Touch and Understanding

We tend think about what we know in terms of language and the world of words. When we speak about what we do we explain in with words. When we need to communicate knowledge to others we rely upon our words.

Our culture is drowning in textual information, especially as it relates to how to “do” things. There are manuals for pretty much everything, from how to build a model airplane, to how to distill whiskey, to how to manage failsafe routines on a nuclear reactor.

Along with these words we are often presented with illustrations and photographs, depicting complicated steps which are difficult merely to describe, or showing us elements which can be described but need to be unmistakable in recognition.

Our virtual existence thrives on these methods. We can transmit words and images more efficiently than nearly any other form of information, and so when we think of the internet, social media and indeed, our modern existence, it is words and images.

It is easy to mistake the form of communication with the knowledge itself.

It is easy to believe reading words in a textbook is the same as gaining knowledge about those things.

Our existence in the world encompasses many dimensions broader and deeper than what we take in with our eyes. Our bodies have developed in order to interact with and gain information from the world around us on many varied spectra.

One of these is the physical knowledge that resides within us, transmitted through touch and the tactile receptors, the language of hands and muscles, skin and bodily orientation, below the realm of words or descriptions. The sort of knowing about a craft, woodworking for instance, that comes from handling a plane for many long hours in the shop. The sort of knowledge about how to ride a bike, a knowing that lives in the bones and muscles. It isn’t just muscle memory, it is a feedback loop of haptic information and bodily awareness.

Every physical task has its own set of unique motions and sensations. Handling a piece of sandpaper allows us point of contact sensation about the surface we are working with. A painter understands the quality of their medium partially by feeling the viscoscity and the way in which it is being affected by the substrate.

Take the handling of a camera for instance. Though this may not be what we initially think of as a highly tactile initiative, the use of any physical tool allows for layers of additional information that cannot be gained by the click of a button on a screen. Manually adjusting focus and controlling the aperature allows for the process of seeing to include unique inputs.

Handling any physical tools requires a learning curve. The path to gaining physical knowledge passes through phases at different rates depending on the complexity of the tool, the physical capabilities of the user and the tasks being performed. Initially the movements feel foreign, forced and generally awkward, no matter how well ergonomically the tool has been designed. Our bodies, however, are fine tuned to quickly absorb and account for new inputs. The sustained use of a tool for even a short amount of repetition will quickly reveal efficiency in terms of how the tool can best be held and handled.

Basic competency comes hand in hand with physical development of the user, and can quickly plateau, especially if the tool is not regularly used. With even moderate continuation, however, new levels of knowledge become apparent. The efficiency of the user raises to a level at which new skills become available. It no longer becomes an issue of whether or not the image is in focus and correctly exposed, for instance. It becomes an inner fine tuning of where the focal point is, depth of field and what different levels of exposure will do to highlight or obscure elements within the viewfinder. The level of nuance available begins to broaden dramatically.

At some point, with regular use, the motions themselves become unconscious, and begin to occur without thought or effort.

Aside from the utility of being able to operate physically without needing to constantly think about what one is doing, there arises something quite remarkable.

The individual, mind free, begins to take in additional layers of information, and has the opportunity to essentially run parallel processes. The operation of the tool becomes coincident with the users ability to rhuminate about the contents of the image, the artists considerations, the way in which this image relates to other images that were taken recently, or any number of second-layer conceptual considerations, which are themselves being constantly informed by the physical operations being executed.

It is difficult for me to describe how my thoughts are coming together on this topic, much like the difficulty of translating how it feels to operate a lens rather than simply describing how to rotate the lens.

I think about how important it has been for me to be engaged with meaningful physical operations. Gaining competency in a skill is like gaining a new set of eyes, a new channel of information coming in. My connection to the physical world feels more nuanced, increased, or vibrant, depending on the moment and the inadequate words that must be used to describe it.

I also find myself in a mental space where thoughts can flow freely, combine and recombine, forming new connections and perspectives, without the need to remain anchored on my immediate task. It is a form of meditation, an unbinding of the mental space that only seems to occur while other modes of intelligence (physical) are at work.

It hardly seems a stretch to argue that the super-focused image/word world in which we live is serving to cut us off from layers of information about our place in this world, and our ability to interact with it.

Along with the loss of information, we also find ourselves needing artificial physical outlets for bodily energy with nowhere else to go. Perhaps this is a significant reason for increased rates of anxiety, depression, ADHD and other mental challenges. We are denying ourselves outlets of energy and inputs for which our bodies and minds were developed.

Perhaps this is why many of the middleclass colleagues and acquaintance I know have some sort of physical hobby, craft or activity. It speaks highly of our need to interact with the world on a physical plane that we spend our time learning crafts like woodworking and pottery, where tactile information and nuance is quite high.

As with much of my thinking recently, it seems extremely valuable to identify the aspects of our lives which provide us with a strong connection to some inner value, some inner connection to meaning and purpose. Though our society looks down on physical labor, and we tend to think of hobbies as trivial diversions, I believe that it is within these areas which we can find extremely important underutilized connections to pieces of ourselves which may be struggling impatiently in the dark. Can we bring a new dignity back to interactions with our physical reality? Would it be possible to recognize that someone who has learned to tend a garden, wield a paintbrush or fold paper has a significantly different relationship to the world than someone who programs code as their only “occupation”?

If even one of these physical tasks can open up information about how we can exist within and interact with our world, then what might we think about someone who lived in a world in which they must master many of these skills simply to survive? What might their perspective be on the relationship they have with the land around them? Which one of us is the richer for our understanding of place in the world, and which of us feels more content within our skin?