Tuesday, August 28, 2007

More, Too Much More, on the Hand


The deep ambivalence held within the human hand finds exemplary expression in the synecdochal hand, in the hand as simultaneously part of and figure for the whole human. Here the reflective hand-gazing of infancy, an originary experience of self-haunting, of captivation by the presence of being that, is as it were generalized and extended to others, so that its essential ambivalence (hand-as-instrument vs. hand-as-self) is split and projected onto different kinds of agents. The synecdochal hand thus takes two forms, each overcoming, one negatively and the other positively, the gap between being and hand. There is the hand of labor, a dehumanizing reduction of a being to a hand, a merely manual, ever-active, profane hand whose presence or touch is as literally proscribed as it is invisibly evoked though labor’s products and effects, the handmade. And there is the hand of power, a more than manual, sacred hand, a hand divinized into a being, the almost unmoving, all-grasping, commanding hand that, transcending manipulation and being manipulated, must be kissed, feared, invoked.

These two forms of the synecdochal hand come together in a definitive and mutually defining manner in the immixtio manuum of the medieval commendation ceremony, in which a vassal’s hands were held within those of his lord, the hand of labor (productive or military) within the hand of power. The legal content of the gesture, the exchange of service for protection, is contained within its symbolic fusion of hands as simultaneously instruments and embodiments of the two persons. The immixtio manuum thus operates through a fourfold meaning. Placing his hands in his lord’s, the vassal both gives his hands to his lord and gives himself into the hands of his lord. That is, he both gives his powers to the lord and brings his person within the lord’s power. Holding the vassal’s hands, the lord both holds the vassal with his hands and receives the vassal’s hands himself. That is, the lord both holds the vassal, the person, within his power and appropriates the vassal’s power as his own, as part of his person. Each significance is definable as one side of a moment of contact between a person and another’s hands as something distinct from yet bound to that person. The hands do not touch each other as such, nor do the persons. For these are inevitable possibilities whose meanings the gesture must invalidate or render invisible in order to fulfill its purpose. There can be no suggestion that the powers of the two persons, labor and the seigneurial power over it, themselves touch, share natures, or are interrelated in any substantial or mutual way. The ideological preservation of the latter as a distinct, self-sufficient thing, as an extension of intrinsic nobility, requires that. Nor can there be any suggestion that the two persons touch, for that would disrupt the asymmetrical, hierarchical feudal bond with the suggestion of mutual, equal friendship.

Rather, lord and servant can touch in the immixtio manuum, despite the threat of an improper contact between labor and power, because it is a gesture of covering and containment, of appropriation and sublimation, which are of the essence of power, as a force whose operation must be always at once operative and symbolically visible. The vassal’s hands do not so much touch the lord’s as are touched by them. Instead, the vassal’s hands, folded together, touch themselves, contain their own touch, and may thus be held by the lord without contamination. Indeed, it is more accurate to say that lord and vassal touch in the immixtio manuum not simply despite the threat of their improper contact but because of that threat. In other words, labor and power must touch so that their distinction and the distinction of the persons who wield them can be maintained relationally, so that their separateness is not overtaken by independence or simple difference, so that labor remains labor-for-power and power remains power-over-labor.

The consummate function of the immixtio manuum might thus be summed up as the production of the corporate body of the ruler within the individualized body of the lord, a production which has the form of a kind of alchemical transmutation, through the lord’s touch, of the laboring quality of the vassal’s hands into the non-laboring, powerful aura of his own. In other words, in giving his hands to the his lord, the vassal becomes a hand of the lord, and the lord’s hands become more than hands. Of course the ideological fiction, a reverse projection of the truth, is that the ruler’s hands are intrinsically glorious, possessing an aura that is independent of all that is beneath them. Thus the signaling of this aura in what F. L. Ganshof identifies as “the most explicit description of the act of commendation,” of King Harald of Denmark to Louis the Pious in 826: “Mox manibus junctis regi se tradidit ultro . . . / Caesar ad ipse manus manibus suscepit honestis” [Soon he delivered himself, with joined hands, to the king . . . and the emperor himself took his hands between his own glorious hands]. But what is most significant regarding the phenomenology of the hand, is that the immixtio manuum achieves this by capitalizing on the hand’s intrinsic ambivalence, its being always both self and instrument, so that the lord, economically and symbolically, becomes as the head of another as a hand.

