An Excerpt from the Introduction: The Culture of the Hand
Peter N. Miller

Rainer 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 characterization of the relationship between “hands” and “wholes.” No, he is on to something else. “Hands,” he continues, “are a complicated organism, 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 better 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 effortful 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 patterns 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.

Of course, if he is at all known today it is because of the two decade long polemic that broke out around him and which centered around his practice as a scholar–the verdict was dim–and his endorsement of cultural history–still a swear word amongst professional historians in Germany. 4 The Lamprechtstreit, like the contemporary Dreyfus Affair in France, divided teachers from students and colleagues from one another, forcing many who admired Lamprecht’s originality to duck and cover, if not actively disavow any sympathy for his approach.

Yet, in a very real way, Lamprecht is the most important historian for the twentieth century, and in particular for those of us who tell stories with, as well as about, things. As the teacher of Warburg–and even if Gombrich went too far in making him the exclusive influence on Warburg at the expense of Usener–and as the promotor of Pirenne, who in turn inspired and was the godfather of the Annales (with Bloch and Febvre in turn serving as godfathers to Braudel, Le Roy Ladurie, Ginzburg, Davis, Davis, Glassie and Darnton), Lamprecht stands behind the two most innovative “schools” of history in the twentieth century, or at least schools of cultural history, broadly understood. 5

Our story, indeed, begins here. But it almost ends here as well. Because in 1929, the founding of the Annales marked the emergence of a material history with the culture shorn away, lest any flabby Geistesgeschichte debase the new coinage. Later that same year, Aby Warburg died in Hamburg. Over the next few years the profile of his institute shifted away from the more anthropological, and material, contexts that so attracted its founder, to the intellectualized cultural history of Hercules am Scheidewege and Studies in Iconology. With this equal and opposite purging of the cultural from the material and the material from the cultural, Lamprecht’s innovative synthesis mostly vanished from view. Where it remained active, in a clear example of Jürgen Kocka’s notion of “ideological regression and methodological innovation, was in the increasingly racial Volks- and Landesgeschichte of the 1930s. Hermann Aubin, for example, began as a Lamprecht-inspired student of Landesgeschichte at Bonn, and wound up as the director of a Nazi ethnic demography institute at Breslau. (That he ended up back in Bonn, teaching through the 1950s and serving as a mentor to a new generation of social historians is a reminder that there can be two sides to every coin.) 6

Over the course of the twentieth century, like Aristophanes’ ur-hermaphrodite, these sundered perspectives sought but never, or only too rarely, found each other. In the last decade or two, however, the gropings of material historians towards cultural explanations, and of cultural historians for materializations, perhaps best embodied in the turn to microhistory by social historians, histories of the book by literary scholars, antiquarianism by classicists and art historians, and history of science by cultural historians, shows that the magnetism of Lamprecht’s synthesis still works, even if invisibly and at a great distance. This volume represents an explicit attempt at union on both the practical and theoretical levels: the essays do the work of joining cultural to material history, and the self-consciousness about this work, and about the perplexities and antinomies of the historical meta-narrative with which they are in dialogue, is bound up with the desire of contributors to intervene in and re-point a historiography.

A genealogy of the relationship between “culture” and “material” would be a daunting undertaking, almost an encyclopedia of the “West” from the most ancient times–or even earlier, as Horst Bredekamp suggests in his essay–to the present. No one who has read through–or in antiquity, listened to–Cicero’s discussion of the liberal versus the manual arts, the one the province of the head and the free, the other that of the hand and the enslaved, can have any doubt of the depth of the valorization of the one and depreciation of the other. This is an old but long-lasting perspective. It was still potent at the beginning of the twentieth century, when French and German scholars could debate their national superiority in terms of the supremacy of Civilisation or Cultur. The threat of the material and the quotidian loomed large over this debate: the French saw in Cultur the anthropological lowest common denominator; the Germans in Civilisation the banality of everyday practice. That the single most influential work of cultural history, Jacob Burckhardt’s study of Renaissance Italy, still bears its late Victorian mistranslated title illustrates the gravitational pull exerted by these century-old perceptions. (It is of course “The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy,” but Middlemore could not bear precisely Burckhardt’s gesture at practice, rite and, as we might say today, habitus.)

The nineteenth-century’s problem with materiality is worth dilating upon. For while the ancient bias remains powerful, it is also deeply challenged. By the middle of the century there is a broad attempt to incorporate a wider range of evidence, including that of material remains and daily life, and new kinds of questions, including those that came to found the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, folkloreand art history. No longer could these claims simply be ignored; having been made so forcefully they now had to be rejected, equally forcefully. And they were.

