On the Other Hand



'On the other hand' Craft Victoria Oct/Nov, 22 (217): 9-13 (1992)

This thing, the hand

There is a cabinet in the Royal Melbourne College of Surgeon's which contains a hand. This hand is cast from a mould made of the original of a famous Edinburgh surgeon, James Symes. It is a hand which evidences the kind of `gentle strength' attributed to the surgeon's touch. It grasps a scalpel. This hand has passed through several collections and re-cast in different moulds to find its way to the college in 1992. What might be its significance? Perhaps it relates to the intangibility of surgical labour: we are unlikely ever to see the best work of surgeons. The hand in the museum cabinet may thus carry with it the memory of the skill and effort that saved lives and alleviated symptoms. It is a visible symbol of their care, dexterity and wisdom. It is no wonder then, to find the hand of one of the most famous surgeon's, handed down.

There is something uncanny in a lone, detached hand. Its comic potential was realised in the character of Thing from the recently revived Addams Family. This detached hand runs about communicating urgently, taking messages and cleverly anticipating events. It is as though the hand can have a mind of its own. This is a line of thought followed by the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:

hands are a complicated organism, a delta in which much life from distant sources flows together and is poured into the great stream of action. Hands have a history of their own, they have, indeed, their own civilisation, their special beauty; we concede to them the right to have their own development, their own wishes, feelings, moods and favourite occupations.[1]

The Addams family provides an expression for this independence of hands. But why has this recognition waited until the end of the twentieth-century? We seem less dependent on hands now than we ever have been -- perhaps this is exactly the condition for the evolution of Thing.

Seriously, the Addams Family is a feudal organisation based on a menagerie of outmoded structures: extended family, hard cash, honour before expediency, etc. It is no surprise then that one of the main characters in the family is a hand. How far has work practice come from the days when the facility of the hand was deemed to be the major focus of individual skill!

In previous articles about Pierre's Bar and Pierre's laboratory,[2] I raised the story of the demise of craft in the modern era. This story didn't seem to take into account the new candidate crafts that were emerging, such as computer programming. Where the narrative of decline seemed best focussed was on the lessened significance of handiwork in technical practice. It is in the peculiar features of the human hand that we are able concentrate our attempts to think about the uniqueness of our current situation. In this article, I will briefly run through some features that seem to render the human hand as a unique device.

The other hand

The first feature we are likely to remember about the hand is that is not a singular device. Unlike a stick or a button or a hammer, the hand brings its other along. Its workmate often steadies the material to be worked: the silversmith holds the spoon to be filed; the painter gestures to the model while daubing the canvas; the writer holds the page down while inscribing it with the other. This other hand is the secretary, quietening things down, smoothing the path, and communicating to the outside world to make it easier for the main hand to act upon it. Two hands bring into play the master-slave relationship which was recognised by Hegel as the primary social formation and engine of historical transformation. In the regime of the right, the left is assigned menial duties which are necessary but are not the focus of action.

Show your hand

Despite this difference between themselves, the hands have a significant role in the expression of self. Hands are easily traced to their owners, often betraying them with involuntary actions: sweaty palms, shaky movements, etc. The fingerprint is still the most reliable form of unique identification. But outside the passive role that hands play in providing identification, in their actions they are the accepted legal standard by which a responsible agent acts in society. A document must still be signed by hand if it is to have validity. The artist's freedom of hand is seen to bring him or her close to making an authentic gesture.

Hands on

Because of this closeness, there is always risk involved in engaging with hands. Hands-off devices are partly justified by the high rate of hand injury in the workplace. Nowadays, with the salience given to AIDS, the possibility of contagion through hand contact further distances the hand from its previous involvement in the material world.

There is a measure of safety in this action at a distance. Hands are particularly vulnerable instruments for reading the world. Unlike the LED readouts on electronic devices, their input cannot be kept in store and regarded at leisure. One of the implications of this kind of immediate hands-on involvement is that an exploration of the world becomes a journey which puts the subject at risk. This risk increases awareness of the world. In case, this seems too abstract when applied to manual labour, you might find this description of surgical practice more convincing:

mostly you are a traveller in a dangerous country, advancing into the moist and jungly cleft your hands have made. Eyes and ears are shuttered from the land you left behind; mind empties itself of all other thought. You are the root of groping fingers. It is a fine hour for the fingers, their sense of touch so enhanced. The blind must know this feeling. Oh, there is risk everywhere. One goes lightly.[3]

The introduction of endoscopic procedures, where surgeons operate look through monitors while manipulating probes, has reduced the hands-on contact of surgeons with their patients. While this might seem unquestionably worthwhile, in that it reduces the trauma of open surgery, one can imagine certain losses entailed in this extended distance between surgeon and body. It may lessen the chance that the surgeon will come across something unexpected -- something found along the journey. In any case, despite the advances in this form of medical technology, open surgery is still necessary in cases of advanced disease. Both hands not only register their presence, but provide through their pressure, moisture, and certainty of movement a rich mix of capacities and information.

