks [link]?


Today’s media portrayals

Current mainstream type movies are – as always – perpetuating the “evil arm amputee” role throughout directors that seem to be dumber than bags of hammers, and so also on the media stereotype front, the last decades did not bring just about anything new in the chess game of symbolism against realism, in the overall layout of social positions. Typical media approaches to portray amputees is to digitally edit non amputee actors, so in terms of symbolic value versus real value, that is that. Or to just put some clumsy gloves on the James Bond antagonist Doctor No.


So, “tossing dwarves” is being played in a range of variations. One variation there is “getting the amputee to play prosthetic arm theater for us”, without providing proper insurance [link].

Summary: today’s stuff is stale

So, wherever one looks nowadays and in these modern times, regarding prosthetic arms – the air is gray, thick, smelly and stale.

The air, feel, cultural aspect and symbolism is that of a 50s B-movie. There are no new symbolically or really groundbreaking prosthetic arms to discuss there. There are also no real wonder sockets or super grippers to be discussed.

Not that 50s B-movies were totally bad or not entertaining at all, no! They were just cheap and had an oddly familiar feel about them.


One of the really badly made bad movies, one of the worst of all times, is Edward Penishands – a spoof of Edward Scissorhands. The movie is extremely awkward, but it reflects actual issues that I did encounter, as arm amputee, in some situations with non handicapped persons. It exudes an eerily extreme realism adequately described by Cloerkes [link] or Goffman [link] – and current prostetic arms or hands do not impact that.


Outlook: stale, too

Even the promises we are getting, they are stale. Modern day “bionic” hands do not really advance – still, our shoulders and necks hurt; still, our stumps decay over a few hours of wearing them [link]; still, these prosthetic hands do wreck extremely expensive gloves by the minute [link]. And yet, these prosthetic items are representatives of our current Brave New World. As that, they are obviously simulacra [link] – they represent a visual map for the hoped existence of factually non-existent “bionic hands”.

Some new attempted attention-getters are the frequently re-published “success” stories whereas 3D printing is supposed to revolutionize prosthetics (neither 3D printing [link] nor prosthetic devices usually are that simple to come by leave alone actually succeed, so, yeah). Here, it is too early to distinguish cool symbolism, practical advantage and hype, but ultimately, 3D printing “as such” is just a tool, not a solution. So in part, some of these items exist as maps without landscape, as Baudrillard put it. They are not clearly fiction as their claim is different – but reality has too little to do with them. Thing is, that that’s odd. And we want to understand what may come next. And, what may not come next. And also maybe why. We also need to evaluate what to do next, what to buy, what to be careful of, what to stay away from maybe.


Notable exceptions

And then, there are some exceptions but they went, mostly, unnoticed. Let us still mention them here. Groundbreaking new symbolisms for prosthetic arms and groundbreaking actual practical solutions were generated by engineers, designers and artists, but throughout the simulacra oriented media, they went largely unnoticed:

  • by Monestier, using a clockwork artist to prosthetic hands, decades ago [link],
  • by me, introducing massive off-color appearances in 2009 [link],
  • by Becky Pilditch, introducing gestures as a concept in 2009 [link],
  • by Peter Kuschnigg, who redefined the appearance of “bionic” by providing Otto Bock with an award winning external appearance for the Michelangelo hand that was introduced later in 2009 (continued [here]),
  • the Becker hand provides hand shaped adaptive and precision grips with astounding longevity, elegance and at a very affordable low cost [link];
  • the Mert hand [link], as well as TRS and Hosmer devices, provide actual function;
  • the V2P Prehensor and the Retro are extremely useful grippers for mechanical works [link];
  • the Puppchen wrist survives hard vibrations and bangs for years, being successfully used across a range of hard physical conditions [link];
  • the Hifi interface system sockets built by Randall Alley of Biodesigns.

Media generated new symbolisms that did not manage to hit the hype fans:

  • movie about an arm amputee conveying an astonishing emotional realism (Home of the Brave, Jessica Biel),
  • movie about a leg amputee going about his business with an astonishingly well composed self conception (How to Tame Your Dragon).

Liquid modernity

Our society, today, does differ from that we were born into, some 50 years ago. The differences seem to be rather comprehensive. As they do not seem to reveal themselves to the naked eye, explanations may be of interest. Public images – how “the public” “sees” “things” – are heavily influenced by mass media, that mostly seem to follow some singular rogue type research contributions when “informing” the “general public” about prosthetic arms.

As always, singular attempts to provide feel-good symbolism by non handicapped for the rest of the non handicapped causes amputees to having to wear heavy useless stuff. Since the Carnes arm [link], this social mechanism has not changed a bit. With today’s vocabulary, however, we can clearly say that maps without reality come into play, generating a whole new social “reality”: the reality of academics conducting “prosthetic arm research” on modules weighing seven, twenty or more kilograms.

The reality of “bionic” hands ” is where the little things are what counts” [link]. These new products are hyped to levels of expectation that no prosthetic hand can meet, whereas the big things cannot possibly matter since the “little things” now do. From that new symbol driven lifestyle and viewpoint, only an idiot would then actually require a prosthetic arm to really perform physical acts, obviously, when it suffices to show that the arm could perform — whereas it is a totally unreasonable thing to expect a prosthetic arm to actually conform to more extensive physical resistances.


