Review :: Darian Leader, Hands

Darian Leader, Hands Cover

This was a fascinating essay. Darian Leader, a practicing psychoanalyst and author of such titles as Why do women write more letters than they send? and The New Black, has a great ability to employ high psychoanalytic concepts in a very readable manner that is dual-voiced: you don’t need to have read reams of Winnicott or Lacan to get something from his books but, if you have, it still doesn’t come across as over-simplified. I’m glad that, along with authors like Adam Philips and Stephen Grosz, this sort of writing is experiencing something of a renaissance. Being an analyst himself, he never employs Lacan as an appeal to authority to back up his propositions, in the way that Zizek sometimes will1, landing more on the side of Jacques Alain-Miller who sees psychoanalysis as an open practice and discourse, a question of investigation over epistemology. However, like Žižek, he tends towards using a lot of references to pop culture to exemplify certain propositions, which I like. It’s important to take pop culture seriously.

The premise of the book is that the humble hands have been neglected in psychological discourse, though naturally our smart-phone addictions, smoking, the Victorian fashion for hand fans, snuff, knitting etc. all point to a deep-seated need, throughout history, to keep our hands occupied.

“One we recognise the importance of keeping the hands busy, we can start to think about the reasons for this strange necessity. What are the dangers of idle hands? What function does relentless hand activity have? What role do the hands have for the infant and how does this change during childhood? What links are there between hand and mouth? And what happens when we are prevents from using our hands? The anxious, irritable and even desperate states we might then experience show that keeping the hands busy is not a matter of whimsy or leisure, but touches on something at the heart of our embodied existence.”

As well as this desperate drive to keep them occupied, the hands have a profoundly symbolic place in human culture. The hand is a symbol of activity and human agency itself, not to mention deistic agency (“the hands of god”). One of my favourtite films, Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959) is all about the agency of the hands and manual operations. Watch the manifold hand-shots in this clip:

Consider too the central image of the hands in Da Vinci’s The Creation of Adam.

Hand Detail from 'The Creation of Adam'

As well as an oral-fixation one may perhaps speak of a manual fixation. It seems as though in the early stages of infanthood the hand is linked to feeding and orality, the hand acting as a substitute to the mouth, the breast of the mother (thumb sucking), and even the eyes (the world of objects is initially more distinct in terms of touch). When the infant is breastfeeding the hand will operate in parallel:

”When the mouth closes on the nipple, the hand tightens into a fist. The harder the infant sucks, the tighter the grip. When the hand picks up an object, it is moved to the mouth to sample and test. Later, the hand will be able to reach for things independently, and movement will seem to be guided first and foremost by the eyes.”

He goes on to note that later in life it is very rare to kiss without also touching the other with the hands. This dual-processing seems to be a key feature of hands. They almost always seem to operate in tandem with another part of the body and serve multiple drives. I roll and light a cigarette for my mouth to smoke. I type words for my eyes to see on the screen.

There is an interesting discussion of how letting go is learnt later on than clasping (the palmar reflex). I recall having seen the example he mentions of a baby having trouble putting down a block, as though it were stuck to the hand with glue. The Fort/Da game played by Freud’s grandson is mentioned, where a toy is thrown and pulled back on a piece of string (fort: gone, da: there). We train for the absence of the mother by absenting and recuperating objects. It’s important to note that “letting go” and “clasping” are deeply relevant to our later relationships — increasingly partners who obsessively desire a maternal level of attention/affection are described as “clingy”. Consider Rilke on love:

“We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go . For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.”

When it comes to the question concerning technology, the hands obviously play a serious role.

“Hand technology legitimises this ferocious regime of the drive. As our fingers tap, brush and scroll, we are not limited to gym time or the more obvious bodily practices labelled sport or exercise. We can do it anywhere, and for many people, this ‘can’ is is in fact a ‘must’. When Pascal said that modern man is no longer capable of remaining at rest in a room, it is less because of an overabundance of information or distraction, than to spend some of this bodily excess that saturates us.”