A deeper implication of this reading of the immixtio manuum, in light of its continuities with Hegel’s master-slave or lord-bondsman dialectic, is that it points towards an origin for the dialectic not in the primordial encounter and contest between self and other, but in an analogous encounter and contest that is always already at play within the human being, more precisely, within the problem of embodiment, of being simultaneously a witnessing, commanding self and a witnessed, commanded thing. Via embodiment, one is always already an other, both in the totalizing sense of the thrownness (Heidegger’s geworfenheit) of existence, of self and body as a whole, and in the localizing sense of the ambivalence, the middleness of existence, of our being something between self and body, something both and neither. In these terms, embodiment is the primordial container of the encounter within which the master-slave dialectic begins:

"Self-consciousness has before it another self-consciousness; it has come outside itself. This has a double significance. First it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as an other being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for it does not regard the other as essentially real, but sees its own self in the other."

As self-sublation, as the structure whereby the body is another self and the self is an other, embodiment is the dialectic in which master and slave, as well as the impossibility of total differentiation of the two, preexist in the to-be-slave and to-be-master. Through embodiment we are already one-in-two and two-in-one in a manner that both invites and renders impossible total identification with, either as master or as slave, one or the other. Whence the soul/mind-body problem as a problem of distinguishing (or deciding) between the two, the representation of their relationship as a debate, and the ideological “solution” of the problem (a solution that remains trapped within it) of differentiating between slave and master by reducing the slave to, and thus producing the master as more than, a body.

Whence also murder-as-suicide and suicide-as-murder, as acts which achieve the opposite of their purposes via the impossibility of a total split between self and other, both within one being and between two. Killing the other, the murderer loses his self, becomes a suicide, as Hegel says, “the trial by death . . . cancels both the truth which was to result from it, and therewith the certainty of self altogether.” Killing himself, the suicide kills an other, becomes a murderer, as Augustine says, “Non occides, nec alterum ergo nec te. Neque enim qui se occidit aliud quam hominem occidit” [You shall not kill, not another, and therefore, not yourself. For he who kills himself kills another in that he kills a human being]. Murder and suicide, as killing a body to negate a self or destroy its encounter with the body, disclose the nature of embodiment as already an encounter between self and other. The crucial role played by the hand in these acts, as precisely what must be turned in order for them to take place, is conspicuous in that it points back to a kind of tension within the hand itself as something whose very nature, as a dialectic of self and body, must be violated or silenced by their agents. To murder with the hand seems to murder the hand, not its instrumentality, for the murdering hand is an exemplary instrument, one that overcomes considerable external and internal constraint, but its humanity, its being a space of dialogue between self and body, of embodiment. If murder is a negation of another being via the conceptual and physical reduction of a self to a body (albeit of a self, a face, that escapes such reduction), an act that says to its victim “you are a body” and makes it so, does it not do something similar to the hand of the murderer? Is not this hand’s traditional pollution (miasma), the invisible clinging of the victim’s blood to it, a residue of this twin reduction in the murderer, the stain of a body that is no longer other than a body upon a body that still is, yet a stain that is paradoxically constituted of what it stains, and therefore, the murderer’s own body as a pure sign of his reduction of a self, and the human more generally, to a body, of his metaphysical error and transgression? Such an equation, an instance of the slimy as explicated by Sartre, is suggested in the relevant lines from Macbeth, which trace a transmutation of the blood which stains the hand into the hand itself: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No – this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine” (2.2.59-61, my emphasis).

