Friday 17 July 2015


I've been thinking a lot about Ralph Steiner's short film "Hands" (1934) in conjunction with one of the Challenge for Change films that I discuss my MA dissertation called "A Woman's Place". While two intelligent women talk about the necessary changes that ought to be implemented within the Fogo Island community such as the improvement of education facilities and a merging of the schools which were, that at the time, run by different denominational groups, as well as the gaining access to better quality food and clothing, the camera seems to be distracted by the women's hands as they hold a teacup or gesture during speech.

While it may, in a sense, seem obvious that hands be a symbol for labour or for a labouring body, it seems to me that this is no longer a given and we no longer necessarily associate hands with work. Rather, the higher paying jobs today are those that do not depend on bodily exertion other than typing on a computer. What has become valued in this generation is the capacity for thought and for productive ideas. The genius constitutes she who thinks rather than she who is actually involved in the production of objects. While it seems that within a privileged Western society, ownership and wealth is often measured by way of objects bought and collected, there is at the same time, a dematerialization of wealth as physical money becomes data extractable by way of a card or even now through a fingerprint.

Steiner's film depicts both hands at work and hands receiving payment in the form of bills. Sometimes the hands are paired with tools that accessorize their movement, but at other times, the hands touch one another or tap an invisible surface. Hands pull a rope, saw a piece of wood, hammer a nail, man a drill, write on a paper, type on a typewriter. Perhaps in 1930s America, it makes more sense to associate hands with labour, with machines. Writing in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan claims that media or the technologies involved with media can be considered to be extensions of our limbs.

But what happens when hands become involved in different kinds of laborious activity that might be considered to be leisurely, i.e. holding a teacup, expressing oneself gesturally. How can we come to define labour? How has labour changed from 1934 to 1967 to now? How is labour gendered? What does it mean to show women's hands engaged in this kind of labour? What is Low trying to say about these women when he leads his viewers to close up shots of their hands? I hope to come to understand more about this.

Screen captures from "A Woman's Place" (1967). 

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