A Digital Anomaly




Proof We Are All Thumbs


Easton J. Anspach



             For the most part, object studies take as their subjects (the irony is appreciated) items that stand apart from the material human being: Heidegger’s jug, Brown’s window, Ingold’s stone.  These things, while exhibiting various degrees of agency, actancy, and embeddedness, exist as bounded entities distinct from the material human thing.  Their recognition and portrayal as such reifies a Cartesian bifurcation of the world even as modern theorists work to transcend, destroy, or evade the divide between subject and object.  Even in the protean matter-energy flows of Bennett’s assemblages (2005) and the abstract hybrid networks of Latour (1993), the separation between humans and nonhumans is quite evident. 

            Where then, if not in the trash, power grids, door-closers and speed bumps of modern thing studies, are the true hybrids to be found?  Not humans acting as or with objects or non-humans acting as or with subjects, but humanobjects and/or nonhumansubjects?  A network of people and things still allows for human actors to position themselves in a privileged hierarchy over objects. In a true, post-colonial, postmodern, posthumanist discourse on things, this cannot be acceptable (if indeed it can be avoided).  So how do we attempt an escape?  Let us examine something simultaneously subject and object, human and non-human: the thumb.

Thumb is Human

            Perhaps when you think about what it means to be human, the thumb is not the first ‘thing’ that comes to mind.  Perhaps it should be.  The fully opposable thumb is actually a uniquely human adaptation first associated with Homo habilis, the forerunner of Homo sapiens (Wills 2000).  Starting about one million years ago with the evolution of Homo erectus, the truly prehensile thumb developed via a series of intermediate anthropoid stages culminating in the indispensible digit Homo sapiens sapiens currently depend upon.  Although many animals sport an opposable thumb or toe including koalas, opossums, Pandas, and a great number of monkeys and primates, the human thumb is the only one which can rotate 180 degrees to face the fingers.

            But the adaptation of a unique appendage is only the tip of the thumbnail, pollically[1] speaking.  Biological anthropologists argue that the evolution of the opposable thumb is also intimately tied to the development of the human qua human.  The prehensile thumb, due to its position, severely hinders the use of the hands for walking.  Therefore, its development paralleled the gradual pithecanthropoid and anthropoid adoption of the erect bipedal walking gait (Harcourt-Smith and Aiello 2004).  Although there is some debate as to the driving factor (did busy hands lead to upright walking or upright walking allow for busy hands), the opposable thumb effectively separated humans from apes who still utilize their hands as feet.ape-hand-reaching-out

Subsequently, neuroscientists have shown that the adoption of an erect stature by hominids led to a corresponding restructuring of the vascular system which allowed for greater brain size and mental efficiency (Falk 1998, 2009).  This augmented intellectual faculty, along with the freedom of the hands and increased manual dexterity, provided hominids the necessary means for superior development, refinement, and use of tools (Owen 1981).  Tools, in turn, played a primary part in the adaptation to and manipulation of environment, a process which resulted in explosive human population growth and expansion across the globe (van Schaik et. al. 1999).  They also had a pivotal role in the formation of human social processes and researchers have shown that gendered tool use was a significant component of human sexual division and dimorphism (Balme and Bowdler 2006; Marlowe 2007). 

Thumbs, it seems, are a crucial aspect of the embodied human experience.  From physiological makeup to evolutionary success to social structures, the thumb is an indispensable part of what it means to be physically, mentally, and socially human.  Even in the modern age, handwriting, typing, and texting reveal a continued salience for the thumb in the composition and deployment of the human identity.  Given this, perhaps it is faulty to discuss the thumb as human.  Instead, it seems more accurate to state the thumb is human.

Thumb is Thing

             And yet the thumb is not entirely human, nor human in its entirety.  The thumb, like all things, retains an essence not captured in full by designation as simply “human.”  Close examination brings to the surface a little of Brown’s ambiguous excess, Ingold’s materiality, Gell’s captivation.  The thumb is a thing, and it things its Heideggerian thingness in ways that transcend its definition as (part of) the human object.

            The thumb is precisely that: a thumb.  As such, it is a finger and, at the same time, not a finger.  As a finger, the thumb has a skeleton of phalanges joined by hinge-like joints that flex toward the palm.  It is part of the hand.  It looks, moves, and behaves in a similar fashion to the rest of the fingers.  It has a “back” that features hair and nail.  It has a hairless palm side with a fingerprint. 