What one does, what is cool, all is subject to romanticization, to consumerism, to the dwindling ability to productively deal with “the other”, and the definitely deficient communication skills – compared to decades ago.

Thus, simulacra are not just created but become entrenched in our social media culture to a degree where an already installed oversimplification (that actually available prosthetic arms constitute) is heightened, exacerbated and made more extreme, and, worse, institutionalized. Thus, actual symbolic participation is not facilitated by what industry provides – we still have to try to keep up with that all by ourselves.


The Other, “forinners” (foreigners)

Modern deficiencies of communication skills “as we know them” bases on the dying art of finding common ground, and finding paths to identify, name and work with our differences, given our all’s differences. This appears to be a side effect of being able to increasingly live in homogenous subgroups. That, in turn, is a result of our ability to find similarly minded individuals very rapidly across the internet, and our tendency to connect with them and link to them, and to form groups, interest groups, or share time.


In a way we become more specialized while giving up generic communicative abilities. Communicating to “the other”, “the different” person has become increasingly difficult as long as that different other person is “different” – and people with disabilities have it about them that there are, well, particular if not peculiar differences.When it already affects everyone, it affects us a lot more.


The increase if not take-over occurs in a same slow unobtrusive fashion to a degree where alienation is not palpable. And yet, missing part of my arm, I feel this to be very palpable.

While decades ago, we did more work towards developing an actual understanding of each other we now find avoidance, possibly cold negative harsh judgment, if not as a black and white thing then as a tendency. In a way, the core motor of the internet – allowing increasingly differentiated subgroup members that physically are scattered across the geographical landscape to find each other – also defines a different “other” against which then one starts to distance oneself, mostly even without noticing.

First, distancing happens by (passively) just not communicating; secondly, one deals with distances by finding exaggerated ways of dealing with the ones that are different such as actually implementing exclusion, or by totally embracing the other and by “consuming” the ones, or their ways, particularly inasmuch as they are different.

Constructively building communicative bridges to others while maintaining healthy boundaries is, increasingly, a lost art.

This modern type of deficiency in actual communication skills however has some interesting consequences. It also creates protected gardens where total nonsense is celebrated with fireworks and loud music, with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – and without any fear of getting caught in the act.


Standardization, norming

One widely chosen solution given today’s trends is to standardize transactions, to find common norms.

And indeed – we now also find guides or training programs that pretend or suggest as if there was “one way” to “talk to” or “not to talk to” people that are different, such as people with handicaps. Only these reduced if not distorted views on communication also map a partly absent reality, so they contribute to symbols and simulacra rather than constituting an actual step into really better communication with actually different people.




Role of symbolism – swap over of the leisure class to an encompassing societal trend

So in our new world and society, symbols have become to be all the rage. Real solutions towards pragmatism still may matter, but symbols are what people die for, also literally.


Before – still in the 70s or 80s – real, hard and objective items still were at least to a significant extent quite important. Of course, the “leisure class” always prided itself with symbolism but there was middle and lower class, and there was normal respected life. Respected life was still possible back then when one was not striving towards ubiquitous symbols. In a way, though, society allowed that distinction between the nonsensical symbolic and sensible realistic to be accepted and cool – but since the 90s, society is not there for us any more as a social society with collectively protected norms has stopped to be.

Now, past 2000 and surely since 2010, the upper class and aristocracy, the clerics and the ruling class distinctions have walked out the door and gone.Not that this resolved the inherently associated issues. Because now, everyone tries to grab symbols, everyone tries to be king, and with that, everyone tries to be least a bit of a demon tyrant.


With everyone coming into daily encounters of dominance versus submission, of king versus tyrant, it is important to point out that today’s assumed princes, kings and queens risk negative aspects of exerting non-democratic powers; in that, everyone lacks conscious realization and definitely education, leave alone formal education, in how to correctly handle symbols and how to correctly treat underlings.

Now, each and everyone is running after these new meanings. This shift – social worth of hardware and real work drops, all social value is shifted to symbols, and really, symbolism is the new world of meanings – is quite thorough and encompassing. It destabilizes our economy, it affects real estate, it impacts all sorts of investment.

And with a visible handicap that also is doomed to contain symbolic meaning, this is rather serious.

Explanation of symbolism (S) versus realism (R)

It is now important to explain the difference between a real thing and a symbol. Realism and symbolism differ and overlap in intricate ways. The relation is neither mutual nor logic, it does not exhibit symmetry and there is no absolute delineation.

Total rapid failure or total victory (S) vs. graded failure and recovery (R)

Symbolic worlds: In short, rapidly total failure is a hallmark of symbolic worlds. It is also only there where one can win ever so totally. There, one dies the instant death of obsolescence, of worthlessness, of total loss, of loss in a totality, or, one grabs the gold medal or some other prized possession.


Real worlds: Real worlds – as opposed to symbol worlds – contain graded, slow and step wise decay or improvement, they contain paths back to full function or graded loss; sudden instant failure with total loss of all value does happen, but still it is relatively rare, in real, object grounded worlds and world views. In a real world, with a realistic and well grounded world view, one might come second, third (but still be alive), one might lose a bit (but not everything), one might evaluate problems in  a comprehensive way (and find that aspects weigh against each other rather than justifying “total loss”).


