Thursday, September 22, 2011

look, Ma. no hands...

So sayeth the young man learning to ride a bike without having his hands on the handle bars. Mom wishes he would hold on, but she is pleased that while she's watching he's at least wearing his helmet. There are all kinds of things that happen when we lose touch, when things get out of hand, and Edward Tenner writes about these things in his book, Why things Bite Back, Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. I am just starting my own review of his 1996 book. It was recommended to me by my friend Frank Wilson and by others and I don't have much to say about it specifically as yet, except that in my first attempt to learn what he would say about the hands, I found hand-washing discussed on p. 46. It seems there are tremendous medical costs involved in health care workers failing to realize the full extent of the dangers they present to patients with unwashed hands.

And so, the idea of look ma, no hands, and the concurrent notion, "untouched by human hands" offer two direct insights into our relationship with our hands. We know our hands as being essential in securing and maintaining our safety (hold on tight), that it is a sign of excessive confidence when we think we can go no-handed and yet, the hands can convey profound risk.

The word sinister "prompted by malice or ill-will," is derived from Latin sinistre "contrary, unfavorable, to the left." Few associate the left hand these days with anything sinister (or gauche), but we still have a love-hate relationship with our hands, associating them with both fear and on the other hand, the alleviation of fear. In French the English word left is gauche, or in Italian, sinistro, and so language can be revealing. On the other hand, the Latin word for right is dexter, from which we get words referring to skill, leadership, rightness of being as well as handedness and even handedness (ambidexterous).

Ethel J. Alpenfels author of The Anthropology and Social Significance of the Human Hand 1955 wrote:
The cultural world in which man lives, both in preliterate and in technologically advanced societies, tends to be a "right-handed" world. Cross-cultural studies reveal that different sides of the body, the left or the right, are associated with different social activities. In India, the right side and the right hand perform tasks considered to be "clean," while the left side and the left hand perform tasks considered to be "unclean." The two types of activities are separated rigidly. The right hand, for example, is used for cooking and eating, whereas the left hand is used in bathing, elimination, or activities associated with sex. Indeed, it is common in many areas of the world to find food related to the right hand, while the left hand is associated with sex. The right and left hand have come to symbolize good as opposed to evil, gods as opposed to demons. Hence, they are considered as two forces constantly at war with one another.
And so you can see that our relationship with our hands is concerned with an understanding of mixed blessings. The human touch can heal or spread disease. It can craft tools, or it can forge weapons. It can act creatively, or spread the seeds of destruction. And yet, it is not a reasonable proposition to have schools untouched by human hands when the hands themselves are the foundation of our humanity.

make, fix and create...


  1. Anonymous5:33 AM

    Those of us who are left-handed do find some interesting problems and prejudices.


  2. Touching things with our hands even adds value! Check out this recent research involving boxes from Ikea:

  3. Nice post, Doug. I guess you have come across the book by Chris McManus, Right Hand Left Hand?

  4. I had not seen that book and it looks like a good one. Thanks for the recommendation.