            But somehow the thumb is not a finger, it is a thumb.  It is opposable and stands in contrast to the fingers.  It has only two phalanges as opposed to the fingers’ three.  It is close to the wrist, not the top of the palm. It is shorter and fatter than the fingers.  It is attached to a mobile metacarpus.  It has a distinct name, not as a token (ring finger) but as a type, (thumb).

            The thumb, as thing, affords and constrains.  As noted previously, its full opposability allows the hand to grip in ways no other animal can.  The thumb allows for incredible manual dexterity which results in precise and skilled tool creation and use.  It provides impetus for bipedalism, brain development, and social stratification. It serves as a security blanket in the mouth of a child.  The thumb allows as write, to draw, to type, to trace out Thanksgiving turkeys in elementary school.


            But the thumb, as thing, also constrains.  Its opposability eliminates the ability to walk as the apes.  In fact, its placement in opposition to the palm makes it one of most injured joints of the body (Neff 2006).  Its (over)use as security blanket manifests in oral fixations and orthodontic visits.  Its dexterity and grip have made humans highly dependent on its use.  Try and zip up a pair of jeans without the use of a thumb.  Pick up a heavy glass or can using only the fingers.  The loss of the thumb is in many ways the loss of humanness.

            What is more, the thumb has come into an existence of its own.  Its participation in networks outside that of human anatomy is almost too prolific to follow:  As the iconic insult which would eventually lead to Romeo and Juliet’s untimely demise, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”;  the saving grace or everlasting damnation of gladiators in the mighty Coliseum; the spirit of Gaia which manifests in a gardener’s green thumb; the guide to moviegoers worldwide thanks to Siskel and Ebert (and whoever they Roeper-ed into it after that); the force of the tyrant who strives to keep you “under their thumb.”; fairytale princesses named Thumbelina and folk heroes named Tom Thumb, the latter of which would gain a military commission in Barnum’s militia;  the rules of thumb by which humans guide their lives.

            So the thumb is a thing, but what kind of thing is it?  It would seem, given the discussion above, to be a human thing.  After all, the thumb is part of the human body: it is made of flesh, blood, and bone.  It affords and constrains as far as it allows a human hand to grip or to write.  Its use as insult, critique, and symbol are all as extensions of the human body in response to human society.  The thumb is encompassed by the boundary layer of the human skin.  So it is a human thing, a Latourian quasi-object.  But as such the thumb is still solidly human and, therefore, does not seem to help bridge our Cartesian divide.  Right?  Maybe.  Let us complicate the issue.ThumbWar

 Losing a Thumb War


In January of 2002 a friendly-fire incident during MOS training with the 75th Ranger Regiment left three United States soldiers dead and a fourth unconscious and without a thumb.  Well, not quite without a thumb.  A bullet struck the soldier’s second pollical phalange causing a series of cascade fractures which left the skin of the thumb mostly intact but destroyed almost the entirety of the underlying bone structure.  The soldier was flown to Texas where he was fitted with a cadaver thumb, still unconscious.

Already, the thumb begins to lose some its unique humanness.  Western humanist philosophy has created a world in which individual humans are viewed as matchless.  A world in which the words of Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson are seen as a universal proclamation of truth: “A human being is so irreplaceable. So valuable and so unique.”  And yet, we can replace a thumb, a part of the unique human being.  We can take pieces of one human and place them in another.  Does this mean that Persson would have been more accurate in stating: “A human being is only partially replaceable?”  In that case, which parts are the inimitable ones?  Where exactly, in the human body, does humanness reside?

The answer, in part, is nowhere, at least nowhere in the body.  This question of the particular residence of humanness returns once again to Descartes and the divide between mind and body.  The trend in the West has been to place the essence of humanity in the mind and, therefore, to construct the body as a kind of Heideggerian (2001) vessel whose void is to contain the human spirit.  The body, vacant of mind, is an empty shell, a cadaver ready for deployment in Foucault’s (2003) clinic.  The thumb, it would seem, is not human at all.  The human body, in fact, seems to slip away from humanity.

But Heidegger would not allow this to happen to a human vessel any more than he would allow it to happen to a clay one (2001:170-171).  As the container of the void of humanity, the body still holds certain humanness, empty or full.  It has the potential to ‘give forth’ human, and as such contains a certain ability to human that maintains its unique character as humaning.  The replacement of the thumb, then, is a translation of types.  Humans are held together by their shared ability to human, and the replacement of the thumb is just one (empty or dead) human humaning another (full or alive) human.