Example: As an example, take a swimming competition. Symbolically, you can only win (first rank, gold medal) or lose (all other ranks); the result is final and defining, and there is nothing to negotiate. Realistically and pragmatically, however, there is a lot to be discussed and negotiated – you could swim slower or faster than your previous self or any other person (wildcard comparison), you could participate in the competition to see what mistakes you’d make under stress (in order to trouble shoot your race performance), you could participate because of the in-race entertainment (swimming head to head races is actually adrenaline raising fun), or you might go for the fun overall.


This has implications for life as an arm amputee.

Symbolic acts, symbolic representation

When I reach out to shake someone’s hand, the symbolic act is, as that, non-negotiable. It is a sublime or not so sublime aspect of symbols that they have a hard non-negotiability about them, even if that aspect is not verbalized or declared. If you expect me to shake your (right) hand with my (right) hand, and I am missing that (right) hand, that act of symbolic importance is destroyed, annihilated, impossible – total failure happens within split seconds. Non-negotiable failure manifests itself,  in its symbolic aspect.

If you are, say, a woman and you expect, for example, your male (actual or potential) partner to contain anatomical completeness for symbolic reasons (for what else!), then absence of a right hand contains a degree of non-conformance towards this expectation that is total, all encompassing, non-negotiable and final. Of course, one might argue that an overly rigid symbolism itself contains aspect of prosthetic frameworks that one might have to examine separately – but that consideration would lead too far here.


In such a symbolic world, I will never, ever, be enough, and that aspect is visible to others within split seconds [link]. Conversely, it is particularly (if not only!) in such a world that is guided by such symbols, by such symbolic meanings, where my failure to conform can be complete, total, and comprehensive. One may be tempted to disregard or belittle this aspect but really, only in a symbolic world will disappointment easily reach 100% and be total within split seconds.

Real acts

On the other hand (now isn’t that funny word play!), the pragmatic, real work and real world aspect of having (or not having) a right hand is definitely not so black and white.


Abstracting from the symbolic role that my right hand would fill, it also would have practical uses that have very practical and technical aspects. A remaining limb or arm stump, or one equipped with a prosthetic arm, can solve some of these practical tasks. With some workarounds, techniques and practice, quite a few things can be achieved and all of a sudden, a real world appreciation of my handicap does make for full lives, enjoyable lives, and activities to be performed.

If I go through a list of average ADL (activities of daily living), I can perform most without prosthetic arm, and a considerable number are performed very well wearing a body powered arm. And within the domain of prosthetic hands or hooks regarded as real objects, there, one can find partial or full solutions, and one can go a very long way towards actual achievement. Maybe, if you want to use “percentages”, not to 100%, but maybe to almost 100%. There, I can find different ways to manipulate things, to grab pieces, items or objects. On the real work scale of reality, one can live up to many expectations also with “just” one hand. Perfection is usually not asked for, sufficient completion is sufficient to make one’s day.


This, in return, illustrates the degree in which the symbolic aspect of missing a hand that usually has devaluing or exclusive or negative aspects is hollow, empty, superficial, a map without landscape, basically a simulacrum. The practical pragmatic and real world aspects of prosthetic hands or grippers contain a constructive outlook, they allow for subtle or big improvements in various aspects.

Reverse application

This does have implications now. One interesting implication of these considerations are their reverse application.

Give me a person that totally denies an amputee their role or position, and I show you a person that puts a lot of value into the symbolic, into the empty, unchecked and hollow, the superficial and the vain.


Give me a person that rather dies than losing a limb, and I will show you a person that does not consider practical aspects as much as symbolic meanings.


In such a symbolic world, you either win or fail, and that hard success or failure dichotomy has something totalitarian about it. In a real object world, that is a bit more difficult – there, you want to actually see ins and outs, details, you will accept partial success, or solutions to also be a bit imperfect. In a real world, you will exercise and train, work with others and look for solutions to your limb issues. You may not find all solutions that you require. That is OK because you then negotiate some partial solution, change paths and look for other stuff, or take a break.

This is relevant as our societies on one hand ever so slowly improves measurable aspects of prosthetic arm performance (real world axis), but increasingly, it deals with and values in terms of symbols, symbolisms if not simulacra (symbol axis).

This means, practically, that while arm amputees stand a realistic chance to be successful in their run after increasingly powerful and useful arm and hand replacement parts, they will never (ever) have what symbolically is required – a normally shaped intact body as defined by the majority population.


And so when we consider prosthetic arms, we are dealing with a race between symbolic requirements and symbolic achievements, and realistic pragmatic requirements and achievements.

Relation between symbolism and realism

Now, the relation between real things and symbolic things is non-obvious.


Pure symbols

A symbol, a symbolic item or simulacrum per se hardly ever has real, objective, hard and actual uses in the real world. Surely, a lot of maybe extreme simplifications (see diagram, above) go into the very making of these symbolic icons when a close relationship to a real world occurrence is present.