Whatever the ontological status of miasma, whether wholly imaginary or something between the poetic and the phenomenal, it offers, as a visible invisible, a concrete instance of a more general real relation (perhaps one that can only be concretized in the imagination) between the hand and the invisible embodied self. The hand, as intimate periphery and instant instrument, is a conspicuous locus of embodiment as a dialectic between self and body, a dialectic that subsists at the most literal level in our continual inner dialogue with our hands, our telling them to do things and learning how to do things by listening to them. Our being so fully in and so obviously other than our hands is embodiment writ small, a synecdochal sign of our being body and something other than body. The hand signifies this doubleness of being in the countless ways it is always more than a hand, but also gesture, a presence, a purpose, an intelligence, and so forth. This otherness of the hand, its always being more than a “mere” hand, is not simply something that is read of the hand, but of the hand’s very essence as a thing whose nature and function are determined by its being possessed by something other than it, by consciousness. This possession is not something static for fixed – our hands are not ours as things that are simply there – but is itself a modulation, a movement in consciousness, a self-body dialogue that represents consciousness’s continual negotiation of its identification with the body. Sartre’s example of bad faith, in which a person’s subconscious self-withdrawal from their hand distinguishes themselves as consciousness, as an immaterial self, perfectly unveils this dialectical movement:

"But then suppose he takes her hand. . . . To leave the hand there is to consent in herself to flirt, to engage herself. To withdraw it is to break the troubled and unstable harmony which gives the hour its charms. . . . We know what happens next; the young woman leaves her hand there, but she does not notice that she is leaving it. She does not because it happens by chance that she is at this moment all intellect. She draws her companion up to the most lofty regions of sentimental speculation; she speaks of Life, of her life, she shows herself in her essential aspect – a personality, a consciousness. And during this time the divorce of the body from the soul is accomplished; the hand rests inert between the warm hands of her companion – neither consenting nor resisting – a thing."

Yet the inert hand remains a hand. It is not a thing, but a hand-being-a-thing. And this possibility, the hand’s ability to be physically and discursively merely a hand, points, across the limit of the boundary between self and body, towards the essentially conceptual, linguistic nature of the hand.

The hand is not simply possessed, but is itself its possession, such that “hand,” the category through which the hand is possessed, or word-idea that possesses the hand, touches the hand itself as the medium through which the hand operates, through which one has and uses hands. Whence the human ability to use other parts of the body as hands through their possession as such. In the same way that language does not consist of words but of their speaking, such that a word is not only there to be used but is its own speaking, its own utilization, so the living hand is not the hand per se but its being used, not as something that is there to be used, but as using, as utilization itself. And the essence of this utilization, in turn, consists in having the hand, in consciousness, in language, such that we can say that the hand is a place where having a thing and having the word for a thing are most perfectly fused. Thus Heidegger’s account of this relation as the hand’s humanity in Parmenides:

"Man himself acts [handelt] through the hand [Hand]; for the hand is, together with the word, the essential distinction of man. Only a being which, like man, “has” the word, can and must “have” “the hand.” . . . The hand exists as hand only where there is disclosure and concealment. . . . The hand sprang forth only out of the word and together with the word. Man does not “have” hands, but the hand holds the essence of man, because the word as the essential realm of the hand is the ground of the essence of man."

Privileging language, Heidegger traces the humanity of the hand by following the word through it into writing and so laments the typewriter as a technology that “tears writing from the essential realm of the hand, i.e. the realm of the word.” But what is more deeply at stake here, what this account worries over but is in danger of eliding, is the relation between labor and language within the logos of the hand and with it the fact, noted by Engels, that “the hand is not only the organ of labor, it is also the product of labor.” If the human essence is founded on logos and the word is “the essential realm of the hand,” what is the status of the operative hand, the hand of labor, within this relation? In the incarnational coming to be of the hand “out of the word and together with the word” – a description that both acknowledges and frustrates the relation between manipulation and language, both essentializes and accessorizes the hand – where is labor? Does not the hand, via its very intelligence, point to a shared space of language-as-labor and labor-as-language, an originary place within the dialectic of self and body where thinking and manipulating, gesturing and speaking, touching and knowing are acts of a single organ, a single logos, a hand of the hand?