This rejection, which coincided with the establishment of history as a modern university discipline, had the effect of setting “back” the history of historical scholarship by at least a half, if not a whole century–and I mean by this the retarded rise of social and economic history, which was stillborn c. 1860. The rejection reflected an insistence on the priority of history as practiced by professional academics over and against an insurgent popular practice, of the university over and against the local association and the museum, of the legitimacy of older as opposed to more recent history and, of course, an underlying discomfort with materiality. The specter, too, that haunts this rejection, is that of Marx. 7

The Revolutions of 1848 were not only, as Rydings and Dilly pointed out long ago in a brilliant article, the crucible of cultural history, they also launched the “Communist Manifesto.” 8 And from then on, even to our own day, talk of material history easily blurred in the listener’s ear into “historical materialism.” Marx, then, even as he opened perspectives for some, became for others a tool for tarring. Of course, as anyone who has looked to Marx for a discussion of material culture knows full well, he makes no effort at all to show how material evidence tells us things about society that we do not already know. Marx was, indeed, a prophet of “materiality,” of the idea that the material matters, but he was not interested in exploring how it matters. Instead, he skips directly to the implications of production for broader questions of politics and economics. Indeed, what now passes for the study of material culture–close attention to the way in which things and people mutually interact–he classes, and dismisses, under the term “fetish.” So, far from serving as a resource for those then, or since, interested in materiality Marx doubly set it back: both in terms of a personal lack of interest which he communicated to his followers, and in terms of the fear his political program inspired which led others to condemn the whole prospect of material meanings. (Engels might represent a different set of possibilities, and a different genealogy.) 9


[Continued in book.]




  1. Rilke, Rodin and Other Prose Pieces, tr C.Craig Houston, intro. William Tucker (London: Quartet Books, 1986), “The Rodin Book” [First Part, 1903; Second Part, 1907] 18, translation modified. “Es gibt im Werke Rodins Hände, selbständige, kleine Hände, die, ohne zu irgendeinem Körper zu gehören, lebendig sind. Hände, die sich aufrichten, gereizt und böse, Hände, deren fünf gesträubte Finger zu bellen scheinen, wie die fünf Hälse eines Höllenhundes. Hände, die gehen, schlafende Hände, und Hände, welche erwachen; verbrecherische, erblich belastete Hände und solche, die müde sind, die nichts mehr wollen, die sich niedergelegt haben in irgendeinen Winkel, wie kranke Tiere, welche wissen, daβ ihnen niemand helfen kann.” Auguste Rodin (Leipzig; Insel Verlag, n.d.), 32–33.
  2. Rilke, Rodin, 19. “Aber Hände sind schon ein komplizierter Organismus, ein Delta, in dem viel fernherkommendes Leben zusammenflieβt, um sich in den groβen Strom der Tat zu ergieβen. Es gibt eine Geschichte der Hände, sie haben tatsächlich ihre eigene Kultur, ihre besondere Schönheit; man gesteht ihnen das Recht zu, eine eigene Entwickelung zu haben, eigene Wünsche, Gefühle, Launen und Liebhabereien.” Rilke, Auguste Rodin, 33.
  3. Bloch taught Lamprecht for long after ( see François-Olivier Touati, “Marc Bloch et Mabillon,” Dom Jean Mabillon, figure majeure de l’Europe des lettres, eds. Jean Leclant, André Vauchez et Daniel-Odon Hurel (Paris: Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 2010), 433n74) and Huizinga devoted his inaugural lecture at Groningen in 1905 to the Lamprechtstreit in Germany (see Gerhard Oestreich, “Huizinga, Lamprecht und die deutsche Geschichtsphilosohie: Huizingas Groninger Antrittsvorlesung von 1905,” Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden 88 (1973), 143–70).
  4. Roger Chickering, Karl Lamprecht: A German Academic Life (1856–1915), (Atlantic Heights, NJ, 1993); Gerhard Oestreich, “Die Fachhistorie und die Anfänge der sozialgeschichtlichen Forschung in Deutschland,” Historische Zeitschrift 208 (1969), 320–63; Luise Schorn-Schutte, Karl Lamprecht: Kulturgeschichtsschreibung Zwischen Wissenschaft und Politik (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupert, 1984).
  5. Ernst Gombrich, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago, 1975); Maria Michela Sassi, “Dalla scienza delle religioni di Usener ad Aby Warburg,” in G. Arrighetti et al., eds. Aspetti di Hermann Usener filologo della religione, Biblioteca di studi antichi 39 (Pisa: Giardini, 1982), 65–91; Roland Kany, Mnemosyne als Programm. Geschichte, Errinerungen und die Andacht zum Unbedeutenden im Werk von Usener, Warburg, und Benjamin (Tübingen, 1987); B. Lyon, ‘H. Pirenne and the Origins of Annales History,’ Annals of Scholarship 1 (1986) 69–83; Bruce Lyon, The Birth of Annales History: The Letters of Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch to Henri Pirenne (1921–1935) (Brussels, 1991).
  6. Jürgen Kocka, “Ideological Regression and Methodological Innovation: Historiography and the Social Sciences in the 1930s and 1940s,” History and Memory 2 (1990), 130–38; on Aubin see Eduard Mühle, Für Vok und deutschen Osten. Der Historiker Hermann Aubin und die deutsche Ostforschung (Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 2005).
  7. For this story, see my forthcoming Cultural History Before Burckhardt: The Foundations of Material Culture.
  8. Heinrich Dilly und James Ryding, “Kulturgeschichtsschreibung vor und nach der bürgerlichen Revolution von 1848,” in: Ästhetik und Kommunikation, 6/2 (1975), 15–32.
  9. I thank Bernie Herman for suggesting this. It reminded me that Walter Benjamin, in his essay on Eduard Fuchs, had traced the line between Englels and Franz Mehring, and between Mehring and Fuchs. That between Fuchs and Benjamin was, of course, only implied (“Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian,” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, volume 3 1935–1938 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 260–302).