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Touch (Haptics)


Hayashi Takeshi's 'Ishima-Edinburgh', shown at STONE exhibition, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England


The Unspoken

Vision versus Touch

Touch: a lost sense?

Stone and Touch

Tactile Perception

The skill and the habit

Teaching Tacit Skills


The Unspoken

"Even granite is heightened by human touch. Continual contact with hands and clothes causes nearly all stones to develop a smooth surface which is seldom observed to flake off."

—Adrian Stokes, Stones of Rimini

1. Stone is silent, but it has a voice. The quarryman tests a stone by tapping it with a hammer: if there is an unseen crack it will make a dull thud. A stone without cracks will sing.

2. Touch is silent. Stone comes alive through touch.

3. A large part of any skill is unspoken. The craftsman soon discovers that there is unnamed knowledge embedded in action.

4. Art inhabits the unnamed. Art makes visible the invisible, but even when it does so it stays unnamed.

We refer to everything that exist in the unspoken realm as 'tacit', a word with a root that means 'to be silent.' The Tacit is unnamed, which is not the same as being invisible. The act of naming has parallels with the process of becoming visible.


Sculptor Karl Prantl connects with one of his sculptures at his Pottschinger studio, St Margarethan, Austria.Crane operator Jake Gillie manouvers a block of limestone into position on his lorry.


It is within the unspoken, the unnamed, or the silent that human interaction with stone becomes most alive. Many stone working skills take shape in areas separate from the spoken. When we are learning a skill, verbal instructions will only take us so far. Explaining to someone how to ride a bicycle will not cause that person to learn the skill. Unless the body picks up all the unspoken nuances there can be no success. A huge amount of learning occurs tacitly, and as such is not addressed directly. We can learn more, and we can know more than can be said. We exceed boundaries

Not only much of what we can be as a human being exists in an unnamed state, but also what we are. We cannot tell exactly how it works, or see it directly. The only thing we can say is that it exists separate from language. Language appears to be completely in service to us, a tool that is entirely ours, expressed in our voice and emerging from our minds and mouths. Yet somehow, due to the way it sorts out possibilities, language does our thinking for us.

The tacit is more likely to be present in situations where body and mind are being integrated. Bicycle riding follows a pattern frequently found in tool use. From the moment a tool is put into action it begins to orchestrate balance. Whether the Tacit is physical or not, it seems to be involved with balance. It also lives comfortably in the body.


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.


Touch: a lost sense?

In terms of ancestry, evolutionary biologists now understand how all of the senses are descended from the sense of touch. Touch is also the most important sense for the infant. Other senses come later. Perhaps on some level touch becomes identified as a stage to outgrow: it is for babies, older children or proper adults do things differently. In many contemporary cultures, tactility between adults has a tendency to be both brief and accompanied by embarrassment. Grown up children who were once touched freely by their parents discover, as they get older that physical contact is increasingly rare.


Quarryman Neil Swinebank connects with ripple-marked sandstone in the Corsehill quarry, Annan, ScotlandProfessor Watanabe positions his point as he forms a wedge hole in granite. Zokei University, Japan


Sculpture is both made and experienced in a tactile mode. It is first understood with the body and only afterwards with the mind. Touch is silent. Touch joins with the tacit to build its own world. Sight builds another one. In such a divided world, where is experience positioned?

Studies show that in France people touch far more than in the UK, but even in France uninhibited touching is not part of everyday life. This becomes obvious on a visit to the Parisian fabric warehouses at the Marché St Pierre. In that market, touch is overt and everywhere. One particular building has five floors of fabric and on every floor we can watch fingers touching the different textures without any hint of embarrassment. Restraint is relaxed. It is like a symphony of squeezing, pinching and stroking. Between the layers of cloth time slows down. Time here is up close and intimate. There may be impatience at the checkout counter, but on the floor there is rarely a sign of haste.

What I believe most of all is that in the late twentieth century, culminating in Postmodernism, we have distanced ourselves from a sense of touch. Increasingly the surface is everything. To touch, to move inside the surface of something, is a capacity that takes time to develop, and increasingly, in most experiences, that seems to me to be in the public interest. The luxury of time is, however, increasingly foreclosed. More than anything in the world I want this sense of touch to be made more available. I have staked everything on the belief that if I want to increase the experience of the sense of touch, then maybe somebody might want to share it.

—Thomas Joshua Cooper, Interview with Nick Hackworth

What kind of social shift might happen if we begin to think of increased tactility as service to the public rather than a risk? Touch has been so proscribed that just the thought of unregulated touch can make us nervous. The conviction that we need to keep touch safely separate is so deeply engrained in our minds that any alternative is scarcely imaginable.


Stone and Touch

Tea bowls are part of the culture in Japan and Korea, where these simple cupped ceramic vessels are given great respect. They are not ornate or singled out in any showy way. A tea bowl, we could say, is humble, but it has a secret.

