Tuesday, June 22, 2010

hands, touching, and the erotics of playing guitar

... we spoke summarily of a reversibility of the seeing and the visible, of the touching and the touched. It is time to emphasize that it is a reversibility always imminent and never realized in fact. My left hand is always on the verge of touching my right hand touching the things, but I never reach coincidence; the coincidence eclipses at the moment of realization, and one of two things always occurs: either my right hand really passes over to the rank of the touched, but then its hold on the world is interrupted; or it retains its hold on the world, but then I do not really touch it – my right hand touching, I palpate with my left hand only its outer covering. (The Viz, 147f)

This example has always bugged me. It bugs a lot of people. It seems to place the hand in a strange place, less active and more abstract. I'm working out another approach, in line with what I've been writing lately about the erotics of sensation and our foundational intimacies with flesh.

My hand does stuff like this, I suppose. But this isn't a typical pose.

These are typical poses. I'm fretting a chord we'll call G 6th (no 3rd). And meanwhile, my right hand is flat-picking and strumming (there's a Fender thin blue confetti pick in there somewhere).

Then changing chords - a sort of G maj 7th happening here.

Or fingerpicking the Takamine C-128. Great old guitar.

Among the many things my hands do, one of the most familiar for me is playing guitar. I want first to describe some of the everyday characteristics of playing guitar, for me, and then go into more about the perception and sensation, and then, I hope, get a bit into why Merleau-Ponty’s hand examples bug me so much.

Most days, I play for around an hour. I have (somewhat embarrassingly) nine guitars: three 12-string, a classical, an acoustic-electric classical, two acoustic 6-strings, a hollow-body electric, and a bass guitar. There are guitars in three rooms of the house. When we leave for any length of time, I bring a guitar, or two, with me. So, yes, I love guitars.

I have to say, playing a guitar feels great to me. This is definitely an acquired pleasure, because the first few times a person frets a guitar, it feels foreign and often hurts a bit. You grow accustomed (you also grow callouses), and you develop “muscle memory” of chord forms, of fret locations, string tensions – a wide range of variables that also vary from instrument to instrument. Fretting the doubled strings on a 12-string guitar, for instance, requires a modulation of fingering and firmer muscle tension.

The pleasure of playing the guitar is not only musical, but tactile. I’m charmed by the familiar flow of a piece that I know well, following the rhythm and the picking and fretting patterns. When I pick up a guitar, I fall into one of these songs – almost always, the first song I play is one of mine. I suppose playing a song again that you’ve played hundreds of times can feel routine, a too-familiar song can become boring to play, especially if there aren’t musical or physical challenges to it, or if the situation takes away its emotional meaning. When I play for myself, though, I choose whatever I like, and often enough, my own stuff has both musical and technical challenges. (In the pictures, I’m playing “To the Sunrise” on the 12-string, and “Morgan’s Song” and “Late Afternoon Lullaby” on the classical.)

It’s characteristic of my playing that I fret across wide stretches of the fretboard. I developed this habit in part because of the strange way I learned to play – by painstakingly working out the fingering of every position of every chord in a chord encyclopedia my brother gave me as a present. The stretchier chords feel good to me, in part because I have long hands and fingers. (Plus, I think the weird chords are fun to show off to people.)


I’ve habituated to the guitar, developed a style of playing and a capacity for expression. This happens through attunement to guitars and guitars’ sounding out, through repeated perception. Borrowing from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, I can get at something of the institution (the being-instituted) of all this, along three dimensions of orientation. First, is the orientation that is there in the placement of things in the field of perception – whether, how, and where and when the guitar is there for me. Second, is the orientation in the background that already normatively lays out this scene – the guitar as a cultural artifact; the material, social, and political conditions of its production, distribution, purchase; the history of musical instruments in households; etc. Third, is the orientation that these other two found, through my repeated acts of perception and play, my ongoing appropriation of guitars in this setting and constituting of a guitar-world (if I can call it that).

I want to talk about what this means for, and to, and of, my hands, and my hands’ histories and habits. My hands do not just “touch,” as Merleau-Ponty discusses. They do not merely “palpate” or “caress.” Through these and all their other intimacies with the tangible, hands perceive and sense – that is, they actively grasp, and are held within and by, the tangible. The familiarity of “Morgan’s Song” (the oldest one of mine) is dispersed across my hands, my arms, my body, and the body and strings of the guitar. I know this because it is not the same on another instrument than it is on the old Takamine classical I first played it on. (I ascribe co-authorship of most songs to the instrument.) Playing the tune, I comport myself in relationship to the instrument. The guitar guides my hands, draws my fingers to touch – “here, now here, now up here...” No doubt, this is another seduction of sensation, of fingers, of the musical that vibrates between us two – guitar, and me.

It is as if we merge, we flow together, my fingers become the fingers of the guitar, the fingers of the fretboard. “As if...” because I can’t lose myself entirely, never release entirely my fingers’ will or their “I can...” I don’t need to enter into the bizarre experimental setting Merleau-Ponty depicts. My left hand and right hand, intertwined with the guitar’s song and sound, warmth, density and vibration, encounter the tension of the strings pushing back, their resistance and their suppleness. I feel this contact as the string’s, as the neck’s, and then as mine, and though the two never coincide (he’s right about that), it’s not due to my own perceptual “blind spot.” At least, not only. I am not the final perceiver just because I am perceivable. I am not the final grasp on the world, or the ultimate touch or caress of the world, because I am touched and caressed.

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