September, 2002

“The Poetic Hand”


... and he spread his HAND out with the palm downward. Into all the wrinkles and crevices he set things looking like shinning yellow corn grains, in the dark of the early world-dawn they gleamed like of fire. They moved as his HAND moved over the terraces shinning up from below, moving in the depths of the water.


(Zuni creation story)


I often use a ‘law’ that I find is a fundamental principle in problem solution. I call it the “Law of the Diagonal”. It is that in any problem the actual solution lies in a diagonal conceptual relationship to what has been targeted as the apparent solution.


While the study of consciousness is at present in fashion, most the studies on it and of it are filled with blind alleys, logical reductio-absurdums, mechanical and machine-like analogies and other labyrinths of post modern, highly mannerist invention. These days, the computer, a la the Hal-2001 mythologies, is the feebly inadequate fantasy.


For our gathering here at haystack, I propose that the problem of human consciousness, which is at present focused on the brain, might be better ‘diagonally’ directed to the hand -- that extremedy, which so often is ahead of the brain in daily life. In the hand lies a bodily lens through which consciousness can be directly glimpsed and productively studied. Where better to find immediate consciousness than in hands. The hand is fertile metaphor and model for the study of consciousness.


To emphasize the notion of the inherent physiological synergies of consciousness, it is important to note: the forward positioning of the eyes, upright walking (freeing of the hands), the opposed thumb and the evolution of the cerebral cortex, as well as the development of cranial physiology -- all present themselves in an integrated matrix from which hominid ‘consciousness’ takes on luster and blooms.


Touch is the primordial base of consciousness – all consciousness is based on contact. Touch is primary

and underlies all other sensory development. The senses evolve or branch from the base sensation of touch or contact, and, in particular, the hand is a focal organ in the broadly distributed sense of touch spread out in the vast organism of the skin which I think of as a whole and unique organ.


It is the world touching us and we touching the world that is basic to consciousness. It is the ever-changing contact with the environment or other, caused by the event of living, which finally synergized human consciousness. Reciprocally, it is this everchangingness that redefines the inner consciousness of our organism laying the basis for reflexivity of consciousness, i.e., when we find a tool to shape something new in the world we also shape something new in ourselves, in our consciousness.

What inward consciousness do new tools engender?


In the ‘poetic’ dialogue of the hand is a basic analogue to being, revealed in becoming, motivated by unconscious and conscious intention, gloved with contextual culture. Not only does the hand touch but it acts upon the world: it does, makes and forms. It is the primary poetic or forming instrument.

Consciousness is integrative in its fundamental reality and process. The hand integrates, mingles, connects and hinges consciousness. It is a catechism of logics. It expresses: antithesis, deduction, induction, symmetry, asymmetry, metaphor, analogy, etc. So many aspects meet in the hand and in its wholeness and unity. In a certain way, it is an independent phenomenological entity.


To understand an integrated entity it is illogical to think that it can be understood by a process of isolating dissection and dismemberment when the very form and principle of its reality is synergetic, dynamic and holistic.


The old Egyptian mathematical idea applies to the problem: when whole is divided, all the re-assembled fractions can never add up to the one or the whole again-- all the various fractions represented in the Egyptian eye can never add up the number one! We can never glimpse the whole once it is fractured. Therefore, we can see a microcosm of this wholeness in the holistic organism of our hands.

Another complaint is that the study of human carbon based more Brownian consciousness cannot be re-presented in silicone based consciousness simply because if consciousness were silicone based it would be built there to begin with and it is not -- we are building it in silicone, not silicone building itself -- we are building another form of intelligence. Perhaps it is in silicone based intelligence that other ways will be found back to our carbon based living mind as a means of reflection -- through the reflective, mirror-glass nature of silicone. The carbon basis of living consciousness is perhaps there for a profound reason expressing another form of evolution through carbon consciousness. Probably, consciousness is carbon based for a reason! The universe has vast intelligence.


Through a broader poetic understanding of the hand we can see an immediate hinge between the world and sentient being -- a transformational zone, a capacitance. The hand is an immediate and palpable model in, on and through which we can more tangibly and intimately reflect on the delightfully devious problem of consciousness.


But back to my simple assumption -- if we truly contemplated the hand and all its internally related systems as well as all its externally related fabrications --tools and technologies and art -- we would have, close at hand, something palpable that focuses, reflects, refracts and diffracts consciousness in potentially tangible form and relieve our inquiry from the mirror labyrinth of the brain, let alone some respite from the nearly endless plenum of the wonder-filled mind. I can imagine a ‘geometrical’ optics of consciousness where certain principles could be discovered, tested and understood when deeper brain process remain obtuse, abstruse or even opaque.


A small avalanche of not particularly ordered sets of the simpler aspects or principles of this ‘geometry of consciousness’ are briefly indicated below:


Touch/hand is the first concussion of consciousness on the skin which is the holographic surface of consciousness, the interference pattern between consciousness and environment. This interference yields the haptic image and engenders movement.