There is sometimes the sensation, when holding a particular bowl in two hands that one's whole body is being pulled into the hands, collapsing into the space of the bowl. It is not possible to tell from looking at a tea bowl if this will happen. It is possible to go through dozens of bowls before feeling anything. Whatever activates this sensation clearly exist in tactile terms alone. The successful bowl might also be beautiful, but frequently a beautiful bowl is tactilely mute.

Smoothness has been called the silence of touch. This implies that smoothness is neutral, which is not the case. The sensation of smoothness is closer to immersion. We can experience smoothness, paradoxically, as submersion inside the surfaces. The experience has more to do with forgetfulness, but we are not cut loose as we might be with normal forgetfulness. We don't abandon place. While experiencing roughness, by contrast, we are kept outside. Roughness can probably be miniaturised. A rough texture can often be 'felt' vicariously with no contact at all. As far as tactility goes rougher textures tend toward an imaginative experience. It is possible to know that the brick wall is rough without our fingers making contact. We acknowledge certain rough textures as we do a warning. With texture there is a kind of scale shift.

In any experience of extreme texture we seem to visit briefly and then return with that memory. The split between the experiences of smoothness and the experience of roughness is quite apparent. Smoothness is known through repeated touching. It grabs us and pulls us toward it. Smoothness exists in real time and on a one to one scale. It cannot be confirmed by sight. We must experience it directly. Stone lives through its haptic qualities. We don't just want to see a stone; we want to touch it. Whether a stone appears hard or soft has more to do with its surface than with the natural hardness of the stone. Marble or limestone, both relatively soft stones, can be made to feel warm, cold, soft or hard depending on the surface. Granite, a particularly hard stone can be finished with a soft silky matt surface, or glossy and hard, or roughly flaked.


Filmmaker Noe Mendelle and Karl Prantl connect body and senses with Brasilianischer Rosenkranz.Sculptor Jake Harvey and Karl Prantl feel the warmth and energy of Ring. Pottschinger studio, Austria.


Tactile pull is evident in some of Karl Prantl's (see film) stone sculptures. His smooth work is characterised by modulations and bumps. . It is impossible to imagine experiencing his work without touching. We are likely to close our eyes when we experience a sculpture but we almost always close our eyes when remembering the experience. His sculptures seem to alter our weight, not unlike the way that a strong wind seems to alter our weight and our relationship to the earth (link to 'El....Viendos..'). Sound passes through us, and for an instant we are sound. Tickling seems to be multi-directional; it shatters directional perception into fragments. We can talk about a feeling of texture. We can equally talk about a texture of feeling. This texture of feeling grows from little disturbances born out of conflicting sources of vibrations. Active difference is common to all tactility. Slight differences are a kind of enrichment, the surface gets more depth, and the line becomes richer.

Despite the impression of immersion that tactility gives, it is often the entrance and exit, the on and off, that makes it intelligible. The most common experience of tactility is through extremely slight differences. We recognise sequence because it maps changes and transitions. Our mind notes breaks in pattern or alterations of speed or frequency.

The senses work with intervals. The smallest differences of sound allow us to locate an object in space. It is possible to know its position and whether it is advancing or retreating. The very slight slippage in image that happens when our eyes record something from slightly different places allows the perception of three-dimensional space.

A tiny space opens within each interval of difference. Many tools are able to project distant intervals from more intimate intervals. They take the known and amplify it. Navigation or surveying devices, for example, can use barely perceptible differences to map bigger, more distant relationships. Triangulation keeps proportions but changes scale.

The difference that registers most harshly is the absolute differences of alternating opposites — the on and off we find in electric current, binary systems, or Cartesian coordinates. Differences do not have to be absolute. Relative difference in temperature or height can generate energy. It is sometimes a very small difference that makes a tool so effective. Even the smoothness of wave action, which is apparently seamless, has a power that has something to do with difference.

Touch cannot create image but it can transport us to another time. A few years ago when there was a fire that destroyed much of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, one of the curators was interviewed on Radio 4. "If you lose original fabric, and lose the touch of the craftsman; you lose part of history itself." A craftsman can feel the presence of a fellow craftsman even over great time spans by seeing nuances in the work. It is usually possible to re-live the sequences the work has passed through while being created. This is a particularly living way to experience the work. It is clear when the work had been going well, hesitations can be particularly poignant like little nuggets of thought. There is a fuzziness that corresponds to those moments when the craftsman's concentration slips and connection to the work is lost. Everything that is needed to evoke a living person in absence is embedded in the work's tactile intervals and finish.