On hand

Thus far we have concentrated on the features of hand that act on the world. Hands, clearly, have an important role also in receiving the world. Here it is that the hands play such an important part in the identity of the crafts. By contrast with the painting on the wall, the craft object is produced explicitly to be inspected by the human hand. Indeed, it is the tactility of the surface which is one of the main sources of value in the craft object. For this reason, it is important to always have a human hand on hand while crafting the object so that the texture of the surface can be reviewed. This is one of the reasons why machining is still of only limited assistance in fine furniture work. When the smoothness of the wood is of ultimate significance, a hand is necessary to check the surface for ripples or invisible jagged pieces of wood fibre.

We have thus far discussed three features that might be particular to the device of the human hand: the master-slave dualism; the individual gesture; and intimacy of reception. Think about these three features for a moment and you might begin to wonder what kind of relevance hands might have in the modern world.

The world out of hand

Hierarchy, individualism and intimacy might all be considered outmoded conditions of human society. First, new management practices such as multi-skilling manoeuvre against the hierarchical relationships that might exist in the workplace. One might say that the new worker is ideally ambidextrous. Second, the individual gesture is no longer so closely tied to the peculiarities of the human hand. Identity is maintained more and more through numbers, such as the PIN numbers used to enter accounts in Automatic Teller Machines. And third, production is less likely to be related to the needs of humans. Economic orthodoxy at the moment appears to exclusively invoke international competitiveness: tariffs are to be abolished in order that manufacturing might become efficient enough to export its products. This ideology is grounded on economies of scale and management of a national economy: it relates little to the needs of individuals. There is nothing which advises that shoes should fit better, or that education should increase understanding: there should simply be more shoes and more degrees. The outcome of manufacture is irrelevant outside the terms of the market. So tomatoes taste like floury pulp -- but it is a floury pulp that is available all year round. As individual consumers, we find ourselves increasingly isolated from the objects that fill a day.

In all three features, technology has effected an `evening up' of difference, much like the digitalisation of an analogue signal. Who you are as an individual no longer has critical standing in the work you perform, the marks you make, and the things you appreciate. To state the obvious, technology seems to have taken things out of our hands.

Look towards tradition

The story that I have told thus far leaves us in a familiar position in regard to the crafts. Identified with the human project, the crafts are a herald for the attempts to make something of the material world we inhabit -- to leave a mark on the cosmos that is more than a graffiti tag, but a measured response to the being of the material world. As such, the decreasing role of humans in the technological fabric is naturally accompanied by the lessened significance of the hand in the manufacture of objects. This kind of narrative puts us into the mode of mourning. We hang our hands by our sides and slouch off to the supermarket. Out of sheer perverseness, perhaps, I think it is worth trying on a different picture. And I'd like to conclude this series of three articles with a hypothetical place for the handicrafts of ceramics, hot and cold glass, weaving, metalsmithing, woodcarving and turning, and leatherwork.

You can do more with the traditional than casting it aside as an old family relation. The traditional offers itself as a counter to the modern, not as its victim. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the traditional is all the more interesting and powerful given the presence of modern. In this case, the substance of hands is revived by the current transformations in work practice. While manufacture depended on human hands for the fashioning of objects, their particular presence was taken for granted. More often than not, they were simply looked upon as tools, as means to an end. Now that their presence is less useful, hands are made available for a different, more philosophical kind of consideration.

There are two points which gather around the hand. First is the notion of `reversibility' that is brought into play in the experience of clasping left and right hand together, as in the gesture of prayer or the interlocked hands of the old-fashioned singer. Both hands touching completes the circuit, but in doing so gives rise to a radical instability. Which hand touches and which is touched? The status of active and passive reverses wildly. The French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty uses this experience to underpin his concept of the `intertwining':

My body as a visible thing is contained within the full spectacle. But my seeing body subtends this visible body, and all the visibles with it. There is reciprocal insertion and intertwining of one in the other.[4]

The `intertwining' brings responsibility into the act of perception. Merleau-Ponty argues that perception entails more than just the act of taking in information from the world: perception is folded into itself, the perceiver is also the perceived. This duality is necessary in order to co-ordinate the various senses together and take account of how one's body acts to gather the world into the perceptual field: one must see where one is in order to interpret what one sees.

The hands are thus an important source for self-consciousness -- they touch the touching. This is a self-consciousness which is arguably absent from technological modes of activity.

