'Against the promiscuous circulation of proliferating copies, the singular event of performance or the uniqueness of the handmade object both emerge as sites of intense cathexis.'
Erika Balsom, "Against the Novelty of New Media: The Resuscitation of the Authentic"
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) refers to severe aches and pain caused by repetitive movements or poor posture at work. ... RSI often affects hands including wrists and fingers, but can also spread to arms, elbows, neck and shoulder.
'There was little or no division of labour, and what machinery was used was simply of the nature of the multiplied tool, a help to the workman's hand-labour and not a supplanter of it. The workman worked for himself not to any capitalist employer, and he was accordingly master of his work and his time; this was the period of pure handicraft.'
William Morris, The Revival of Handicraft. 1888
The Revival of Handicraft outlines Morris's fundamental ideas which are significant again today; concerning the impact of technology upon craft processes, the value of the handmade in a digital age and division of labour. My own research looks at the impact of past upon the present, through the merging of traditional, mechanical and digital processes within my multidisciplinary practice; asking why Morris is a valuable ghost today.
'Here lies the present paradox: work has totally triumphed over all other ways of existing, at the same time as workers have become superfluous.'
The Invisible Committee, 'The Coming Insurrection'
Benjamin suggests that a return to the original articulation of thought might be productive for thinking, spinning new sense from old ideas. The telepathic communications of writing with your own hand, your own body, could recharge the deadened words with new significance. Perhaps the ideas have become external and to copy them out is a repossession that stimulates once more the place from whence they arrived. In any case, the physical act of writing is closely aligned here to the act of thinking. Grasping the truth, knowing that which is most intimate, seizing the future; in all this the hand is a political organ. The handwritten word expresses the world. Words had to pass though your mind, your body, your hand, completing a full circuit, from body into language, from language back through the body again. Benjamin did plenty of that himself for his Arcades Project, a pile up of hundreds of pages on which he transcribed quotations, occasionally supplemented by his own notes and marked with signs. He writes in One Way Street that the copied text takes over the “soul” of the copier and reveals newness in the self, “opened by the text”. Writing out another’s words turns the act of reading into a participation in the text’s otherness, which then alters the self, by submitting it to a constraint that is enabling rather than limiting. This constraint is the thought of an other.
I am thinking of the manicules that are used to draw attention to specific sections of text in medieval manuscripts. These annotations of pointing hands and fists are often elaborately drawn with delicate fingers and sometimes the suggestion of cuffs, some are cartoons that playfully point towards humour, others are no more than a quickly-drawn squiggle to punctuate the text. The manicules underline the mimetic potential of drawing and writing, acting as a graphic indicator of the maker. This gesture also seems like a surrogate of the hands operating beyond time. William Sherman describes these manuscripts as ‘texts littered by severed hands in gestures that cannot but fail to catch the eye…They have an uncanny power to conjure up the bodies of dead writers and readers.’
Perhaps it is this sense of embodiment that means I can never disentangle the practices of drawing and handwriting. For me, they both function as mimetic and resonant forms of transcription. In my own work, the close copy made by hand collapses the space between the thing described and the ‘real’ thing. We do not simply see the original or source, we see a doubling of the work as image, we see it as it was made by its author and then again through my hand.
By studying texts as mimetic drawings/images, I feel that I have learned or intuited something of the feeling from which a work originates and also something that carries it forward. I am interested in the metaphysics of the encounter- the physicality of the thing before us, held in our hands rather than presented in the archive. There is also an ineffable something else: a meeting across time, a kind of communion that takes place when something that is from the hand of the writer is at direct hand, as it is passed through my hands.
As I write this, I have just completed a drawing based on a fragment of Walter Benjamin’s that describes his theory of aura. Benjamin’s minuscule handwriting, his careful choice of paper and writing material, seems a private writing. I can’t read German. So, what is it I see? I see something of his hands and I see something of the act that produced this.
The opposite of machine-made. In industrial machine labour, attention is corralled by the machine, of which the worker becomes a part, an appendage, as Marx and Engels term it, a part of the plant, which is a factory. Such was the vision of industrial labour presented by William Morris too, and it also informs its antithesis, the vision of future labour under liberated conditions. In ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’, from, 1884, Morris writes of how the worker of the future in a society of abundance would have ‘learned to take an interest and pleasure in handiwork which, done deliberately and thoughtfully could be made more attractive than machine work’. Deliberate action and thoughtful labour form the core of useful activity. These produce pleasure and interest, In ‘The Revival of Handicraft’ from 1888, Morris focuses the argument on the separation of production from consumption and notes of production in ‘the machine system’: 'Almost all goods are made apart from the life of those who use them; we are not responsible for them, our will has had no part in their production, except so far as we form part of the market on which they can be forced for the profit of the capitalist whose money is employed in producing them.'
In the non-hand-made, our will is absent, the worker’s will as much as the user’s or consumer’s.
The Tremulous Hand was a thirteenth-century glossator who worked on manuscripts stored in Worcester. His script is characterised by an action tremor that manifested whenever he tried to write: his hand shook in a surfeit of control. Nothing else is known about his body apart from this hand movement, through which we can follow his interests in his glosses: linguistics, Old English, word division, punctuation, doodles.