Tactile Perception

What we normally mean by touch is a measured, focused pressure put onto an object. A different kind of tactile perception occurs when we lose direct contact with an object and still feel it. In those cases when we get the sense that we can "feel" beyond our fingertips, we are, in some unspecific way, recording not a physical object but the space between it and something else. A perfectly still object can perform an action on a space that it does not occupy in any normal sense. Without making any physical contact, a blind person can often feel the nearness of walls, larger trees or any other particularly massive object. This has been named "face vision" because it is the skin of the face, not the eyes, that recognises that an object is near. Presumably the receptive part of the body is the face because it is the only part of the body that is usually uncovered. The important thing is that the skin can record objects at a distance. Face vision functions most effectively when there is an obvious difference between our left side and our right side. We could say that face-vision is built on a kind of tactile parallax.


Sculptor Joel FisherOne of the team of the lizatori (sled men) who re-enact the ancient stone moving technique of moving large blocks of stone by hand and wooden rollers down the moutains of Carrara, Italy.  (See Film Gallery - Quarrying - La Lizzatura)


When driving a car or a truck, the driver can 'feel' within a fraction of an inch how much of a clearing there is when passing through a narrow gap. A bartender can pour, without measuring, a perfect ounce and a half of spirits. Our ability to expand boundaries of our bodies to include the tools we use, whether a large machine like a car or a hand tool, is nearly miraculous. We can touch our nose in complete darkness without ever putting a finger in our eye. We might wonder how our bodies can know so much.

Most people can activate, when needed, an internal clock. A parent seems to know if a young child is in trouble even when the child is relatively far away. Emotions and moods can be picked up with great precision even in the total absence of words, or with considerable distance. We recognise one person's face in the midst of a million urban faces, yet are unable to describe that face or even tell how we recognise it. We identify a silhouette of a particular individual at a great distance even when distance has obliterated all detail.

Perception of physical context depends on an accumulation of clues. The senses come together to perform a single task, providing each other with checks and balances. Sound can be particularly important in this mixture. An intriguing possibility is that chaotic and random background noise can help to sort out obscured information by providing multiple points of information. It is even likely that there is information embedded within such chaos. Everything in the world, animate or inanimate, tends to adapt to the context of its enclosing space. All activity has a finely tuned relationship to what surrounds it, responding by rhythm or frequency to environmental energy. Much of what we know about distant space is gathered by observing the behaviour of objects or particles surrounding any object of interest.


The Skill and the Habit

Repeated actions build something that we call a 'body of experience.' We regard this as metaphor but it really does suggest that there is a second body existing somewhere in relationship to the physical body of the craftsman. Sometimes it is called 'experience' because the craftsman has gone back to this spot many times before. Each repetition reinforces the sense of familiarity, the feeling of 'being home.' As long as a craftsman has his tools with him, he has his home with him. A habit is actually a habitat — comfortable, perfectly fitting, and well worn. A craftsman lives securely within the intervals of his skills.


In the Ganapati Sthapati workshop craftsman Perumal Sthapati carves all the fine details of temple sculptures. Mamallapuram, IndiaArtisan David Bampton-Greene taking caliper measurements on a Peter Randall-Page sculpture  during the Milestone Carve. Edinburgh, Scotland


There is much we still need to learn about skills. Skills and habits have much in common; habits may just be inadvertent skills. It is as hard to 'lose' a skill, as it is to lose a habit — it might be even harder, because skills merge with a sense of self-identity. Habits, even those that have a genetic component, are often looked on as something that we could profitably do without. Gestures, in general, are not learned directly, and yet they have the precision of the best skills. Exploring the relationship between gestures and skills may shed light on some aspects of the tacit.

There are many things that we can learn through focused effort. Swimming, diving, driving a car, cooking, dancing are all skills derived from practice. Potential abilities need to be developed and maintained or they soon atrophy. Repetition and effort play a role in keeping skills alive, especially a repetition that seems to grab the tail of a previous repetition.

Only by coming into contact with repetitive action can human action and the material world synthesize. The experience of the craftsman is analogous to the comfortable freedom that accompanies the riding of a bicycle. Despite being unbalanced almost all of the time, riding on a bicycle conveys an irresistible sense of freedom, almost a security. Our ability to ride a bicycle belongs to us in a way that commonly received knowledge may not. How do we recognise and convey the extent of this interconnectedness since it stretches from the most extraordinary and expansive to the most mundane. The Tacit seems to appear in unconscious action. Although some argue for innate abilities similar to inherited instincts in animals, it is more likely to be the result of some kinds of learning. We may not always understand enough about instincts whether animal or human to understand what drawing such a parallel would really mean.


