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2 Vision versus Touch

In the Renaissance the senses were ranked according to a hierarchy, the highest sense was vision and the lowest touch. Even today the preference of vision over touch is so well established that it is accepted without being mentioned or directly communicated. Often the biggest surprise to those beginning to make sculpture is the discovery that fingers are more sensitive than eyesight.


Marble carving artisan Sergio Burati, Pietrasanta, ItalySoapstone craftswoman Dionisia Jose Gomes, Ouro preto, Brazil


Try to imagine life on earth at the cusp of civilisation. In primordial times all of the habitable places were covered with trees. After each ice age vegetation quickly colonised all the fertile land. It was in this forested land that early humans and other animals dwelled. A forest is an intimate, myopic space. When we are in a forest everything is experienced up close, and tactilely.

When humans left the forest and started to move into open spaces much changed. Some things can happen in clearings that could not even be imagined in the dense forest. The planting of crops, an activity that revolutionised human culture, is only possible in open well-lit spaces. The movements of the night sky can be observed. The myopic spaces in a forest do not allow the experience of the horizon, or of distance. Distance is created by open spaces. Our sense of time grew out of distance. Our culture of building and fortification became inevitable with the move into open spaces. Open spaces demand the kind of protective constructions that also make storage and archiving possible. We have a history today that is specifically related to the kind of time that exists in open spaces. History is an archiving of human time, and it echoes the flattening and miniaturising vision that accompanied this shift. This flattening and miniaturising was applied to the memory of the forest. Both the cathedral and the garden first mimic, and then compete, with the sacred groves of the forest. These sheltered spaces can exist within constructed civilisation because their residue is safely miniaturised. This flattening is not just symbolic; it is also an optical phenomenon that anyone can see by looking into the distance where things are condensed. Something similar can be found in photographic images, in the flattening vision we know from telephoto lenses.

The gods of the forest were not appropriate for open spaces. The new gods were obsessed with what was coming from a distance. That assurance could not be found in the forests. A forest was somehow threatening. As late as the time of Moses, God was ordering the destruction of the sacred groves. The forest became known as a place of danger, the sort of place where misfits, criminals, wild animals, poachers, pagans, and enchantment all mixed. Even today much of the world believes that it is fighting back the wilderness. Creating open land has been justified in many ways throughout history but the results are the same. The interests that serve the unregulated forests are in competition with the interests served by cleared land.

The tactile world of the forest was systematically replaced by the world of sight. Neurologists' have discovered that parts of the brain that are frequently used grow in size. The part of the brain that deals with vision is now larger than that for any other of the senses. The move to open spaces where vision was more important than touch may have actually changed human brains.

"In visual experience, which pushes objectification further than does tactile experience, we can, at least at first sight, flatter ourselves that we constitute the world, because it presents us with a spectacle spread out before us at a distance, and gives us the illusion of being immediately present everywhere and being situated nowhere. Tactile experience, on the other hand, adheres to the surface of our body; we cannot unfold it before us, and it never quite becomes an object."

The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponte, 1945 p 369

Being 'everywhere and nowhere,' the words Merleau-Ponte uses to contrast the visual with the tactile, also describe the god of vision and distances. The visual push toward objectification is what makes images possible — and eventually commerce. Images can be copied, mediated and distributed in multiple; they evolve into a world liberated from touch. Touch is always where it is. The dynamic forces that create the cultural world do so by being immediately present and situated nowhere.


Sculptor Jorge Yazpik, Mexico City, MexicoFemale stone breaker, Sadahalli granite quarry, Peenya, India


Linear and flat optical spaces permit such things as illusory perspective and the comparison of extremes of scale. These are important. There is nothing exactly comparable to an image that exists in the myopic world. The tactile does not lend itself easily to representation. The tactile world is nameless and because it is far less circumscribed, and somewhat expansive. It is possible to say that it is less focused. Names and images are qualified, and as such always partial. By comparison, what is tactile is complete.

In classical Greek language and culture vision was treated as the most noble of the senses and was associated with certainty. Unobstructed vision suggests a certainty that contradicts the myopic world of the forest. One can imagine the relief and sense of freedom that early humans must have felt to be free of it. Even today part of the argument given by ophthalmologists in support of vision-correcting glasses is that we will think more clearly if we can see more clearly. There is some truth to this. This association with certainty is important culturally as well as physically. There is probably a tradeoff. This apparent certainty may be incomplete.

Socrates claimed that Daedalus was his ancestor as an appreciation of the craftsman. A craftsman will take raw material and process it. It is easy enough to see a connection between the craft of Daedalus and speculative thought. Daedalus tries things out. He also employs craft skills. Skills almost always help to shape a process of thinking.

The tradition is that Socrates was trained as a sculptor. If so it is surprising that he did not address either subtractive thought or touch. He exalted vision over touch. His way of looking was most at home in the agora. His point of view depended on the clearing. Skills require experience to evolve and to help shape a process of thinking. It seems apparent that Socrates did not develop as thought the potential inherent in sculpture.

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