Labor and language have an essential but ambivalent relationship within traditional definitions of the hand. As a conspicuous point of contact between soul and body, the hand is both a place where labor touches language and a place where the two must be definitively distinguished. In the De partibus animalium, Aristotle takes pains to disqualify Anaxagoras’s view of the hands as a cause of human intelligence:

"Standing thus erect, man has no need of legs in front, and in their stead has been endowed by nature with arms and hands. Now it is the opinion of Anaxagoras that the possession of these hands is the cause of man being of all animals the most intelligent. But it is more rational to suppose that his endowment with hands is the consequence rather than the cause of his superior intelligence. For the hands are instruments or organs, and the invariable plan of nature in distributing the organs is to give each to such animal as can make use of it; nature acting in this matter as any prudent man would do. For it is a better plan to take a person who is already a flute-player and give him a flute, than to take one who possesses a flute and teach him the art of flute-playing. For nature adds that which is less to that which is greater and more important, and not that which is more valuable and greater to that which is less. Seeing then that such is the better course, and seeing also that of what is possible nature invariably brings about the best, we must conclude that man does not owe his superior intelligence to his hands, but his hands to his superior intelligence. For the most intelligent of animals is the one who would put the most organs to use; and the hand is not to be looked on as one organ but as many; for it is, as it were, an instrument for further instruments. This instrument, therefore, – the hand – of all instruments the most variously serviceable, has been given by nature to man, the animal of all animals the most capable of acquiring the most varied handicrafts."

Seen through the scope of these counterarguments, the idea that human intelligence could derive from the hands threatens not only the dependence of the hand’s operation on intelligence, but the whole teleological and providential fabric of the natural world whereby bodies are disposed in the best possible way and the human is the best animal with the best body. And yet the notion of the best that governs this argument, best as the most intelligent, is a space of significant tautology. The best explanation, the most reasonable explanation, is the one that preserves the superiority of reason, a superiority that is constituted relationally, by reason’s various relations to what is other than it: being a cause rather than a consequence of the hand, being prior to (as potentiality to act) the use of the hand, being capable of the maximum number of things with the hand. In other words, the argument, as reason’s argument, has the character of a self-preserving mechanism, a preservation of the independence and autonomy of the rational self (as master) vis-à-vis the dependence and contingency of the hand (as slave). The master (reason) does not derive from, depend upon, or learn from the slave (hand). Nor is the master’s nature constituted by being the master of the slave. The slave is indeed a most excellent slave, but he does not add anything to the master or alter him in any way. The slave does not introduce anything new into the master. Everything the slave can do, the master already knows how to, as the flute to the master flute player. In short, the slave has the character of a gift, a most excellent gift for a most excellent master.

The limitation of Aristotle’s account of the hand lies not only in its assumption of an intelligence that exists prior to and independent of the hand, as something to which the hand can be given, but more deeply in its elision of the dialectical interplay between hand and reason, soul and body, in the operation of human nature, an elision that is barely concealed behind the flute and flute player analogy. Just as giving a flute to someone who cannot play it is the only way to create a flute player, so the knowledge that uses the hand as the instrument of instruments exists only in relation to the hand itself. It is a product of having hands. The distinction between the hands and the intelligence which uses them remains. And we may say that knowing how to the use the hand as such is a potentiality of intelligence. But we cannot say that it is a potentiality only of intelligence. The hand has its own potentialities and knowing how to use the hands is as much about teaching the hands to do and learning from the hands how to do. As Bachelard says, “every hand is an awareness of action.” In other words, the operation of the hands touches and blurs the boundary, central to Aristotle’s Ethics, between faculty and habit (ethos, habitus), first and second nature:

"Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre."