Dead Thumb

Perhaps, but the vessel is broken.  Our soldier is no longer entirely intact.  The structure of his body has been compromised and another compromised body has been used to affect repairs.  What do we now make of our repaired human?  Heidegger said nothing of a broken vessel.  We must turn to medicine and philosophy; they have knowledge of repairing humans.

 How does one reckon the technologies of the human? But there is no such thing as the human. Instead, there is only the dizzying multiplicity of the cut human, the human body as interminably cut, fractured. In the clefts of history and at the limits of representation, the cut body of humanity tells the story of the indeterminability that haunts the dreams and nightmares of the “fully there” (Athanasiou 2003).

  It is the thingness of humanity, the “indeterminability”, that is at stake in our soldier’s thumb, then.  It is the replacement of the thumb that reveals the fractured ambiguity of humanness.  We are all cut humans but in the imaginary we exist as whole.

 Separate Worlds 

            Not to make the question too easy, our soldier is also a Lakota and follows the spiritual beliefs of the Ogallala Nation.  The thumb as thing and the thumb as human are now joined by the questions of the thumb as Lakota thing and the thumb as Lakota human.  Our ‘simple’ thumb is now enmeshed in questions of competing worldviews, or perhaps more accurately, questions of competing worlds (Henare et al. 2007).

            The Lakota believe that humanity is only one of the life forces imparted to the residents of Earth and resides in the physical human body, full or empty, cut or not.  Life and death are mere stages in a greater cycle of spirit creation, movement, and regeneration.  The “dead” body, in this case, is just as much human as the “live” one.  The replacement of the thumb is not a translation of types but a transplantation of the individual human tokens.  You can imagine, therefore, our soldier’s consternation in awakening to discover he was no longer one, but two.  The thumb is once again human, or at least part of one (or two).

            The United States military under Constitutional law is required to respect all religious beliefs and, being thoroughly embarrassed by the decision to insert the thumb without first consulting with the soldier, agrees to remove that part of the (empty) human from the other (full) human.  No other option for repair presents itself to the military doctors so the remaining pieces of the thumb are to be amputated.  The thumb, it seems, has finally come to rest.  It is human, that is, it is a human thing, and it is to be no more for this one soldier.

We Have the Technology

             But a story this complex cannot come to a simple conclusion.  One of the soldier’s doctors makes a last minute phone call to a nearby medical research institution and explains the dilemma.  It just so happens the institute has a department specializing in prosthetics and robotics, and that they have recently worked on constructing an automaton arm to play piano for a robotics exposition.  The researchers, slightly giddy from their success, agree to look at the case of our fallen soldier.

            They come to a series of conclusions.  First, no fully functional thumb prosthetic has ever been created to repair this amount of damage.  Second, the technology exists but would require an original construction on a tight medical deadline.  Third, the thumb would cost approximately $340,000 before hospital bills, materials, and physical therapy was factored in.  Things were looking up for the thumb, but down for the soldier.  Our soldier is a young man hard up for cash and the surgery is just too expensive.  Alas, where there is a will, there is a research institute eager for publication and copyrights.  It is agreed that the institute will cover the cost of the surgery in turn for publication rights and ownership of the prosthetic.

            The thumb is now thing again, but this time as a commercial product.  And, given the human essence of the thumb, it is a fetishized commodity beyond the extent imagined by Frazier or even Marx.  Ownership of the thumb is ownership of the body: slavery.  Our soldier’s humanity (or at least the cut, thingness part of it) is to be the property of a commercial corporation.  But this cannot be legal.  The United States has legislation in place to outlaw the valuation and trade of humans as well as human organs.[2]

The truth is the property rights and ownership of the human body is a contentious issue still unresolved by the U.S. courts.  Technology has continuously reduced the amount of material scientifically and commercially viable as part of the human body.  This fact, along with the aforementioned separation of mind and body, has lead to an increased commerce in human body parts, especially in intrastate cases or when a “greater good” is in question.  In fact, the California Supreme Court in the case of Moore v. Regents of the University of California denied a “patient ownership rights in his own cells for fear that the establishment of such rights would inhibit the advancement of the nascent biotechnology industry, which the court saw as crucial to the future of health-care” (Gold 1996).

            So where does that leave our soldier and his thumb?  The National Organ Transplant Act defines the term ‘‘human organ’’ as

 …the human (including fetal) kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas, bone marrow, cornea, eye, bone, and skin or any subpart thereof and any other human organ (or any subpart thereof, including that derived from a fetus) specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services by regulation” (NOTA 1998). 

It is these parts which cannot be traded or valuated.  The question is, will the prosthetic thumb qualify?