Teaching Tacit Skills

Abraham Maslow proposed that there were four stages of learning. The final one may correspond with the tacit. He identified (1) unconscious incompetence (lack of all recognition), (2) conscious incompetence, (recognition of some deficit), (3) conscious competence (an ability to do something with concentration and effort), and (4) unconscious competence (where something is so habitual that a skill can be performed effortlessly). The problem is that the person in possession of that highest level of skill may not be able to teach that skill. Instructions on this level may only make sense to those who already know. Guidance from those at the highest level needs to survive in memory or in some other form until the student has reached that level. That may be why a teacher's remark, made many years before, suddenly has increased meaning. In Maslow's fourth stage, when skills appear to be innate, choice disappears.

" We are often told that in this theory Socrates ignored the will, but that is in part a misconception. The aim is not to choose the right but to become the sort of person who cannot choose the wrong and who no longer has any choice in the matter."


If you watch the moving hand of a child you can see that the motions are not random. The impression is that in these patterns there is a system at work that is not the same as what we find in adults. In young children the verbal world has not completely subsumed all the other ways of thinking. As language skills grow these unique children's patterns are replaced by more precise equivalents to those used by the adult —the movements of the hands develop a closer relationship with verbal statements. In most adults, gestures might be simultaneous with the spoken words, but they are more likely to be out-of-sync, occurring either just before or just after the utterance. The shapes that adult hands make are sometimes imitative, sometimes vectors of action. Particularly interesting is when the hand gestures form little sculptures that capture the relational content, but not the subject matter of the speaker.

'[The] hand's essence can never be determined, or explained, by its being an organ which can grasp...Every motion of the hand in every one of its works carries itself through the elements of thinking, every bearing of the hand bears itself in that element..."

— Martin Heidegger: What Calls for Thinking

Every action absorbs and releases a cluster of interactions with the world. The hand breathes in and expels its individual contexts. The hand's grasp does exceed its reach. By alternately accepting and releasing, the hand enacts its receptivity. The hand penetrates thought.


Soapstone artisan Duilo Ferreira Bretas, Ouro Preto, BrazilSculptor Wade Saunders, Paris, France


Recent research has shown that teaching is more likely to benefit students whose gestures differ from their speech. One suggested explanation is that children whose gestures were at odds with what their words were saying were the ones who most benefitted from teaching. It may be that they were suggesting new strategies with their hands that had not previously been expressed in words. Another discovery is that asking children to gesture while they asked or answered mathematical questions caused them to answer more questions correctly. Teaching children to perform gestures tailored to a lesson, like pantomiming a correct strategy, can make learning last.

"Hand gestures not only enhance our ability to articulate thoughts, they also may boost thinking itself. Psychologists at the University of Chicago found that children who were encouraged to gesture while explaining how they approached a math problem became more receptive afterwards to instructions on how to solve other numeric brainteasers. Conveying an unspoken idea with gestures, the scientists said, prompted new problem solving strategies that readied kids to learn."

Scientific American Mind, Feb/March 2008 p 11

The tacit may also play a role in preparing the mind to learn. The realm of the unspoken is much broader than touch alone, even if touch is often not far away. Some things that are unspoken facilitate coherence and others lead to increased fragmentation.

For the most part the unspoken is in service to a larger function. The shadow of the unspoken is the unspeakable. The patron saint of the unspeakable must be Actaeon, who as his story is related in the Greek Myths, could see but was never able to speak about what he saw. What Actaeon inadvertently witnessed was forbidden. Complicity or intention was irrelevant; consequences were inevitable.

Michel Polanyi comments in The Tacit Dimension that in all approaches to knowledge we need to start from the fact that 'we can know more than we can tell'. This pre-logical phase of knowing was for him 'tacit knowledge'. For Polanyi this was extensive.

He stressed that all communication, everything we know about mental processes or feelings, all of our relationships to conscious intellectual activities, are based on a knowledge, which we cannot tell. A particularly interesting assertion is that activating this knowledge requires a conviction that there is something there to be discovered. It is materialised by commitment. Everything Tacit gives credence to the belief in an unseen world.


Tamil Nadu granite carver in the Senthil Workshop, Peenya, India.Soapstone quarry owner Paulo Giovani da Silva, Mata Dos palmito, Brazil


It is almost certain that continuing scientific research, in particular in neurology, will enhance the understanding of the tacit. There are insights to be gained from kinesis and proprioception. Research is being done into micro-expressions, the thousand fleeting expressions unseen by most people that occur every second. Current animal studies show that many animals know what is going on in their environment at a different level than just what they can just see. It feels as if we may be in a situation today not unlike the world that existed just before telescopes and microscopes began to open up unseen worlds. We may soon be able to cross thresholds that we didn't know were there. Gesture suggests ways of communicating, or even setting the stage for later communication or learning. Touch proposes ways of seeing what cannot be seen, and of talking about things that cannot be talked about. Skills show how tacit illumination can exist within action.

The situation today reminds me of the insights of Zorba the Greek: "Ah if I could dance all that you've just said — then I would understand."

Joel Fisher

Newcastle/ Paris/ Vermont


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