A symbol excels as that – as symbol being exactly NOT related to any practical use. Essential, true and clear symbols are:

  • religious symbols; they are worn, mounted, often in elevated positions; they are not to be “used” as the very act of attributing real world value to a real symbol risks to desecrate it;
  • religious representatives; these are attributed with certain values such as being polite, benevolent, decent and so on; Catholic church does not explicitly welcome application of men with physical handicaps as priests, for example, they do prefer male anatomically complete shapes to mold them into the projective surfaces they then put in front of communities as “priests” or even “bishops”;
  • brand logos; these are often worn as stickers or print on clothes, or as (otherwise useless) display items on cars, devices, watches, glasses and so on;
  • rings [link]; these are true displays of symbolism such as marriage or membership (but only if they lack any other functionality);
  • prosthetic “bionic” hands: they represent high tech developments and societal care, they represent manual agility and the obsolescence of real work; in that, they must not carry heavy weights, they must not withstand any actual manipulation or real work, as really they are constructed and meant to be pure symbols; wearing a “bionic” hand – such as what currently is available and sold as such – is assumed to have very high symbolic value. Wearing a “bionic” hand, I communicate, “look what society does for ‘us’: they actually mimick a hand”
  • also, transplanted hands are held in high symbolic values – one is assumedly able to “hug” and “touch” and thus exhibit all these “human” “emotions” that one “otherwise” cannot “express”. They are also “a gift” as much as I argue that they are a man-made creation of a plastic surgery industry [link].
  • osseointegrated arm stumps appear to lack total pull and total torque, and such an arm is not immune to daily public pool swimming any more, so you are effectively reduced to some symbolic android or humanoid form (such as a “doll”) [2]  [link];
  • academic research purportedly investigating “prosthetic hands” (but not aiming right since decades) only achieve symbolic ranks, if at all. Most definitely, relatively if not absolutely little for the user results. Mostly, nothing at all results that the user can actually use. Conversely, that essence contains academic purity.

So, the value of  transplanted and prosthetic “bionic” hands has to be regarded as actually mostly if not exclusively symbolic, both for treating surgeons and transplant recipients.

Their practical, pragmatic and real value usually is close to zero if not negative – a “bionic” hand costs terribly high sums in both purchase, maintenance and repairs, and a transplanted hands comes with risks, exorbitant requirements in terms of cost, medication, medical emergency availability, clean if not aseptic lifestyle that ends up being also a lifestyle of permanent quarantine, as well as extreme financial costs, none of which seem to be “justified” in any real world scale given an overall poor (actual) manual function.

Really these are symbol worlds where symbol values are traded and shown around on symbol levels. In any real world evaluation, we are looking at work of little or no value.

The danger of pure symbols


Symbols carry inherent dangers and in a modern world with kings, queens and tyrants running rampage without instruction manual, it may be relevant to read them out the riot act inasmuch as symbolisms are concerned. In order to act as a symbol, their manifestations may require some actual properties.

Like: a ring is made of expensive metal so be careful to not lose it. A car may be powerful and fast so be careful to not wreck it. A sword may be very sharp so be careful and do not injure anyone with it.

These properties, in essence, require discipline and training for their masters in order to be handled well. That discipline also contains the requirement to not fall for cheap temptations. So, you must practice to be a ring bearer, a sword bearer, a bearer of a “bionic” hand. Conversely, in order to be and remain a symbol within a religious world, do not ask for real world or pragmatic manifestations – you will ask the wrong thing, and, you will be disappointed. Hence, recipients of a transplant and will literally train forever to make it work. Sure – they “get back” their “lives” but they end up spending most of it babysitting the baby steps of hard exhaustive training, and keeping away from any fun that involves, uh, germs.

As a particular example, a symbol for speed can be a car that contains the built-in potential for (physical) speed – such as a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a Maserati, a Bentley Continental GT or a Porsche Carrera. However, and as we deduct from the aforementioned, they can only act as actual symbols for speed that are pure in that essential and representative role if they are not employed for any type of pragmatism. In other words, if you mean to really convey pure symbolism, then your car will have to be driven with utmost care, slowly and with distinctive distance to any other traffic participant. You will not use it to transport any large amounts of anything, leave alone groceries or furniture. True pure cars that are meant to be pure symbols thus lack trunks, and cannot be used to transport more than the driver, in extreme instances one trophy woman or wife. You read that here first. So really, you can directly derive the driver’s intellectual status from the car-driver-speed combination, and for that it usually suffices to watch cars passing in traffic.


Also, any “bionic” hand is not to be used (or evaluated!) as an actual prosthetic hand meant to solve practical aspects. It is, in other words, meant to be paraded around, not to actually be switched on.


Using a “bionic” hand to actually go mountain biking the hard way totally desecrates its symbolic value – the only value it ever had, actually. Worse, tearing apart a lovingly elevated “black” (hence, symbolically, “not destructible”) glove of an iLimb (possibly representing Darth Vader) by performing a lowly pansy act such as only holding the hose (not even the nozzle) when washing a car [link] constitutes an act of utter heresy. Using an Otto Bock “Movohook 2Grip” to the degree where it starts wiggling totally desecrates it simply because anything that will make it fall apart obviously falls outside any manufacturer covered warranty. Using any commercially available “bionic” prosthetic arm part for anything else than “the little things” (reading newspaper, walking towards getting the remote control for the TV, considering the peeling of an egg) is to totally misunderstand its true pure symbolic nature. Without surprise, the reaction of manufacturers is that of indignation and degradation when one tells them that their “prosthetic” or “bionic” hand did “not perform”. The only acts these “bionic” hands (as well as some other prosthetic arm components) are built for are symbolic acts. Do not touch. They could start to derail right then and there.

