Notes on Hands


by Justin E. H. Smith

I am haunted by an image I first saw many years ago of a ‘cortical homunculus’: a figure of a sort of man, whose bodily parts are variously shrunken or enlarged to reflect the amount of space in the brain’s cortex taken up either for processing sensation or motor function in the part in question. There is much that is troubling about this being, but the thing that strikes one most, for obvious reasons, is the enormity of its hands.

The homunculus is paradoxically both unreal and very real; freakish, yet also perfectly accurate. I have next to no idea what is going on, say, on the back of my thigh or even in the arch of my foot. These parts do not really constitute me in any intimate way. By contrast, right now, my fingers are typing and I am not looking at the keyboard (I’m not even looking at the screen to make sure they get it right). I don’t know how they do it exactly, they’ve just been doing it for so many years that by now I am confident outsourcing this intellectual labor —I would not call it manual labor, even though that is technically and precisely what it is— to them.

And it gets stranger still. I don’t quite know how to explain what I am about to say, but sometimes when I am falling asleep, it is my hands that begin to dream first, before my brain does. When this happens, my brain thinks: Good, soon enough the dream will spread, and engulf me too. We know that in octopuses the brain/body distinction makes little sense, since their neural organisation extends out through their tentacles, which seem to be charged with what in vertebrates are strictly brain-based functions. But this strict division seems to loosen up in me as well when I am falling asleep, and perhaps regressing backwards in my evolutionary history into some distant experience of embodiment that I share with the invertebrates.

The hand is part of the body only in that strange and equivocal way that the face is part of the head. If a piece of shrapnel were to hit you in the face, it would be misleading but not strictly speaking false to say that you have been hit in the head by shrapnel. If it hits you in the hand, it would be similarly misleading but not false to say that your body has been hit by shrapnel. The hand is the body’s face, as John Bulwer, or at least his illustrator, seem to have discerned in his Chirologia of 1644:

When it is said that the state should “Keep your laws off my body,” this plainly does not extend to hands. If we consider hands, and perhaps also vocal organs, as body, then all laws concern what you may or may not do with your body. But ordinarily you would not say that a person has hacked into a bank’s servers using their body. You are not using your body when you are typing at a keyboard (and thus, by the succession of keystrokes, hacking); you are using your hands.

The only other body parts that are elevated in this way to a sort of honorary non-bodiliness are the ones concentrated in the face: again, the vocal organs, along with, usually, the eyes. This is presumably because these are the parts through which intentions are executed. But this is not entirely satisfying as an explanation, since you can also execute your intentions by tackling someone with your torso. It is through the hands, vocal organs, and eyes rather that our finerintentions are executed. As to the intentions executed through the face, we suppose that we would have them even if we were not bodily at all, and that the eyes and mouth only translate into sensuous reality something that further back in the chain of causation, of speech or of the gaze, is essentially immaterial.

But the case of hands is more complicated, as, obviously we would not be doing stuff with our hands, that is, we would not be manipulating physical reality, if we were not ourselves physical beings. Yet note what happens when we manipulate physical reality: the stuff we manipulate ceases to be physical, or at least to be such that it may be suitably described by appeal to its material constitution. Throw a rock and it becomes a weapon. Shape some clay and it becomes a sculpture. Pick up anything at all, and it becomes an artifact. In this respect hands are a point of transition between the material and the immaterial no less than the vocal organs are.

‘Butt-dialing’ has emerged in recent years as a beautiful means of describing unintentional cellphone calls. The implication is that the butt has no intentions, and can carry out no actions, but by a technological glitch has done something by accident that the hand ordinarily does on purpose. The butt and the hand are the two metaphorical extremes of human embodiment. The butt, interestingly, has no size at all in the motor-processing version of the cortical homunculus (in the sensory homunculus it is about as big as you would expect). One only becomes conscious of the possession of a butt, I have found, to the extent that it takes up too much physical space, in pants, in a chair. What would our experience of embodiment be like, if the whole body were like that?

The butt seems to be a side effect of the evolution of something else, an adaptative spandrel necessitated by the shift to bipedality. Hands by contrast are not the consequence of anything else (though forelegs are their evolutionary prerequisite). It has been pointed out that human hands are the only case in the entire animal kingdom of a bodily organ whose exclusive function is the manipulation of the physical environment. In every other case –when birds build nests with their beaks and feet, when termites build with their legs and mandibles– animals are using organs that also do something else. This is an extraordinary fact about human beings, and it is likely as interesting, as a differentium of the species, as any capacity facilitated by the unique conformation of our vocal organs.

One of my most enduring and powerful memories is entirely haptic: the feeling of the two buttons for changing the channel and for raising the volume, marked by plus signs indicating the power of increase and lying at a diagonal to one another, on the remote control of the Sony television my father bought in 1983. I can feel the smooth metal of them and the way the whole remote ponders downward when I hold it; I hold my thumb diagonally over the two buttons with the plus signs: ever ready for more. I know there were colours on it too —green for volume, orange for channel—, but I know I would know nothing at all of that object if my hand had not conserved a memory of it. The mind doing the remembering here, I think, is the same as the one that sometimes begins to dream before the mind of my brain does.

Piece crossposted with