On the one hand, the hand is like a faculty, an already present bodily power not created by use but ready to be put to use. So the hand can be willed into use in a manner similar to other faculties, as something that is already capable of what is asked of it. In the disagreement between Anaxagoras and Aristotle, this aspect of the hand is contained in the fact that both assume the hand as unique physical instrument, as an organ animals do not possess. That is, if an animal did possess a hand it would either not know how to use it or become intelligent as a human. This reifying concept of the hand is countered in the Romance of the Rose, where Nature imagines what would happen if animals had reason: “Hands would not be a problem, for the monkeys could work with their hands, so they would in no way be inferior to man; they could even be writers.” On the other hand, the radical instrumentality of the hand, its being so expressly constituted by its use by something other than hand, defines the hand as an acquired or habitual function. The hand actually becomes the hand by its being used as a hand, by the taking shape of the human person around and within the hand, which is of the essence of habitus as a stable disposition or second nature, as the condition of having the potential for something in such a way that doing it is natural, easy. Everything our hands do we have learned to do with our hands. But who has taught whom?

The difficulty of answering this question is the difficulty of distinguishing in any final way between primary and secondary, given and acquired, natures in the human being. So the possibility of asking this question is the ambiguity of embodiment, of our being simultaneously a body and something other than a body. “To be a body,” as Levinas writes, “is on the one hand to stand [se tenir], to be master of oneself, and, on the other hand, to stand on the earth, to be in the other, and thus to be encumbered by one’s body.” The hope, the wonder, the beauty of the hand is that it points towards a resolution of this difficulty, this ambiguity, this encumbrance. As the hand is an organ or means through which the human being becomes itself by becoming another, so does it synecdochally indicate the instrumentality of the whole body, not as its being the instrument of an independently existing consciousness, but as the instrument of consciousness itself, as the very organ or means by which consciousness is produced and realized as the consciousness of a more than corporeal being. In other words, the hand has the nature of a fulfillment, conceivable in both ontogenetic and evolutionary terms, of an originary habitus, a primal having of oneself, equatable with consciousness itself, that is the foundation for all other habit-ūs. Such a having is not having as the possession of something distinct from oneself or the holding of an object within one’s power. Rather this originary having is essentially the having of identification, the having of something as oneself that, being the equal of having something that has oneself, equals having oneself, the self-possession that, as a kind of magical product of possessing and being possessed, equals one’s very being. In these terms, the hand, as that which holds, is the physical ground of being as a metaphysical self-holding. The hope of the hand is that it manifests the identification of self with body, the holding-being-held at the heart of embodiment, not as a mistake or metaphysical predicament from which one must escape, but as an instrumentality, as an opening into freedom and possibility. As a site of marriage between the who and the what, of seamlessly being something that is in itself patently other than oneself, the hand speaks embodiment as the means of realization in the fullest sense, that is, not only as intellectual and/or material manifestation, but as the very making of the real, as the means through which anything is happening at all. The hand reveals embodiment as the identification, the simultaneous and non-contradictory making two of one and one of two, that is the foundation of the world as event, of the world as the very space of selves.

But this hope, which promises something like a reclaiming of matter for the spirit or an incarnational opening of the body as other than body, rather than representing an overcoming of instrumentality, rests within it, rests within and depends upon embodiment as instrumentality, upon the body as hand, upon labor . . .

1 comment:

Karl Steel said...

NM:

Far too much here, far too much richness, for me to handle it all in one shot. I've a few reactions and suggestions, the first of which is just praise for your material on suicide. Not that the other material is not good work, but that material marvelously manifests (see the etymological note, which directs us thus: See manus, infest), or, why not, fingers the kernel of what you're doing. I wonder if you've looked at Georges Minois's History of Suicide: voluntary death in Western culture or Alexander Murray's Suicide in the Middle Ages? I haven't, not yet, but I'm interested. But how wonderful to have recalled that bit from DCD I: how useful!