Derived symbols and adjacent attempts in “winning” in a symbolic world

To sell an amputee some shitty item for a dream price

The olden days had it that amputees were always treated as third class citizens if as humans at all. One would hide them at home. Their symbolism – to have them around – was (and at times still is) regarded as contagious in its negativity. I once witnessed an apparently non-handicapped IPC (International Paralympic Committee) representative who totally freaked out when she learned that she might have to share her bedroom with a physically handicapped athlete – so, yeah, the risk is tangible that we might get you infected. Feel the germs wiggling with excitement?

So it may make sense to see a sale to the amputee world as something to never do directly.

As amputees may be perceived as contagious, it is best to sell to insurances or technicians. And since amputees are assumed to be able to neither think, nor move, nor argue, nor do anything at all well, it is probably best to have a customer “service” that is acidic and arrogant as they ever come. I am not outright and too clearly saying that Otto Bock or Össur do have such a customer service and that I did make such experiences – but if you in fact did make weird experiences with these, and if I really dig out my old e-mails, then we might discuss this with each other (or not, because, hey).


But the old proverbial “non olet” certainly extends to the sales of stuff that amputees are supposed to wear as a symbol (not as a pragmatic tool). And that contains symbolism in itself, without extending this here in all aspects.

To build real prostheses one can actually use

Other than Toughware PRX, TRS, Hosmer, Mert Lawwill, Ohio Willowwood or Becker Mechanical hands actually building very useful components, their work also has symbolic aspects.


It symbolizes true dedication in a domain that virtually no one cares about. It symbolizes an appreciation of certainly my and others’ actual realistic practical and explainable concerns about our lack of function that can actually be remedied and helped, where the devices make a big difference – not in making the handicap “disappear” or “go away”, but providing something that helps my back, shoulders and other arm to survive a bit longer.

Abusing a symbol as pragmatical real object

Now, with all risks being known now, a symbol still may risk to be (ab)used as object. That, in essence, fully desecrates it. This turns risk into damage.

The most striking visual imagery that we can pull up to visualize this desecration is that of a carefully washed and ironed handkerchief.

Such an item – a white cotton handkerchief, ironed, folded, clean if not pure itself – symbolizes a degree of dedication and care that is out of this world.


Already using it once not only desecrates that symbol ladden handkerchief as a snot rag, it also desecrates the preceding acts leading up towards its symbolic installation as that symbol of cleanliness, orderliness and civilization.

Actually racing a car that was built and sold for its actual symbolism is the same thing – turning a pure handkerchief into a snot rag. Think about it.You really want to use that fast symbolism for race, power and masculine speed to cruise.


Wearing a “bionic” hand to wash a car constitutes, in short, a similar act of total desecration. Not only does its (real) uselessness become exposed ever so rapidly – also all acts of building up this “bionic” hand’s symbolic role, its apparent importance, collapse at once.

One may appreciate a deeply secular and, for the moment, lightly relieving aspect in desecrating such symbols, too, as anyone who ever read Ludwig Thoma’s Lausbubengeschichten [link] knows. But ultimately, continuous desecration of symbols might have started as a serious misunderstanding and ends as tragedy.

Abusing real pragmatic advantages and functions for their symbolic value

The problem starts with the terminology.


“Bionic” hands are obviously not “bionic”, but only labeled as that in order to represent (symbolically) the latest in human collective achievement. As that they constitute a type of technological altar in front of which, for various reasons, we need to kneel and revere. What really is going on there is something else – it is not just about selling underperforming overpriced gadgets as such; it is about maintaining a social stability in a class of social classes where never, arm amputees had anything to say. All these hands can be used for are upper class type gentlemen activities. Such as getting tipsy. Then, however, a beer belly is an achievement and sign of modern civilization.


However, there is added difficulty. The advertising just goes too far. It really does.


Today, a minimal amount of real value needs to be present for any “bionic” hand to go through as important symbol. Also, academic research trying to investigate “prosthetic hands” may have to at least minimally suggest some type of real world application to remain symbolic. And it appears that this minimal amount of real world mapping currently is under some consideration. So while they figure that one out, we are (patiently) waiting.


It is hard to say where this is going.

Future implications

Bare realism, bare power, bare grunt

One future path is pursuing pure bare hard core function.


I think one should not spend too much (if anything) towards any type of symbolism. Symbolism in any pure form lacks actual practical revenue and as that, it is financially too expensive and with that a waste of time, energy and resources. In terms of a conventional manly appraisal, symbolism is for pansy boys, point blank. You can get caught wearing a Becker hand or any type of hook and you may talk your way out of that – but you better have a good explanation where in symbol space you think you are with a pansy “bionic” arm as from a hard viewpoint of real pragmatism, that piece symbolizes a number of bad things and hard function is not one of them.

So really, I want the prosthetic arm that is comfortable, costs not too much and that bathes in performance.

Full symbolism is available to anyone, and not restricted to prosthetic arms

If at all one accepts symbolism as a form of communication, as a realm of superstitions, as a set of values worth following, then be it.

Then, however, I will very critically revise what, in terms of symbols, means what.


