Cultural_Histories_of_the_Material_World - Introduction The...

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Introduction: The Culture of the Hand Peter N. Miller R ainer Maria Rilke looked at Rodin’s sculptures and saw hands. Rodin has made hands, independent, small hands which, without forming part of a body, are yet alive. Hands rising upright, evil and irritated, hands whose five bristling fingers seem to bark like the five throats of a hell-hound. Hands in motion, sleeping hands and hands in the act of awaking; criminal hands weighted by heredity, and those that are tired and have lost all desire, lying like some sick beast crouched in a corner, knowing none can help them. 1 This is dazzling. But Rilke is not casting about for a metonymic charac- terization of the relationship between “hands” and “wholes.” No, he is on to something else. “Hands,” he continues, “are a complicated organ- ism, a delta in which much life from distant sources flows together and is poured into the great stream of action.” For him, hands are real, and what they make is real. In fact, what they make is history. “Hands have a history of their own, they have, indeed, their own Culture.” 2 This book, and this series for which it is named, is devoted to the Culture of the Hand, on all the many levels gestured at, hinted at, or only implied by Rilke. One of the reasons why “culture” is so much bet- ter a word than the “civilization” used by the English translator of the Rodin book is that it gives us access to the very material level conveyed by the Latin term Cultura —the human intervention upon nature—as well as to the conceptualizations that are the result of the equally e ort- Miller_CulturalHistories.indd 1 3/6/2013 12:18:06 PM
2 Cultural Histories of the Material World ful work of tending the spirit: cultura animi. Rilke’s Culture of the Hand is, therefore, a way of defining human activity: training the hand, the works of the hand, the world made by many hands. This broad domain, in its many splendors, is the subject of this book: a book whose purpose is to show possibilities and teach questions, not to foreclose them or to preach answers. For those of us interested in cultural histories of the material world, the twentieth century began in the 1880s, in Bonn, with Karl Lamprecht. This was the decade in which Aby Warburg was his student—later Marc Bloch devoted his most assiduous reading to Lamprecht, and Johan Huizinga engaged with Lamprecht at key stages of his career—and in which he cemented a relationship with Henri Pirenne. 3 But most of all, in this decade, Lamprecht launched projects which would define the next century’s chief initiatives. He published a book on ornamental pat- terns in medieval incipits; he organized a collaborative “total history” of an illuminated manuscript, treating it as an artistic, political, economic, political, and material artifact; he published a four-volume study of the medieval Moselle region that blended geography, economy and law; and he launched himself into a multi-volume work on German history that he characterized in terms of cultural history.

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