My medieval self also reacted to the fealty gesture, and as I was reacted, you wrote out my reaction. One mind: "the production of the corporate body of the ruler within the individualized body of the lord...In other words, in giving his hands to the his lord, the vassal becomes a hand of the lord, and the lord’s hands become more than hands"

I think of the sense of engulfment within the lord's body by which the vassal becomes part of the body politic. I then wondered, but I'm not going to check right now, about the depiction of hands in this tradition. What do Plutarch, John of Salisbury, or Christine de Pizan (Book of the Body Politic) say about hands? I know Strohm has material on this tradition in Social Chaucer....

I've found something from Policraticus here that might be useful:

"The hand of the commonwealth is either armed or unarmed. The armed hand is that which performs the soldiering of camps and blood; the unarmed is that which administers justice and, keeping holiday from arms, is enlisted in the service of the law. For not those alone do military service for the commonwealth who, protected by helmets and cuirasses, ply their swords or what other weapons you please against the foe, but also the advocates and pleaders of causes who, trusting to the bulwark of their glorious voice, lift up the fallen, refresh the weary; nor do they less serve mankind, than if they were preserving from the foe by the use of weapons the life, hope and posterity of those who are hard-pressed. Publicans, apparitors, and all officers of the law courts may also be said to perform military service. For as some offices are of peace and others of war, so it is necessary that the ones should be performed by one set of officials, the others by another.

The armed hand is employed only against the enemy, the unarmed is stretched out against the citizen also. It is needful that both should be subject to discipline, because both have a noteworthy tendency to viciousness. Besides, the way in which the hands are used bears witness to the character of the head, because, as Wisdom says, an unjust king has none but ungodly ministers; and as is the ruler of a state, so are those who inhabit therein. A magistrate, said Perides, blaming his colleague Soffocles, should not only have continent hands, but continent eyes as well. And the continence of rulers is praiseworthy when it is such that they not merely refrain their own hands from extortion and wrong, but restrain the hands of others as well.

The hand of each militia, to wit both the armed and the unarmed, is the hand of the prince himself; and unless he restrains both, he is not continent. And in truth the unarmed hand is to be curbed the more tightly for the reason that while the soldiery of arms are enjoined to abstain from extortion and rapine, the unarmed hand is debarred even from taking gifts. But if a lawful penalty is demanded of anyone, if it is a question in other words of exacting or receiving that which is fixed or allowed by law, then there is no ground for punishment or blame. Whatever it is, it cannot properly be called an exaction; nor does it fall into the class of gifts which officials are forbidden to receive."

Perhaps you might find more in Gigetta Dalli Regoli's Il gesto e la mano : convenzione e invenzione nel linguaggio figurativo fra Medioevo e Rinascimento, Jean-Claude Schmitt's La raison des gestes dans l’Occident médiéval, John Burrow's Gestures and Looks in Medieval Narrative?

What follows are impressions (etymologically descended from premo/premere, "to press, to bear down on, to touch, to hold fast, to firmly grasp, to overwhelm, and many others):

but in an analogous encounter and contest that is always already at play within the human being, more precisely, within the problem of embodiment, of being simultaneously a witnessing, commanding self and a witnessed, commanded thing.

Here I think of what's perhaps become a cliché, but Lacan's mirror stage would be of use here too. As would the work on 'phantom limbs' in Elizabeth Grosz's Volatile Bodies

I also wonder about the FACE. What happens if the face is taken between hands. What if the face was the agent of fealty? What about the face as agent of reconciliation (or betrayal) through kissing?

In re: MacBeth quote: also, from Hamlet, Claudius's failed prayer:
What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?

The hand obscured, enlarged, and rendered useless by a shell of blood.

Final impression for now, which is wondering about that Gregory of Nyssa passage that I once showed you on what would happen if humans lacked hands. It's perfect for what you're doing here.