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2 Shifting Balance and the Given Order

When a person picks up a hammer, the hand that holds the hammer suddenly becomes heavier than it was. To compensate for the extra weight all the other parts of the body must align themselves differently. The first grasp of the tool may destabilise, but soon every part of the body and every movement are called to respond to the altered situation. The process of integration is inclusive, establishing a consensus within the newly combined system. 

When the tool requires a specific motion — a push or pull, an arc, a rotary movement — those actions become a continuous vector flowing through both the body and the tool.  When a tool is in full use it is not an easy matter to say exactly where the tool ends. The whole body of the craftsman becomes a little like a flywheel or a pendulum. Tools use a shift in balance to overcome a situation that might otherwise be more resistant. Tools are ergogenic, which means that they enhance physical performance. The root of that word, ergon, (Greek for ‘work’) is also the root for energy. Tools do more than enhance work; they also amplify energy by re-positioning how it is set.

If the active part of the tool is relatively far from the body, the balance is maintained by extending another part of the body in an opposite direction. The relative position of the legs, their distance from each other, the muscles in the back, the facial expression, all get involved even in cases where they are far removed from the hand that holds the tool. Lightweight tools like tweezers also change the balance, but less obviously.

An action completed doesn’t exactly disappear. Something lingers. All actions, whether obviously or not, prepare for a subsequent action. A completed action has something of the sense of an interruption about it because it leaves a residue of potential.


The quarry worker is drilling a stone for splitting, on site, in the Okazaki Quarry, Japan. Sculptor Atsuo Okamoto drills a basalt boulder in the Milestone live carve event.  Edinburgh, Scotland


Constructive actions release muscles in a way that exceeds what exercise can explain. The body activates, accommodates, and then reactivates on a different level. There is a sense memory left behind when an action passes through the body.  It is as if an extra body has been created within the initiating body. This image of an action is the place where the craftsman’s body really exists. The deep contentment that craftsmen often feel in their work is probably the result of this.  Whenever a similar action is performed it feels like coming home. Before an action begins, it is in some sense already successfully completed.

The satisfaction that results from the completed action doesn’t erase a feeling of challenge and engagement.  In completion, engagement is more often intensified than mitigated.   The challenge continues, but in different ways, because one action of a tool usually sets the stage for another action.  The next action becomes ‘primed.’ Engagement, as anticipation, is unavoidable. 

A tool can do more than link actions; it can also link understanding. Insights are a challenge because they, like tools, are agents of transformation. Rarely is the tool user committed to the original state of his material.

Tools place the worker outside the material even while part of the craftsman is embedded within the qualities of the material itself. This double geography might cooperate when the tool follows the flow of the material but there are also times when the tool is set up in opposition. As something ergogenic, a tool gives off to its user relatively more power.  Regardless of whether action co-operates with the making or opposes it there is an imbalance that has been used to enhance its effectiveness. There is also an imbalance of power and this also must be compensated for, similar to the imbalance of weight.  If the compensation is misdirected it can result in a blind imposition of will. Younger craftsmen sometimes speak of the pleasure they find in the struggle of will over matter.  To listen to them it can sound like they are attracted to acts of invasion and dominance.  Sometimes it can be exactly that; but more often it is an attempt to equalise energies, a process that is not always easy to explain.


Pascal Mychalysin demonstrates the use of a stone axe to chop limestone.  Pascal re-introduced the use of this tool for restoration work to replicate the carving methodologies used by the original builders of the cathedral. Marble carver roughing out the form of a seated Ganesh sculpture.  Makrana, India


The euphoria of a struggle with material is more common in youth than in old age but some part of the pleasure does continue as the craftsman ages.  The ‘have-a-go’ push of youth disappears and resurfaces as the re-direction of energy. Skill is not absolute; it is progressive, often developing an ability to engage with some aspect of the material’s original state. In the hands of a master craftsman, the qualities that a raw material possesses are elements to be preserved even while they are being balanced to the specific grasp and action of the tool. The qualities of material, its softness, hardness, consistency, brittleness, flexibility, grain or crystalline structure are aligned with the qualities that the tool can deliver, its sharpness, speed, and force. 

Tools are about the redistribution of weight. While a system is in motion it is sometimes unclear where the weight actually is. One thing is put out of balance so that the action of re-stabilisation invigorates the system.  This is true whether the tool is a hammer, a baseball bat, or a golf club. David Wolk, a dedicated golfer notes:  “All the weight is in the head of the club. It is not in the shaft at all but if we pick up a golf club it doesn’t feel like this.  When you pick up a golf club it feels as if the entire club has a weight, there is weight to the club.  A Golf club without a head is shocking, it feels strange”

It is relatively easy to see how a tool interacts with the body.  It is more difficult to see how tools relate to and interact with the mind.  Indeed, tool use sometimes appears to have the curious ability circumvent the mind. The activation of a mental state is subtle enough that it is best observed indirectly, by watching what gets changed.  Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist, believed that different cultures select specific characteristics from a full spectrum of human traits to either encourage or inhibit.  Tools do something similar. Not only are there actions that an individual tool leaves aside, there are also parts of a tool that are not used in any direct way.  This is easiest to see in saws and files where the two ends stay sharp long after the middle has been worn smooth.  Although not exactly necessary for carving some chisels have long shafts while others have very short ones. Presumably what is not used has some effect on what is used.

The principle of shifting the balance in such a way that it forces a later stabilization can be found in every situation when something is displaced or deferred.  It is the principle at work when we stay up too late in order to meet a deadline; it appears in deferred gratification, it operates in all forms of magic whether classic or illusory, it can be found in education, in love, even in the pendulum of a clock. On the darker side it is the principle at work in drugs or alcohol.  Prescription medicine also challenges one part of the body to give healing an advantage somewhere else. Nearly every kind of thrill seeking — from provoking an argument to climbing a mountain —involves shifting energies from one place to another. Tools shape the world, but they also give shape to our experience. Every tool is about selective emphasis. This is why Ruth Benedict’s observation about cultures is also appropriate here, because a tool amplifies some things, and reduces other things.

Whenever forces are rearranged, shadows or imbalances can be created. Energy is intensified for a short period but when everything is over this has to be compensated for with extra sleep or a hangover.  Energy has been borrowed from the future and must be repaid.   A tool doesn’t just realign the balance of the human body; it also rearranges the relative proportions of the world.  It interferes with the given order.  It can be as dangerous as stealing fire.

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