On Techniques

Tools occupy an area of ambiguity, ‘never given nor absolutely acquired’ (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception). They are objects which are informed – they carry information – but the information is only realisable if the objective point of view is abandoned and the tool is subsumed into the body and the subject, emerging as the technique.

Something involving chasing that I made around the time I wrote this piece.

Something involving chasing that I made around the time I wrote this piece.

When using the chasing hammer, I use binocular magnification in order to be able to see the head of the chasing punch as it contacts the metal. This means that the tool is excluded from the visual field. I can see neither it nor my right hand which holds it. I do not bring any visual ‘attention’ to it as such ‘attention’ as I have is consumed by matters within the visual field: The orientation and angle of the punch, the progress, depth and texture of the line being chased. Nevertheless the hammer is fully ‘alive’, playing its part in the dance of the technique in the appropriate manner. I am ‘aware’ of it in the action of hammering inasmuch as I hit the punch accurately and with the required force. But I am not aware of the hammer as such, although its action and direction are modified without thought as the angle and orientation of the punch shift in its progress along the line. I hit the punch iteratively, correcting the timing, force and direction of the blow, again without thinking, to keep the line moving in the required direction. As Brepohl puts it in Theory and Practice of Goldsmithing, “With experience you will feel the almost magical effect of tools, process and intent coming together seamlessly.” (TPG:396) In this seamless synthesis, the chasing hammer is a part of the body, integrated into it through the body-image. It no more needs the oversight of the visual sense than it needs an intellectual overseer to accomplish its task. Although all of the information outlined above when  we ‘read’ the tool – the movement of the wrist, the ‘feel’ and springiness of the blow – are doubtless being ‘communicated’ to me by the tool, this is not evident in the action. Rather, the tool is as much a part of myself as my hand, the punch, or the line emerging in the metal. Merleau-Ponty, living in Paris, a city of high fashion and narrow streets, gives two examples of the way ‘objects’ are integrated into the body image: “A woman may, without any calculation, keep a safe distance between the feather in her hat and things which might break it off. She feels where the feather is, just as we feel where our hand is. If I am in the habit of driving a car, I enter a narrow opening and see that I can ‘get through’ without comparing the width of the opening with that of the wings, just as I go through a doorway without checking the width of the doorway against that of my body.” This integration is, according to Merleau-Ponty, achieved by what he calls ‘habituation’ (l’habitude) – the process of ‘getting used to’ some thing: “To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body.” (Merleau-Ponty 1970:143) In English the term habituation is somewhat problematic. L’habitude in French carries meanings of habit, usage, custom, practice and knack. The driver has become habituated to the car, the woman to the new spatiality of her body. By forming perceptive and motor habits, we incorporate things into our subject. He gives the further example of the typist, who can unfailingly hit the right keys but does not ‘know’ where the keys are located in objective space and cannot reproduce the layout of the keyboard on paper. “To know how to type, then, is not to know the place of each letter among the keys, nor even to have acquired a conditioned reflex for each one which is set in motion by the letter as it comes before our eye. If habit is neither a form of knowledge nor an involuntary action, what then is it? It is knowledge in the hands which is forthcoming only when a bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort (Merleau-Ponty 1970:144 my emphasis). If it is the body which understands then, Merleau-Ponty prompts us, we need to revise our notion of what understanding means. To understand is not to subsume sense-data under an idea, with the body seen as an object. Rather it is ‘to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance – and the body is our anchorage in a world.” Merleau-Ponty is at great pains to demonstrate this anchorage of experience in the body. The perceptual field, which includes aperceptive and kinesthetic information in its synthesis, is oriented around the body and organised through the body. He further explains that “When the typist performs the necessary movements, these movements are governed by an intention, but the intention does not posit the keys as objective locations. It is literally true that the subject who learns to type incorporates the keybank space into his bodily space.”

Thus we can see that the tool ceases to be an object, having been incorporated into the bodily space of the subject. When I use the word ‘tool’ here, I really mean something like tool-event or tool-in-use.  I shall use the term technique. In the objective world, the goldsmith uses the tool to effect the technique, but in the lived world of experienced phenomena, the tool-in-use is the technique.

What is a technique? As an instructor in the Goju-Ryu style of karate, I have frequent recourse to the term, and its use in the martial arts may shed light on its possible meaning in the Work. In karate the technique is the unit of instruction. Large numbers of individual techniques are taught and practiced repetitively. They consist of focused movements of the entire body, with or without a weapon (tool). The techniques are not conceived in isolation from their environment: They are offered as a response to the movements of others through space-time, and are directed to specific ends, aggressive or defensive. They are the ‘building-blocks’ of kata or forms – sequences of movement intended to convey the synthesis of technique in a non-repetitive but patterned form. The comparison to the goldsmith’s techniques is at once apparent: Although the narratives offered to account for technique in jewellery manuals focus mainly on the tools, the goldsmith’s techniques are focused movements of the entire body, usually with a tool. They are directed in response to the state of the metal in relation to some desired state and cannot be conceived in isolation from their environment. They are the building-blocks of the Work itself, a sequence of movements wherein technique is synthesised and expressed through the medium of the metal.

Introduction to the technique

The use of the chasing hammer is in chasing and repoussé, a set of techniques involving the body and  the body-image in interaction with tools and metals. Though the body can ‘read’ much of the meaning and possible function of hand tools, the actual use is not obvious from the tool itself – it needs the context of the Work, and of the specifics of its technique, or its analog, to be understood. An example of a tool which has lost its significance because we do not have this transmission should make this plain: At sites all over South Africa biface hand-axes can be found, often in large numbers. These stone tools, between 1.4 million and .4 million years old offer a baffling mystery because we do not know what the tools were used for. Although we can ‘read’ them with the body and find many possible uses for them empirically, we do not know the actual techniques of their use. For a technique to be grasped, then, there has to be some ‘initiation’ of the user. This initiation may take the form of a text, for example Brepohl, or an oral transmission, or it may take the form of a demonstration of the technique, which would allow the initiate to experience at first-hand the gestures and postures involved, the punches, the pitch, and the manner of holding and using them. The effect that these tools have on the metal is either explained or made plain by demonstration.

For the goldsmith, tools become techniques, but they are also objects in the world which have been designed and made in certain forms to fulfill certain functions. They too are produced by a ‘Work’. They are ‘forms which inform’, and thus they bring something to the goldsmith which is not placed in them by reflection, but which emerges in the technique.


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