Rethinking the Digital Hand

wired hand

 In his essay entitled “Heidegger’s Hand,” the philosopher Jacques Derrida considered the appearance of the hand in the discourse of Martin Heidegger, where it occupied a central role in his meditations on technology, language, and thinking.[i]  For Heidegger, the hand is not merely an evolved bodily organ, which human beings possessed in common with, say, the higher apes.  Rather, the hand is an essential aspect of human existence—integral to human beings’ experience of historicity and meaning— insofar as through the hand humans grasp and displace objects, isolate them and gather them together, manipulate and shape them, and so on, in creative, world-making ways. Heidegger also did not fail to note that there was a deeply meaningful connection, registered etymologically in German and other Western languages, between manual “grasping” (griefen, Griff) and mental comprehension (begriefen, to comprehend; Begriff, concept).  Yet, for Heidegger, the hand’s role went still further, beyond its instrumental function as our living “tool” for grasping and manipulating objects, akin to our concepts and methodological frameworks; rather, in its most profound expressions, the hand can also speak and remain silent, open and offer itself, pray or curse, extend a gift to another hand, whether that gift is an object, a pat of encouragement, a sign of welcome, a caress of love, or the gestural articulation that accompanied writing a letter to a distant friend.  The hand, in short, rests at the center a whole set of practices that together constituted for Heidegger the complex activity of thinking, which includes but is not exhausted by conceptual and pragmatic operations.  Thinking extends across a richer set of conceptual and non-conceptual involvements with our world and with our fellow beings in the world.

As Derrida explains, for Heidegger thinking itself is a “handicraft” (38ff).  But in turn, this profound association of hand with the handicraft of thought raises the issue of technology, which for Heidegger is not defined primarily by the presence or absence of machinery, but by certain modes of being in which “thinking” is replaced by the exclusive domination of conceptuality and its objects.  In short, within the horizon of technology, the human subject insists on “grasping” the world exclusively in instrumental ways, using both concepts and tools to manipulate and transform objects, while forgetting other ways in which we may be involved in our world: the dialogue with materials that characterizes the work of the craftsman or the artist, the astonishment of a lover before the body of the beloved, our absorption in a landscape that we know not conceptually but with our senses and bodily memory, and so on.

Moreover, as we well know, technology in the narrower sense of machinery has penetrated the domain of manual technique itself.  The hand has been extensively prostheticized by machine and electronic technologies, which establish a distance between the hand’s immediate touch or grasp and its object, but at the same time multiply its powers, alter its sensitivities, and expand the spatial range of its effectiveness.  If Heidegger is correct that there is an intimate relationship between the hand and thinking, then such technological prosthetizations of the hand might be taken as symptoms of profound mutations in the nature of thinking as well.  We might say that what was, in the age of handicraft, only an analogical connection between the hand’s manual grasp and the mind’s instrumental concepts has now, in the digital age, become into a technology-mediated identity between the manual and mental.  The hand on a keyboard or operating panel or computer mouse now performs logical operations on immaterial, conceptual objects that are present to the human senses only by virtue of the electronic apparatus and its embedded software.

One might easily draw pessimistic conclusions from this technologization of handicraft and the concurrent disappearance of certain kinds of manual skill as a measure of value—especially in the arts, where manual technique has been a common feature of drawing, painting, and sculpture, musical performance, and even in poetry (above all in China, where the calligraphic, sonorous, and verbal dimensions of poetry are qualitatively conjoined by the actions of the hand).  However, it is also worth recalling, when we consider the effects of new media technologies on the question of skill and manual technique that the word “digital” itself retains a etymological connection with both the hand and speech, as if answering to Heidegger’s demand not to forget these aspects of thinking even as we enter into a new, pervasively technological epoch.  The word “digit,” etymologically derived from the Latin word digitus (finger) refers both to the fingers and to numbers, reminding us that counting was originally a concrete act of tallying on the fingers; and a further etymological connection exists between “digital” and the Latin verb dicere (to say, point out), which indicates a relation between the acts of saying something and pointing to something, or between a conceptual meaning signified by words and a space that can be tactilely penetrated and explored.  And “data,” the most abstract word to signify organized information in general, derives from the Latin verb dare (to give); “data” is what is given.  But as Derrida stresses, for Heidegger, the intrinsic givenness of being and time to human existence is not unrelated to the acts of giving that the human hand mediates, including the giving of meaning to language in the performance of speaking and writing.  In our digital world, despite first appearances, we may retain much of this interconnectedness of the manual and the verbal, as for example when we use our computer mouse to “point and click” on a symbolic icon, which in turn executes a logical operation to modify an immaterial, but sensuously represented object.


The digital hand might not necessary entail the disappearance of manual skill and handicraft, or as Heidegger might imply, the oblivion of richer forms “thinking” under the impoverishing influence of technology; it might rather represent a transformation of the hand and its various forms of expression and labor, offering creative possibilities of its own.  I don’t have time within the short space of this presentation to explore this question fully, so I will just briefly discuss two recent books, one by a digital practitioner and the other by a theorist of contemporary art, in which these questions are treated in suggestive, positive ways.