 Thumb Print

             The removal of the skeletal structure and the needs of the underlying tissue, tendons, and skin of the soldier’s thumb called for a certain amount of alacrity in the scheduling of the soldier’s medical procedures.  As a result, the fabrication of the prosthetic included a number of repurposed materials that wouldn’t normally be considered for an operation of this sort.  Specifically, the researchers utilized the ceramic swivel joints from two high–efficiency 3-D model printer/copiers.  These are highly-precise joints to which printer nozzles are attached in order to render complex graphics on 3-dimensional scale models.  The rest of the prosthetic included titanium guide rods (also from the printers), sheathed tinsel wire to work the joint, and screws. 

The new thumb, therefore, is not an organ by NOTA’s definition.  Ownership and copyrights were secured, the surgery went forward, and the soldier received his thumb.  But if this thumb wasn’t an organ, what was it?  It was an object: it contained metal, ceramic, and it was foreign to the uncut human body.  It was also subject: under the human surface of the skin, under control of the soldier, part of the cut human body.  It was part man, part machine, “…a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” (Haraway 1991:149).  Our thumb, as well as our soldier, is both human and nonhuman, machine and organism.  They are cyborgs.


Haraway has studied this subject intimately and she informs us that to be a cyborg is to be many.  Or to be more precise, it is to be many-in-one; “The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” (1991:163).  It is a thing which, like our thumb, knows of borders and at the same time bridges them. 

 There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction. There is a myth system waiting to become a political language to ground one way of looking at science and technology and challenging the informatics of domination– in order to act potently (1991:181).

 The cyborg, then moves freely between the subject and object, between man and machine, between thing and object.  It reflects the nearly infinite, polymorphous ways in which the “home, workplace, market, public arena, the body itself- all can be dispersed and interfaced in nearly infinite, polymorphous ways” (1991:163).

            Lest we think this to be a purely cerebral endeavor, consider the recent work of Kevin Warwick, a British scientist who successfully implanted one hundred electrodes into his nervous system and connected them to the internet:

With this in place he successfully carried out a series of experiments including extending his nervous system over the internet to control a robotic hand, a form of extended sensory input and the first direct electronic communication between the nervous systems of two humans (Warwick et al. 2002).

 Here we can see, quite literally, the cyborg as a distribution of self.  Beyond Gell’s (1998) dividuation, the cyborg is able to physically circulate itself across boundaries: not through the molting of ephemeral skins but by establishing tangible connections to the dispersed world.


             Where does this leave us?  I would argue it leaves us not at all but carries us forward.  In the question of subject or object, there no longer seems to be a question.  Warwick, the first human cyborg, puts it this way: “In the game of life and evolution, there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines”‎ (2004:60).  I agree, except I would substitute cyborg for machine.  As Haraway points out, the world is an intricate mess of differentially distributed arenas in which the body is only a small part.  You may chose to follow Deleuze and Guattari (1988) and call it a rhizome, Bennett (2205) and call it an assemblage, or Latour (1993) and call it a network, but the interrelatedness of the world, or worlds, is no longer a question.  What these models lack is a practical understanding of humanity’s part, precisely because they still see humans and nonhumans.  Cyborgs allow for both the recognition and transcendence of this barrier by carrying us into a dynamic universe with weak boundaries, strong cybernetic humanobjects, and endless possibilities.  I give that perspective a mechanical, commoditized, cut-bodied, reconstituted thumb’s up.


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Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari.  1988. Introduction: Rhizome.  In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 3-28. Athlone Press.

Falk, Dean.  2009.  Updating the Radiator Hypothesis. Florida State University.  Accessed May, 2009 at http://www.anthro.fsu.edu/research/falk/concepts.html.

Falk, D. & T. B. Gage 1998. Radiators are cool: A response to Braga & Boesch’s published paper and reply. Journal of Human Evolution v.35:307-312.

Foucault, Michel. 2003 [1963].  The Birth of the Clinic.  Routledge.

Gell, Alfred.  1998.  Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory.  Clarendon Press, New York.

Gold, E. Richard.  1996.  Body Parts: Property Rights and the Ownership of Biological Materials.  Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton.

Haraway, Donna.  1991.  A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. pp.149-181.

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Neff, Tony.  2003.  Personal communication.  Dr. Neff is an orthopedic surgeon at Des Moines Mercy Hospital specializing in the hands.

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An Esalen Invitational Conference.


[1] Pollical is the adjective for thumb.

[2] In 1984 Congress passed the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA), which prohibits the sale of human organs.

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