Touch/hand is a resonant harmonic of consciousness touching the world.


The touch/hand manifests inward intentionality outward toward the world.


The touch/hand is an instrument of that intentionality.


The hand is a breathing‘ capacitance-lens’ created by the ecstasis (exhaling, pressing outward, sending) of consciousness outward and the entasis (inhaling, the pulling inward, receiving) of consciousness or the pulling inward from the environment/world toward the human entity and its internality.


The hand is a branch, part of all things branching -- and in particular consciousness branching outward as in Thoreau’s fabulous fantasia of thawing in ‘Walden Pond”.


It is a fractal surface.


The hand is mnemonic it remembers and is often used in mnemonic systems, an instrument and aid to memory as in its use in remembering Gregorian Chant, in sight singing and astronomy.


The Hand is a fateful cosmic imprint an image of destiny, i.e. palmistry and other hand divinitory practices.


Grasping and holding the hand repels and expels.


The hand forms the caress and the blow.


The hand identifies, points, indicates.


The hand forms and destroys


The hand plays multitudinous games.


The hand makes music: plucking, strumming, beating, fingering.


The hand is erotic, a sexual instrument and fetish.




The hands use instruments and tools as extensions of its multiple identities. It is surrounded in a radiant phenomenology of itself in the extraordinary manifestation of its tools and implements. The study of this halo of technological implementation is central to our concern here at Haystack. It is interesting to look at this from the point of view of George Kubler, seeing what are the more or less closed sequences of certain tools and the open sequences of other tools and implements, e.g. those engaged in making activities that are part of open or continuously iterating cultural sequences as in the arts.


To conclude this brief cascade, it is most interesting to look at the extraordinary power and immediacy of the hands as imaging devices and that the differentiation between right and left is so radical, decisive and swift.


When working in the general area of memory, I move from the memorizing physiology of the eye, to the location of memory imaging, then to the hands, and further, more generally, into he body. Here the focus is on the work with the hands.


We begin with simply focusing concentration on the left hand, the hand alone -- as if you were just a hand. In most cases this is a very easy meditative focus. (This is often preceded by some simple hand meditation exercises to get concentrated on the hand.) Then I ask everyone to remember a simple form on his or her left hand, usually a cube or a sphere (often, early childhood blocks or balls). Then they are asked to describe what the perceived. (This description can be later imaged in drawing, painting or imaging.) I then ask the same question of the right hand (without any preparation). Again a remembered cube or sphere will appear but almost always a radically different image, perceived in quite different ways! This can be done with any object or situation with extraordinary sets of images and events made immediately apparent.


Similar radical results can be obtained by shifting the word requests to imagine, intuit, fantasize, and dream. The hand imagery is again swift and various, It is also clear that we are engaging a larger holistic gestalt mechanism in which mid and body are one and simultaneous.


I often ask students to reach out and touch something that has never existed, i.e. to imagine a new home from the first touch and feel of its door knob or a new city from your first touch of it. Startlingly original images appear from such a simple request.


In recent artistic experimentation at Carnegie Mellon University I would like to point at the works of Stellarc and in particular his artwork with the robotic hand/arm. In the use of his human nerves and muscle to control the mechanical and electronic robot arm/hand and the use of the disembodied internet to control his own bodily arm by other at a distance. Both of these artwork/performance point to extraordinary issues concerning the nature of control let alone the remarkable integrated consciousness of both systems operating simultaneously.


Another artist whose recent work opens us new perspectives with the hand is Dr. Sean Bidic, who is also a reconstructive surgeon. His new artwork and research is a robotic, anatomically accurate, hand activated by speaking through speech recognition software. By speaking to the hand one can activate different movements with the hand.


In my own art, the hand has relentlessly and rhythmically reappeared as a central motif:

Two obsessional hand gestures from historical art: Cravaggio’s reaching gesture in the “Calling of St. Mathew”, and the hand of Erasmus of Rotterdam in Holbein’s portrait of him.


The “Hand/Narcissus” a series of 12 drawings from 1968


The “Moonbounce” holograms and the “Anointing Cup” pouring out the purified water of the “Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture” at the Diamond Spring at Yellow Springs, PA


The “Moonhand Blooming”, the last gesture of offering at the end of time, the 5th Aspect of the “Quiet Axis”


In conclusion, it is my hope that we, through a more poetic and playful approach using a ‘diagonal ‘ methodology will be able to uncover important insights between the hand and technology, consciousness and culture, that will evolve new approaches for emerging hand interface technologies expanding tactile consciousness.


In the Ancient Egyptian Heliopolitan Myth, in the unmanifest, Atum (becoming Re), the demiurge, in his stuttering alliteration around the many meanings of the verb to become/to transform says:


I became, the becoming became, I have become in the becoming.


I did all that I desired/loved in the unmanifest pre- existent world. I dilated myself in it. I contracted my own HAND, all alone, before there was any birth. My own mouth came to me, and Magic was my name.


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