After all, no one has set into stone that heavy [link], slow [link] and underperforming [link] “bionic” arms I cannot even use to wash a car with [link] while ruining my stump [link] should be allowed to drag me down, while I symbolically excel in whatever that symbolic act or deed may be, whatever the symbolism I may be after. I may very well chose to wear a totally functional arm that is off any simulacra of prior outdated values [link] while pursuing any new type of symbolism that I happen to find better, conforming to Hipsterli Theater or whatnot.

So in terms of people with arm amputations, different symbols and symbolic acts have established themselves these days than just “wearing a “bionic” arm”; in fact, doing that is a bit “out” because it symbolizes things that may have been not so advantageous for the arm amputee. The new “bionic” arms are currently superseding the old ones very fast – and as in the Wild Wild West, only the quick survive.

New full symbolisms that run well with arm amputees:

  • Be cool without prosthetic arm. Just that. Work on stretching and posture and be cool just as that. Not depending on a particularly fragile prosthetic “symbol” arm means a lot of actual freedom that one has. So, to be able to make it without any arm on, and to be able to maintain a correct posture, certainly beats many other options also in terms of self determination, pride and self worth.
  • Do sports. Not only are sports a good way to build symmetry and better muscles, these also may help to reduce overuse. Even more, sports can be good for one’s health if done right. Depending on what sports one does, wearing a prosthetic arm that works with the specific sports type can be the way to go. There, Bob Radocy and the TRS devices he makes and sells are a great way to move forward.
  • Do activities. Generally, it is important to be active. Whatever it is, move your tires.
  • Avoid asymmetry. Avoid overuse. For that, I have optimized and perfected a body powered arm setup. I can wear it 18 hours a day without ill effects. That is a great help.
  • Wear Becker hands. Wear hooks. These represent the art of cool for anyone, particularly for the self sufficient one. They win any debate about arms, by far. Particularly if the socket is not “skin colored”. It may be decayed, painted, carbon, black, or ornamented.
  • Save the money. Even with a pr0sthetic arm, holidays, sports, activities and other stuff cost money. Do not sink it into some symbolic “bit” no one can really use. Even getting a doughnut or going to a movie may be a better way to spend money.
  • If you build or sell stuff: really listen. Really care. Really build something we want or need. If you do not want to have it photographed, used, taken apart, X-rayed, dismantled or otherwise reviewed very critically, do not even start. Reconsider.
  • If you sell stale old customer service attitudes towards arm amputees: keep it up? You might still sell stuff for 10 years. Or 5 years. Or 2 years. Whenever your clientele runs out or finds better places to spend money. Who knows. Who cares.
  • Definitely stay away from experimental surgery, or at the very least, be extremely careful in evaluating it. Why are they offering it? Who really benefits from it? How dependent on what are you now, how after such a surgery? How much money over 2, 5 and 10 years? Paid by whom? If they need you to be extremely careful about hygiene then, what happens if you start being careful now? Have you considered actual alternatives, including not wearing the arm, or maybe training some skills?
  • Get medical issues checked and treated by professionals. Avoid prolonged tinkering.

Getting someone else pay you so you can wear a “bionic” arm is certainly cool and should work well as “symbolic” asset – but still, functionally, you may miss out.

Sit out the dinosaur spillover

Really, prosthetic part manufacturers that still did not get it do represent a spillover of the confused attitudes of the olden days. Their symbolism may have anachronistic cuteness. So do manufacturers of watches that may also cost too much, look outdated and do not run well; IWC has a reputation of making such items. My guess is that one can sit that one out, and bypass these. There is better stuff to do than to tend to that type of anachronicity.


Social symbolism works the reverse way, too

So you do not want damaged, visibly disabled, handicapped people in your life.

But then there is a problem and I turn up. Don’t worry. Your distorted or otherwise uncontrolled facial reaction usually is a dead giveaway, so given that I know I stand no chance to win some symbolic contest you might be holding with yourself, chances are high I won’t even be available for negotiations.


But don’t expect me to act stupid. Before you even get the chance to start active discrimination I might have left to do whatever without asking you either. It’s not that I crave the experience that much myself.


