Searching for something a little more nutritious to read on my travels, I picked up on a whim a book by one Raymond Tallis – Michelangelo’s Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence.
He’s one of those people who makes pretty much all of us feel like under-achievers: former Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester, a poet, philosopher, he’s been cited as one of Britain’s top 100 Public Intellectuals.
The thesis of his new book is brilliantly arresting. Tallis argues that the ability to point with our index finger – a uniquely human trait – has fundamentally shaped the course of human evolution, allowing us to rise above our organic condition, and lead our lives, rather than simply living them.
For Tallis by its very nature of gesturing towards stuff that lies outside ourselves, pointing takes us out of our solitary, transient bodies:
“With pointing we have moved decisively from the solitary ,material world of non-human sentient creatures to the shared, public world of humans… Pointing is predicated on an uncoupling of the individual from his or her material environment…. This world world does not privilege me as its center. More precisely the world of pointers and pointees has more than one center… Henceforth my sense of being at the center of the world revealed to, and concealed from, me is haunted by the sense that this world has other centers. This is the first step towards understanding that the world is a public space that has no intrinsic center, and that the privileged position I occupy in it is an illusion…”
We’re pointing a lot at screens these days. We point and whole worlds are instantly made available to us. If we regard screen icons as representing all the stuff that lies beyond our own immediate, physical, isolated experience, as representing bundles of out-there-ness, of other centers, could it be that technology is taking the lesson that we are not the center of the world to the next level? Could it be that technology is finding new ways to inflate as Tallis puts it, “the bubble of available common reality in which humans operate”?
Does this work to bind us closer together? Or leave us feeling lost and overwhelmed?
Self-indulgent planner-y over-thinking I know. But sometimes it’s nice to mull on these things. Just a bit.