The first and earlier book, by the Harvard University designer and architect Malcolm McCullough, is entitled Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand.  McCullough sets out from the phenomenology of handwork and traces out how this phenomenology is appropriated and modified within digital technological contexts, concluding that the idea of digital or immaterial craft is only apparently a paradox.  Increasingly, it is a key feature of the theory and practice of digital media.  The book is partially an argument about the creative, engaging possibilities already present within digital practices of work and play.  McCullough shows how, in comparison to earlier mechanistic technologies, which did involve substantial deskilling in favor of increased, standardized production, “our nascent digital practices seem more akin to traditional crafts, where a master continuously coaxes a material.  This new work is increasingly continuous, visual, and productive of singular form; yet it has no material.”[ii]  But he also admits that design thinking involving digital technologies has not always lived up to its potentials to enrich and extend the handicraft of thinking.  Hence, the book also offers correctives to certain still-prevalent tendencies in digital theory and practice.

A particular focus of McCullough’s critique is the one-sided emphasis that computer and systems engineers have placed on output—as if the computer were just a smaller, faster kind of assembly-line that has allowed a quantitative leap in industrial productivity—to the detriment of attending to input, the qualitative experience of working with the computer and the creative aspects of the human-machine interface in the practice of working within the digital medium and acting upon immaterial, conceptual objects.  Since the computer allows sensuous representation of conceptual objects, for instance as visual transformable icons in two- or three-dimensional space, one direction in which input might be enriched is by greater engagement of the senses and the aesthetic imagination.  But another aspect of this interface is the role of symbolic contexts in engaging the attention, participation, and imagination of the human operator of the computer.  To put it simply, we are more creative when the computer offers us a stimulating, open environment in which we are called upon, in a genuine sense, to think and act, rather than just carrying out a set of restricted, stereotyped tasks.  Here, as computer technologies, but especially our thinking about computer technologies, have become more complex, the digital hand may seek to enact through its movements and manipulations of immaterial objects modifications that bear analogies with narratives, drawing, dance, musical rhythms, poetic figures, games, and other pre-digital, artistic or ludic ways of acting upon material media, spaces, and instruments.  In the course of exploring the untapped possibilities of digital media, McCullough suggests, we may thus rediscover aspects of traditional artistic media and techniques that remain formally appropriate in our new technological context.

The other book I would like to mention briefly as a contribution to this rethinking of the digital hand is John Roberts’s recent study entitled The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade.  Strictly speaking, as the title indicates, the book is not specifically focused on digital media, but rather a whole range of immaterial and conceptual forms of artistic labor following Marcel Duchamp’s innovative gesture of replacing the handicrafted art object with a pre-fabricated industrial object that represents a set of conceptual values.  Roberts has a far-reaching argument not only about art in the 20th and 21st centuries, but also about technology-driven transformations in the nature of general social labor.  In general, the locus of value in advanced industrial and post-industrial societies tilts away from manual manipulation of tools and the exertion of physical force towards conceptual and managerial organization of technically-dense, collective social processes of production.  Art after the readymade, with its decentering and diminishment of the role of the traditional artist’s skilled hand, offers a space in which to reflect upon this broader social process in which labor and value have been fundamentally transformed.

Roberts sees two key aspects of this shift in the nature of artistic skill after the readymade, and these are particularly applicable to digital media practice.  First, skill becomes increasingly a function of a conceptual activity rather than manual practice: “Artistic skills find their application in the demonstration of conceptual acuity, not in the execution of forms of expressive mimeticism.”[iii]  But secondly, the hand—especially the digitally prostheticized hand—returns as a second-order operator and manipulator of immaterial, conceptual objects, as an “intelligent machine”:

“The readymade may have stripped art of its artisanal content, but this does not mean that art is now a practice without the hands of the artist and without craft.  On the contrary, art’s emancipatory possibilities lie in how the hand in put to         work within, and by, general social technique (and therefore in relation to the techniques of copying and reproducibility), and not through the subordination of the hand to such techniques.” (4)

Even more than the “copying and reproducibility” that Roberts mentions, which are photographic in essence, the domain of general social technique today is marked by the omnipresence of digital information.  Hence, the artist’s hand after the readymade is increasingly that very digital hand that also concerned the designer McCullough.

In short, the digital hand is not merely an industrial slave of the electronic age, lacking in skill and forced to run through sets of pre-programmed, mechanical actions.  Instead, it is a version of what the artist’s hand, the craftsman’s hand, the poet or scholar’s hand, and the lover’s hand has always been: a means of marking, touching, selecting, interacting, molding, expressing, and refusing that remains essential to human thinking, even when that thought takes place increasingly in an immaterial environment of bytes and binary operations.




[i] Jacques Derrida, “Heidegger’s Hand (Geschlecht II),” trans. John P. Leavey Jr. and Elizabeth Rottenberg, in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume II (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2008) 27-62.

[ii] Malcolm McCullough, Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1996) x.

[iii] John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form: Skilling and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade (London and New York: Verso, 2007) 3.

2 responses to “Rethinking the Digital Hand

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