Rosberg bei IWC – «Statussymbole müssen Spass machen» von Monika Rufener

Das Gedränge am blauen Teppich in Genf war enorm: Denn wenn die Schweizer Uhrenmarke IWC ruft, strömen die Weltstars herbei. Auf sie haben die Fotografen und Journalisten aus rund 25 Ländern in Genf gewartet: Emily Blunt und Christoph Waltz. Doch die beiden Superstars schritten standesgemäss zuletzt über den roten Teppich und nahmen sich nur wenig Zeit für Interviews. Auf sie haben die Fotografen und Journalisten aus rund 25 Ländern in Genf gewartet: Emily Blunt und Christoph Waltz. Doch die beiden Superstars schritten standesgemäss zuletzt über den roten Teppich und nahmen sich nur wenig Zeit für Interviews. Posieren geht über Lamentieren, dachte sich wohl die britische Schauspielerin … … und auch der zweifache Oscar-Preisträger Waltz wollte so schnell wie möglich zum gemütlichen Teil des Abends übergehen. Ohne die Presse. Deutlich mehr Zeit für einen Schwatz nahmen sich Sänger Ronan Keating und seine Freundin Storm Uechtritz – schliesslich ist der Ire auch ein begeisterter Uhrensammler. Insgesamt besitzt der 37-Jährige etwa 70 Stücke: «Ronan wählt am Morgen zuerst die Uhr aus und schaut dann, welche Kleider dazu passen», verrät die australische TV-Produzentin Uechtritz. Nico Rosberg und Lewis Hamilton teilen nicht nur die Leidenschaft für schnelle Autos, sondern auch ihren Uhren-Sponsor und die Körpergrösse. Adriana Lima beim Posieren zuzusehen, gehörte mitunter zum Unterhaltsamsten am blauen Teppich der IWC-Gala. Das «Victoria’s Secret»-Model switchte innerhalb von Sekunden zwischen verschiedenen Posen … … die allesamt grossartig aussahen. Von der zweifachen Mutter können sich so einige Nachwuchsmodels eine Scheibe abschneiden. Mit ihr locker aufnehmen kann es jedoch Limas langjährige Kollegin Karolína Kurková. Die Tschechin gehörte zu den bestgelaunten Promis des Anlasses. Sympathisch, lustig und schön. Immer eine besonders gute Kombination. Moritz Bleibtreu (l.) und Thomas Kretschmann mit ihrer niederländische Schauspiel-Kollegin Anna Drijver. Keine Models. Und sowieso: Zu dritt ist das Posieren schwieriger. Schon rein von der Koordination her. So schnell kann es gehen: Aloe Blacc landete mit «I Need a Dollar» einen Welthit und setzt nun auf eine Uhr von IWC.

Der Erste Weltkrieg als Urknall der Moderne

   18:31 Noch einmal richten wir unseren Blick auf Entwicklungen,
   18:34 die durch die Urkatastrophe des 20. Jh. einen Innovationsschub erhielten.
   18:39 Die Medizin hat im Krieg viel gelernt,
   18:42 wiewohl zu einem bitteren Preis.
   18:44 Die Zahl verwundeter Soldaten in allen Lagern
   18:47 kann man sich bis heute nur schwer ausmalen:
   18:49 Im Deutschen Reich waren es 4 Mio. verwundete Wehrleute,
   18:53 in Österreich-Ungarn 5,3 Mio.,
   18:55 in Frankreich wurden 1,7 Mio. Soldaten verletzt,
   18:59 das Vereinigte Königreich beklagte ebenso 1,7 Mio. Verwundete
   19:03 und Russland musste mit 3,7 Mio. ver- letzten Armeeangehörigen klarkommen,
   19:08 so schätzen Historiker.
   19:10 Und die ebenfalls Millionen verwundeter Zivilisten
   19:12 sind da noch nicht einmal mitgezählt.
   19:14 Eine bleibende Kriegsverwundung
   19:16 konnte das Leben eines Soldaten für immer zerrütten.
   19:19 Was aus der sich damals sprunghaft entwickelnden Prothesentechnik
   19:23 bis heute für Hightech-Wunder entstanden sind,
   19:26 zeigt der Report von Rolf Gatschet.
   19:29 Zerschossene und zerfetzte Gesichter, sog. Kriegszermalmte.
   19:36 Kriegszitterer, deren Psyche im Schützengraben ruiniert wurde.
   19:41 Krüppel, denen Arme und Beine fehlen.
   19:46 Der Erste Weltkrieg ist mit Millionen Verwundeter und Kranker
   19:49 eine gigantische medizinische Überforderung.
   19:51 Keine der Kriegsparteien
   19:53 ist auf eine solche Flut von Patienten vorbereitet.
   19:56 Und an der Front
   19:57 sei die medizinische Versorgung oft gar nicht gewährleistet gewesen,
   20:01 sagt Historiker Jakob Tanner.
   20:06 Dieser Krieg hat in gigantischem Ausmass nicht nur Tote,
   20:09 sondern auch Verwundete produziert, kann man sagen –
   20:12 20 Mio. Tote und über 20 Mio. Verwundete.
   20:16 Es gab täglich über 13’000 Verwundete –
   20:20 und zwar täglich über mehr als 4 Jahre hinweg.
   20:24 Das war also eigentlich eine unlösbare Aufgabe.
   20:27 Wer Glück hat, wird in ein Lazarett transportiert
   20:30 und verblutet nicht einfach auf dem Schlachtfeld.
   20:33 Doch oft sind zerschossene Gliedmassen nicht mehr zu retten
   20:36 und müssen amputiert werden.
   20:41 Man hatte so viele ganz krasse Fälle,
   20:44 bei denen man einfach einschreiten und Amputationen durchführen musste
   20:47 oder irgendwelche plastische Chirurgie,
   20:49 Orthopädie oder Prothesen zum Zug kamen.
   20:55 Es gab Knieverletzungen usw.
   20:57 Es kamen völlig neue Techniken auf,
   20:58 die im 20. Jh. dann eine grosse Rolle spielten.
   21:01 Reiche Patienten erhalten eine Prothese,
   21:03 individuell auf ihren Beinstumpf angepasst.
   21:08 Die Übrigen üben mit künstlichen Standardgliedmassen Alltäglichkeiten
   21:12 wie z.B. Gehen.
   21:14 Alles mit dem Ziel, verkrüppelte Soldaten
   21:16 wieder als nützliche Mitglieder in die Zivilgesellschaft zu integrieren.
   21:21 Doch nicht wenige,
   21:23 die Arme und Beine für Ehre und Vaterland geopfert haben,
   21:25 landen am Ende auf der Strasse: als Bettler, Hausierer, Ausgestossene.
   21:31 An der Uni Zürich
   21:33 revolutioniert Ferdinand Sauerbruch 1916 dann die Prothetik.
   21:37 Der deutsche Arzt entwickelt
   21:39 während seiner Zeit als Professor für Chirurgie eine Armprothese,
   21:43 die die Hand willkürlich schliessen und zugreifen lässt.
   21:47 Urknall für die Revolution der Prothetik.
   21:51 Nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, abermals mit Krüppeln in Millionenzahl,
   21:56 werden die ersten Prothesen mit Elektromotoren entwickelt.
   22:05 Ende der 1960er-Jahre setzen sich myoelektrische Systeme durch.
   22:11 D.h.: Elektroden auf der Haut messen die elektrischen Nervenimpulse
   22:14 und geben ein Signal an den Motor weiter, der die Prothese bewegt.
   22:22 Heute können Prothesen sogar unterscheiden
   22:25 zwischen weichen Gegenständen und harten Gegenständen.
   22:29 Sie lassen ihren Träger gar Berührungen fühlen.
   22:36 Heutzutage profitieren selbst Paraplegiker
   22:38 von Entwicklungen aus der Prothetikforschung.
   22:41 Chris Stewart z.B. Er hatte 2011 einen Gleitschirmunfall.
   22:45 Die Folge: Eine inkomplette Paraplegie,
   22:47 sein Rückenmark ist nicht vollständig durchtrennt.
   22:50 Er hat seine Beine noch,
   22:52 kann sie jedoch nicht mehr eigenständig gebrauchen.
   22:55 Der Lokomat der Uniklinik Balgrist unterstützt sein Training.
   22:59 Stewart hofft, dass er auch mithilfe der Chirurgie oder Spezialprothesen
   23:03 dereinst wieder auf die Beine kommt.
   23:06 Ich habe v.a. die Hoffnung,
   23:09 dass es durch die medizinische Forschung und Techniken
   23:12 eine Lösung oder Verbesserung gibt.
   23:15 Vielleicht durch die Chirurgie oder Chips oder was auch immer.
   23:19 Ja, why not?
   23:21 Im Labor für Sensomotorische Systeme der ETH Zürich
   23:25 tüfteln Forscher schon an der nächsten Generation des Lokomaten.
   23:32 Hier entstehen auch neue, experi- mentelle Hightech-Beinprothesen.
   23:40 Robert Riener ist der Leiter des ETH-Labors.
   23:42 Er beobachtet genau, wohin sich die Prothesenforschung weiterentwickelt.
   23:48 Eine spannende Richtung
   23:50 ist die funktionelle Anbindung der Prothese an den Menschen.
   23:54 D.h., dass der Wille des Menschen
   23:57 automatisch auf die Prothese übertragen wird
   23:59 und die Bewegungsqualität oder die Bewegungsart der Prothese
   24:03 über Sensoren dem Menschen zurückgemeldet wird.
   24:07 Künftig würden Prothesen direkt an und in den Körper eingepasst,
   24:11 sodass es fast keinen Unterschied mehr zu normalen Gliedmassen gebe.
   24:16 Mehr noch: Die Prothese gereicht Betroffenen vielleicht zum Vorteil.
   24:19 Solche Aussichten hatten die Krüppel nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg nicht.
   24:24 Für viele wäre nicht bloss ein Holzbein,
   24:27 sondern ein wenig gesellschaftliche Anerkennung für ihr Opfer
   24:31 schon viel wert gewesen.
   24:35 Damit endet diese Serie.

