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

Note on „Your Dead Hands“ #1

Videos as a text (created by Oskar Henke):

This essay is about making things with your hands.

Today, more people want to study at the university than there’s room for in the courses. In Germany, we have three different basic degrees. One is very rudimentary: it’s nine years long and it’s not very useful. Almost no one does it anymore. Then there’s one that you can do a bit more with, and then there’s the highest one, which will allow you to study at the university. More and more people are opting for this highest one.

It used to be that very few could do this one. In socialist eastern Germany, a chosen few went for the highest degree, and the majority would choose one of the other two. Back then, society was more planned out: “we need this many people for this job, and this many for that job”. So it was more planned ahead of time, and we trained the number of people we needed.

Now we are in a different situation. What happened in recent years is that higher education has become more and more accessible for people. This is great in many ways. It’s wonderful that people are highly educated, because higher education might be important for peace and other aspects of society.

So we have more people wanting to go into academia than we need, but we have too few people wanting to do manual labour jobs. There are many openings for apprenticeships to become an electrician or a metal worker or whatever. More openings than there are people wanting to do it. This is not because people’s hands suddenly fell off and they can’t do those kinds of jobs anymore. It’s because we are living in a culture that values thinking much higher than creating something with your hands. The mind is valued higher than physicality.
Western philosophy also has this problem. Many philosophers have argued that the mind is the highest aspect of being human. Not much value is ascribed to working with your hands. Peculiarly, these people spend their time in buildings constructed by people using their hands, and they live lives that depend largely on things made by people using their hands.
So our society has gone very far into valuing the mind highly. Jobs that predominantly utilize the mind are usually paid better — or at least valued higher — than manual labour jobs.

Ironically, this has created a situation where there are not enough people wanting to work in manual labour, leading to the manual labourers being able to work as much as they want and to charge more. Because the work is abundant. A lot of people are moving into the cities from the countryside, so there’s a lot of building needed in the cities to accommodate them. With all this demand and limited supply, the manual labourers can charge more for their services than they historically have been able to.

But what is the reason we value work using the hands so much lower than work using the mind? In his book “Peak”, Anders Ericsson claims that there is no such thing as talent: it always comes down to putting in the proper amount of deliberate practice hours. If you want to be a great musician, you need to practice deliberately for a certain amount of time, and so on and so forth. Ericsson shows several examples, including one of a Czech man who trained his three daughters to become world champion chess players. He decided before they were even born that they would become chess players to claim that people can become anything if they are in the right surroundings and put the work in.

I believe we are seeing the same thing happen with higher education. Now it’s more accessible, and more and more people are doing it. Arguing from Anders Ericsson’s standpoint, this means that there’s nothing inherently more unique about studying mathematics than about being an electrician. If everyone has the potential, it only comes down to being in the right environment and having access.

Obviously, some things are more difficult than other things. Higher mathematics require a lot of time, whereas you can learn basic pottery in a few hours. But the path to mastery, no matter the subject, is a long one.

I want to bring up an example in the field of pottery. A while back, Annika and I went to a pottery workshop. We were working with our hands only, without using the turntable. Despite this, we noticed that people tried to make things that looked precisely like store-bought things, like something a machine would make.

Annika, however, made something a bit different. She made a different structure. It’s not something a machine would usually make (although of course you could probably make a machine that makes this). The point is, it’s not something you can usually buy. It’s something special. It’s made with the hands and it has a unique look. But most people, on the rare occasion that they do work with their hands, they want to create something that looks machine-made. It’s a weird situation.

Why can we not make things ourselves and have them look hand-made? For some reason, people don’t seem to like the hand-made look. Things need to have this square look: there should be no other lines than straight lines and perpendicular angles. And for some reason, we look down on things that look handmade.

It’s a weird thing, but it’s a cultural one. I’ve met so many people who have no clue how to work with their hands. Even people who are very skilled in movement, people who teach international workshops but literally cannot change a bike tire. Such things are very basic in my opinion. In eastern socialist Germany, everyone knew how to do these things. Women weren’t excluded back then, but now they are in many fields. Or, let’s phrase it better: work with the hands has somehow become gendered. Like knitting or tailoring, certain things are considered more female, while things like working with wood and metal are considered more male.

Why is it like this? The only reason seems to be that some things require more physical strength. However, these days, with all the power tools we have, that difference has been nullified in many ways. You don’t need excessive physical strength to work with wood. Yes, some jobs are still easier for men. If I order a washing machine, most likely it will be delivered by men because it’s so heavy. But looking at materials, they don’t need to be gendered. Be that as it may, I still get looked at weirdly whenever I go to buy cloth or fabrics to make a t-shirt or something. The people there don’t consider me a customer from my looks. As soon as I buy something, they realize that I’m not lost and looking for a way out, but I’m actually there intentionally to buy cloth. Still, I see the looks I get from the women - it’s always women working in and owning these shops. I see the looks saying “what the fuck are you doing here? You don’t belong here; this is a shop for women”.

Maybe we can attempt to transcend this notion that certain crafts and materials are for men and some for women. That would be nice. However, the biggest thing to transcend seems to be that we value work with the brain so much higher than work with the hands. Everyone is working on the computer these days; everyone wants to work on the computer. But the house I am writing this in was built partially with machines, but also with hands. Nothing like this can be built without capable hands that can craft, knowing how to do all these things. You can’t do that on the computer. All real things are made by the hands, not by computers, not merely sitting there.

You can consider the hands an extension of the brain, but if we want to create something real and live in the real world, we need to use them.

To summarize: we are in a situation where more people want to go to university than to work with the hands. This means we have too few people who want to do manual labour jobs. This is not because of some innate physical or mental aspect of our beings, imprinted from the start. It’s a cultural thing; it’s because of what’s valued and what’s not. If the work of the brain is valued higher, it’s what people will want to do. People want to do what is valued higher. This is a problem we face at the moment.

I talk about this because it seems a bit sad to me that people have so little skills with the hands that they don’t want to do stuff themselves because it’s not valued very highly.

I would suggest looking into Niko Paech’s very interesting idea of moderate division of labor. He suggests that we only work 20 hours per week instead of 40, and then use more time making things ourselves instead of buying them. This I think is a wonderful idea. I think it would improve our lives tremendously. We would be much happier, I believe, since it would make us more connected to things. To where our clothes come from, where our food comes from, and so on and so forth.

Naturally, you won’t be great at making things in the beginning. Of course, you will lack the skills if you’ve never done it before. My suggestion is just to start doing it. Don’t assume that it will be perfect in the beginning. But for every time you do it, it will get better. And the feeling of empowerment that comes with seeing that it’s possible, that we can make things ourselves, is immense.

Thank you for reading this. I will now go drink a cup of tea from the lovely cup Annika made.

Note on „Your Dead Hands“ #2


Joseph Bartz