Hands: What We Do with Them – and Why
There are truckloads of books that purport to reveal the one essential thing that makes us human. The brain is the biggie, with language, consciousness, religion and art among the chief subcontenders and the Brazilian wax and pigeon fancying some way down the list.
Darian Leader makes the pitch for hands as a hallmark of humanity. In a literal sense, there can be no doubting it, ours being the terrestrial species that ditched four-footedness and grew opposable thumbs. But Leader, a Lacanian psychoanalyst, presents a case for the hands’ primacy in determining, transcending, and preserving the limits of the self.
Given his profession, it’s not surprising that when friends and colleagues heard he was writing about hands, they assumed his real subject was masturbation. While it’s true that he touches on the onanistic impulse, Leader makes more of how we occupy our hands to keep them off the body.
He charts an entertaining history of “hand technologies” employed, if not designed, for the purpose of digital diversion. Before smartphones came prayer beads, gloves, fans, handkerchiefs, embroidery and knitting, facial hair, snuffboxes, canes, umbrellas, pipes and cigarettes. And pockets. Between the wars, an Englishman in an overcoat might have more than 20 pockets about him. Leader writes that although the pocket has been likened to a vagina or womb, it might equally be considered yet another device for keeping the hands away from the body and each other.
To concerns that the ubiquitous smartphone, occupying our attention, isolates us from one another, he argues that that is what hand technologies have always been for. A blankie or soft toy – Winnicott’s “transitional object” – gives an infant its first taste of separateness, of abstraction. “Life has never just been about connecting,” says Leader, “but also about disconnecting.”
While newborn babies have a powerful grasp reflex, letting go doesn’t come easily. The simultaneous breaking of contact between thumb and fingers has to be learnt. From art and film, Leader gleans recurring images of hands grasping and letting go, hinting at innate fears and yearnings. He punningly observes of the animated movie Frozen that, even when Elsa learns how to turn her hands’ icy powers to the good, there’s still bad (Prince) Hans.
If the book sometimes lists under the weight of psychoanalytic jargon, its pop-culture chutzpah keeps it readable and afloat. FL
Hamish Hamilton, 176pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 13, 2016 as "Darian Leader, Hands: What We Do with Them – and Why ". Subscribe here.