[1] Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Wiley, 2000.
  title={Liquid Modernity},
  author={Zygmunt Bauman},
[2] A. Y. Alhaddad, S. E. AlKhatib, R. A. Khan, S. M. Ismail, A. S. Shehadeh, A. M. Sadeq, and J. Cabibihan, “Toward 3D Printed Prosthetic Hands that Can Satisfy Psychosocial Needs: Grasping Force Comparisons Between a Prosthetic Hand and Human Hands,” in International Conference on Social Robotics, 2017, pp. 304-313.
  title={Toward 3D Printed Prosthetic Hands that Can Satisfy Psychosocial Needs: Grasping Force Comparisons Between a Prosthetic Hand and Human Hands},
  author={Alhaddad, Ahmad Yaser and AlKhatib, Sami Emad and Khan, Rahib Ahmed and Ismail, Salman Mohammad and Shehadeh, Al-Sendibad Said and Sadeq, Abdellatif Mohammad and Cabibihan, John-John},
  booktitle={International Conference on Social Robotics},
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Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: - Liquid hands in a liquid modernity [symbolism, realism – and then what?] {rather graphic, viewer discretion advised, long, difficult}; published 12/02/2015, 17:56; URL:

BibTeX 1: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1720906500, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{ - Liquid hands in a liquid modernity [symbolism, realism – and then what?] {rather graphic, viewer discretion advised, long, difficult}}}, month = {February}, year = {2015}, url = {}

BibTeX 2: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1720906500, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{Liquid hands in a liquid modernity [symbolism, realism – and then what?] {rather graphic, viewer discretion advised, long, difficult}}}, howpublished = {Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues}, month = {February}, year = {2015}, url = {} }