I agree here that the need to occupy the hands is neglected, but not that it’s more of a problem that distraction and information overload. I think he has underplayed the role of phantasy its formation of the object of desire when it comes to digital culture. An interesting book to check out here is André Nusselder’s Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology. Furthermore people like Nicholas Carr have shown convincingly that digital technologies play havoc with our dopaminergic systems by encouraging ‘searching’ behaviour (Freud: “Novelty is always the condition of pleasure.”) over opioid satisfaction with what’s ‘at hand’. It’s important not to forget that the modern communications landscape constitutes an invasion of the imaginary and operates at the level of the open play of phantasy.

I do however agree with the idea that the notion of addiction has become something of a catch-all and tends to serve the extreme levels of individualism promoted by consumer culture. Anything that is out of our control is now described as an addiction, the assumption here being that humans have to be capacity to be entirely in control of their habits, a contention with which most psychoanalysts would be inclined to disagree.

Leader associates hand technologies with ‘transitional objects’, like the toy, the blanket and the dummy: objects that prepare us for the mother’s absence. The nipple is transposed to the cigarette, the mother’s attention transferred to the notifications we receive and obsessively check on social media or the virtual rewards received in video games. People begin to provide themselves with the forgone attention of the mother.

Later he reflects on the fact that the big cats of psychoanalysis also had these manual fixations, Freud with his constant smoking and Lacan with pieces of string:

“In his later years, Jacques Lacan introduced knot theory into psychoanalysis, arguing that it provided the most rigorous model available to map the human psyche. He would carry string around with him in his pockets, knotting and unknotting it at all places and times, from his consulting room to his public seminar to the cafés and restaurants he frequented. We might guess here that beyond the theoretical advantage of knot theory, Lacan was interested in the actual practice of knotting, and it was this that kept his hands busy for so many hours.”


A great anecdote. As well as the later Lacan texts, I would recommend R.D. Laing’s Knots to anybody interested in knot theory.

Yesterday I posted this question posed by Deleuze in an interview

“Take Bloom, writing in the sand with one hand and masturbating with the other: what’s the relation between those two flows?”

Which seems related to what I think is the most important passage in the book, which I’ll quote at length:

“This push to embodiment, to incarnation, and perhaps to writing illuminates why hand activity so often takes place in conjunction with something else. There is listening AND doodling, knitting AND talking, praying AND manipulating beads. The real question here is the AND. It is a pity that despite an early interest from Freud and his student Sándor Ferenczi in the fusions and intermixing of boidly drives, psychoanalysis never really took up this problem. While commentators endlessly point out that the key to Freud’s patient Dora’s phantasy life was the image of her sucking her thumb and simultaneously tugging her brother’s earlobe, they have plenty to say about the sucking and the tugging but nothing about the AND in between them.
Yet even the most cursory consideration of the main examples of boidly drives shows that there is always an AND. The voyeur may be frozen in the act of looking, but he is always always doing something else with his hands. The infant feeding at the breast is also simultaneously using her hands and fingers to clasp, grip, fan and touch. And as we grow older, we might bite or pick our nails or scratch or rub as we read or watch TV. Many people, indeed, are only able to work if they are simultaneously pulling or scratching or curling. Why isn’t one activity enough? Why can’t sucking or reading or watching suffice for us?”

This notion of simultaneity would seem to back up his case for the hands being the mediators between us and the technological world. It is only with the hands engaged that technology becomes truly compulsive. Our hands have this uncanny ability to carry out activities without our direct attention. There seems to be something key to the nature of distraction in this AND.

This book has made me recognise the importance of the hands in our psychic life. They seem especially important as intermediaries. They bring things to our mouth. They fuss around with almost every part of the body. They allow us to manipulate the (symbolic) interface to (imaginary) cyberspace with our phones, keyboard, and mice…

Engels famously said “the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour”.

Escher, 'Drawing Hands'

  1. While I think Žižek’s politial application of Lacan is problematic in a number of ways, he is still a fine and highly recommended reader of Lacan.