There seems increasing pressure on traditional institutions to join the main competition. The University of Melbourne, for instance, is being urged to forgo its `stuffy' traditions and place itself as a more streamlined and adaptive institution in the educational marketplace. In effect, this means that it should look like Monash University, its main rival. This kind of logic fears that difference will lead to isolation. It does not wish to gamble on the possibility that the traditional identity of Melbourne University might indeed be its main source of differentiation.

The same logic might apply to the use of hands in craft work. Clearly, machines promise to make work easier and more reliable. To do things by hand is to make life difficult. Difficulty can imply many things. It can be the source of achievement: a task needs some resistance to make itself seem worthwhile. Difficulty here provides the basis for the labour that extends the self beyond its own desires. In this sense, it is not that life wasn't meant to be easy, but that life shouldn't be easy.

At this point, I must own up to being a writer -- a person, therefore, who enjoys the luxury of not having to put difficulty into material practice. As a maker, you might see the notion of difficulty as I've outlined it as being a purely philosophical point -- a notion, therefore, which is unlikely to stand up to the rigours of life in the real world. Difficulty moves in the opposite direction to the call for more efficient work practices. I can't argue against the line that market competition makes efficiency more important. What I feel I can argue is that the modern world requires a difference of this kind. So, in regard to difficulty, there is a place for objects that are seen to be produced at greater than necessary labour -- the work of the maker in its excess testifies to the importance of the object.

Please consider

These three articles involve a struggle to identify the place of the crafts in contemporary society. In essence, they move towards an alternative to the two major options that had appeared open. In the first option, the critique of the demise of craft story from New York was aimed at the nostalgic attempts to refrigerate the crafts in the humanistic sentiment of a past where humans could be seen as still containing the powers to change the world. And in the second, the argument against the complete modernisation of the crafts was focused on the notion that to partake of this world requires one to be the same as everyone else. The two options placed craft in the complete centre and the absolute periphery respectively. I sense that I do not need to lead you far to suggest that the truth might be somewhere in between these two. That crafts might stand for a means of production which does not necessarily carry the status of the origin -- it is enough for it to suggest a different mode of activity, one which brings along with it an alternative means of apprehension and appreciation.

If proof is needed of this, then one need look no further than advertising itself to see how products are now beginning to be promoted on the basis of their craftsmanship. Even cars, whose production is as far away as possible from the simple handiwork of the lone craftsperson, are now being sold as products of `Japanese craftsmanship'. The campaign for Mitsubishi Magna in 1991 defined the Magna as `a stylish tribute to its craftsmanship.' And reference was made to the pains taken in the construction of the car in an abstract sense:

To understand the beauty of nature as a whole, one must study a single blade of grass. Then the one next to it. And then the one next to that...

The Magna campaign was quite different to mainstream car advertising. There was no mention of value for money or the statistics of motor performance. Attention was paid instead to its style and refined philosophy: what would normally appear to be quite superficial elements of a car. What this advertising suggests is the potential for consumers to identify with their objects of desire and therefore to be concerned with the kind of care they have been given. The idea of a well-crafted product thus invites a positive inspection.

Where is Pierre?

Finally, those who have read the previous two articles might have noticed an absence of the character `Pierre' who first owned a bar in New York which seemed to contain no craft, and second ran in endocrinological laboratory in France whose technicians proved expert in their craft. But Pierre's absence has in the past produced many interesting insights. It was Sartre who opened his philosophical epic, Being and Nothingness, with the absence of a friend named Pierre from a cafe. For the French existentialist, Pierre's lateness provided the focus by which all the objects in the cafJ are made the ground for his perception:

... now Pierre is not here. This does not mean that I discover his absence in some precise spot in the establishment. In fact Pierre is absent from the whole cafJ; his absence fixes the cafJ in its evanescence; the cafJ remains ground; it persists offering itself as an undifferentiated totality to my only marginal attention; it slips into the background.[5]

Whether or not you agree with Sartre about nothingness as the ground of being, you might concur with his general point that absence can be as important as presence. For this reason, not matter how innovative, seamless and powerful the developments in new technology might be, they will only seem so contrasted against the older versions such as the handmade. Technology requires an other to satisfy its appetite for transformation. On the other hand, please consider the hand.


[1]. Rainer Maria Rilke Rodin and Other Prose Pieces (transl. G. C. Houston) London: Quartet, 1986 (orig. 1902), p. 19

[2]. `There is no craft in the Pierre Bar' Craft Victoria March/April, 22 (213): 5-7; `There is craft in Pierre's laboratory' Craft Victoria July/August, 22 (215): 4-6

[3]. Richard Selzer Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974, p. 94

[4]. Maurice Merleau-Ponty The Visible and the Invisible (transl. A. Lingis) Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968 (orig. 1964), p.138

[5]. Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness (transl. by H. Barnes) New York: Citadel Press, 1956 (orig. 1943) p. 10