Your dead hands

Man has shaped the world.

Try to find a place on our planet that has not been affected by us. 

We have changed the world with our hands. Our particular situation - the combination of available arms and hands with opposable thumbs and a huge brain - has allowed us to put our distinctive mark onto the world. We are crafting the world. 

But the individual today is is no longer a craftsman. Many more people go to the universities now compared to 30 years ago. In the universities you gain knowledge and thinking abilities, but seldom abilities with your hands. The brain alone cannot shape the world. At some point hands need to come into play. These days it is the hands of someone else, or mechanical hands. Most things that surround us - if not all of them - are made by other people or machines. Look around. Can you see anything that you made yourself? Anything? Maybe some art that you made, or a paper that you’ve written. But is there an item you use daily that you’ve made yourself? 

Our hands are dead. We are not using them anymore. You can have a PHD but not know how to change a bike tire. You live in a world that you have not shaped actively, you just arranged items that someone else made. Needing to work with your hands to make a living is seen as a low class job today. High paid, high class jobs are done with the brain. The brain and the hands have been economically separated. Someone thinks, someone else does. 

Can you understand the world without your hands and body? With just your brain? 

The cognitive demand of a crafting task, the problem solving involved in a crafting task, can be immense. Here we have mathematics, physics and chemistry in action. And in action, the knowledge required is often different than in theory. 

Can brain and hands meet again? Become one again? A whole body, instead of an assembly of separated parts? 

In Praise of your Hands

Our hands are the base for technology. With our hands we create. Creating and making are human traits, traits that made us who we are, that are an integral part of our Dasein1. We are not just defined by thinking. Plato and Aristotle made the claim that thinking is the highest of all pursuits and that working is a sin. That the most virtuous thing is to be a philosopher. 2500 years later, people who work with their hands are in a lower class than people working with their head. The agricultural revolution and the specialisation that came with it made the body obsolete for many. And then came the human that stopped taking immediate part of the world, which culminated in a guy lying around in bed a lot and phrasing the dictum "cogito ergo sum", a phrase that confused many people until they too started believing they would only be if they thought, and that got us even further down the body-denial-hole. Some time later the steam engine came along and after that the combustion engine and airplanes and then came Malcom McLean with the idea of the intermodal container and then western managers thought the asian people could be used as robots and now a t-shirt is cheaper than eating dinner and capitalism slowly turned us into unable people who all became specialists. And now we can do one thing very well but nothing else. Capitalism is based on specialists, who are more productive on the one hand and in need of other specialists on the other hand. 

Like this we can be much more productive, because if you have a person who, let’s say, wants to make a cotton shirt without the help of other people, this person would need to grow cotton, with all the knowledge that is involved in being a cotton farmer, which is already a lot. Then he would need to make thread out of the cotton, after that weaving the cloth and then sewing it into a shirt (and before that making a needle). At this point someone very smart realises that this is a very slow process, and that it would be indeed quicker to have a person who is just farming cotton, someone just spinning, someone only weaving and someone only sewing. Because if you do only one thing, you get very good at it and you become quicker and more precise. So four people who specialise in one step each of making a cotton shirt will produce more shirts in the same time than four people who work all alone on all the processes of making a shirt. And since that specialist in sewing doesn’t know how to weave, you've created people who are very dependent on each other. You've created a market. 

But now you have also created people who are more fragile than before, because you took away skills from them, skills that are now represented by other people. There is no need to get into the catastrophic scenarios of "what if the weaving person dies all of a sudden" etc. But I like to drift along to a more romantic idea. Although four people being involved in the process of making a shirt is a wonderful testament of the human ability to cooperate, there is a certain beauty in the thought of a single person who went through all these processes alone. There is a certain beauty in the idea of this ableness of a human being. 

I am perplexed by most people who talk bad about schools, saying things like "they don’t prepare kids for the real world". What they mean is: For capitalism. For work. 

But fortunately schools do actually fail in that. Fortunately german kids have to read Goethe instead of Adam Smith. A good school should do everything other than preparing you for what people call "life". As "life" seems to always be a very limited idea in most people, that consists only of a few things. I do not want to defend the schools, as I think there are huge problems with them, but I think those problems arise because the schools try to prepare kids for the so called "life" way to much.

How are you supposed to understand the world without a vast treasure trove of experiences?

I feel like/that specialisation often leads not to a better understanding of the world, but to a very limited one. And so many people suffer from a society that is trying to force them to specialise, to be clear about what they are about, what they do, to have an answer to "what do you do?", to finish the painting that they are, instead of remaining a white canvas that is always ready to take some new colours2. I feel the need to revolt against that.

As if the hands are worth nothing, we give away our work to machines and robots. But a musical instrument that is made by the hands of a craftsman with very simple tools will always be different from an instrument made in a factory. Even if it would sound exactly the same it would still be different. And that is true for everything. The human hands give something to the things that the energy-slaves3 do not. To have skilful hands is beautiful. We are creators, artisans. Every material has its own unique ways of how it wants to be worked with and made into something. Stone, wood, metal, cloth, clay, glass, bone. Being able to create with our hands leaves us with a feeling of empowerment, especially if we are part of the whole process. The worker at the conveyor belt leads a strange existence, as, although he creates, he is not taking part enough in the process of the creation. He is left with a feeling of disconnect or being a cogwheel in a machinery. To let the hands do a tiny fraction of work on ten thousand things is sadness compared to a man who can create one thing but can say "this is my work, I created this". The division of labour is leaving the person with a feeling that he is not a person, that he is only a small piece of a person. The happiness of the indigenous people in the world who still live like thousands of years ago is also due to the immediacy of their actions and of their full knowledge about how to survive and be able to take responsibility for themselves. Essentially being a grown up, a person. Whereas the capitalistic society wants to keep us in the state of the child.

Die Axt im Haus erspart den Zimmerman4.  

Let us praise our hands again. Practicing a more moderate division of labour5. Doing things ourselves and through that also being-in-the-world, weaving-us-into-it. Understanding through our hands. 

  1. 1) No direct equivalent exists in English. Being, being there, presence, existence… It is a heavy word. ↩︎
  2. 2) Bartz, Joseph - How to cut the cake ↩︎
  3. 3) A term I took from Niko Paech and his book "Befreiung vom Überfluss". ↩︎
  4. 4) Friedrich Schiller - Wilhelm Tell ↩︎
  5. 5) Moderate Arbeitsteilung. Also a term I took from Niko Paech and his book "Befreiung vom Überfluss". ↩︎

Joseph Bartz