Meditation on a nail

In front of me on the table lies an old, forged nail of seventeen centimetres long and half a centimetre wide, with an irregularly shaped head of about 20 millimetres; on the top of that head you can see imprints of a hammer that struck it flat in four blows, so that in the middle of that pockmarked, rusty head a sort of cross was formed, not geometrically correct but haphazardly and by chance. The whole nail is this way; with archaic but accurate craftsmanship it was shaped in a way that made it fit for purpose without allowing it even a millimetre of geometrical tedium. That is why there isn’t a second nail like this one.


It lies here now, displaced; I found it in a beam in the attic of my father’s house. How far it had been driven into that beam can be seen exactly; the iron there is less weatherworn and smoother. Above that its skin has been eaten by rust; it is a moon landscape with countless craters and shadow spots. When I carefully and admiringly palpate it with my fingers, over and over again they get held up by the interesting irregularities to the lyrical slowness of the inappropriate user. For that nail isn’t here to be looked at. It was probably hammered into the beam in that attic by my grandfather to hang a scythe or a flail on, not to be looked at in rapture. That is what I am doing now; they are the actions of a later-day aesthete or an observer. I have pulled out the nail that had become useless and cleaned it. Now it shines like an antique in a shop window; everything that is that old, is grateful for a coat of wax; thereby it immediately gets a patina of happiness and rest after a turbulent existence. The nail now has become an antique; I can imagine it in a shop window and a snob asking about it. “Early piece of iron, sir, the work of an anonymous village blacksmith from the early 18th century; this one would be 12 dollars and 50 cents.”

I The thing

Nails aren’t made for looking at. But the fact is, that there isn’t a second nail like this. If a work of art is something to look at, then this simple nail at least has something very essential in common with it, namely that it is in-exchangeable. And stripped of its useful function and made to be the object of a contemplation, it moreover gets the impartiality of the work of art. And it has the advantage over the work of art that it is indubitable. The work of art has added so many pretensions on to itself by the tradition of art history, such a towering block of merely assumed values and truths, that it almost by mere appearing already evokes reluctance and scepticism. A nail is without pretence, but it is so hard and irrefutably a thing, that all scepticism must ricochet off of it. I can doubt a work of art; I can find the whole civilization, of which it is a late product, so wearisome that I reject it. My scepticism can brake away the suppositions below it, so that it ends up hanging in the void. But this nail, just as much the individual work of an individual human, does not need those suppositions. Its existence is as clear as that of smooth pebbles, though less elementary. But its suppositions do not lay within the ‘artistic’ field with all its weary pretences; they lay in life itself.

That nail, that I now find so beautiful that I muzzle and palpate it as a small work of art, still roots in the harsh substratum of the laborious artisan life. Even though it isn’t made for being muzzled and contemplated, but for being used by a farmer, the fact remains irrefutably, that it is something that may be seen; it doesn’t need to be hidden in the technical substrate on which we lead our comfortable lives. It is even difficult to look past it, not just because it is so big, but more so because all by itself it is a characteristic variation on a theme of nail. Of each newly manufactured nail there are millions. Nobody made them and nobody gives them a second glance. It can therefore never become the object of a contemplation. It is in no way a piece of work and hardly a utensil. Where it fulfils its humble function, it has to be invisible; its visibility would be a dissonant. Also before and after its function is it invisible, stowed or thrown away. But this nail here is before everything a thing unto itself. Also in its function was it visible. It has the hard consistency of the definitively thing-ness. There is no negotiating with this thing-ness. It does not come to me. When I want to have contact with it, I have to move from my identity to the demanding autarchy of a piece of iron. By seeing the nail in front of me, by wondering about it and palpating it I transcend my identity and venture into a world that is fatally and irrevocably different than the pliable softness of my me and everything that I could think up from there. Now the human no longer rules, but the other, the thing, a clogged up piece of otherness, and touching it I feel an alienation on my skin that penetrates as a revelation into the loose nest of my identity. It is a shock to discover the thing and it is a long process to include it into my world. For there it is a continuous impingement on my autonomy and my self-righteousness: just by its presence, its visibility alone. That is an experience that enriches existence and to grow this enrichment into a possession, the things have to be maintained in their visibility.

II Invisible technique

In a certain sense the technique is a force, that threatens the visibility of the things. The most industrial utensils have become invisible and the element or frame, in which they are used, has completely disappeared from our field of vision. At the moment that we use those objects, we don’t pay attention to them. I simply do not see the electrical razor, with which I shave myself. Only when it declines, do I look at it. ‘To look at something’ in the technical era means : trying to fix something. If it never needs repairing, we never look at it; it doesn’t need, as we say, looking after. When a thing functions well, it is like a healthy body, a transparent mediator of useful energies. It gets connected to an invisible technical framework, e.g. the electrical grid, and nothing indicates that with that connection, a wonder of ingenuity and energy happens. Not a festive circumlocution nor decoration may accompany and welcome the wonder. Nobody wonders that it happens. It’s made completely invisible and hidden in the walls and floors of the houses we live in. Whoever would let the power lines in his house be installed visibly and would paint them red, or make them silver, would be regarded as eccentric. Our technical achievements are becoming an increasingly broad base, which we increasingly take for granted and live on with more jadedness. They are completely built into a frame that remains invisible, and within that frame too the things are under threat to become so invisible, that they are no longer things to us.

This minimum of visibility goes along with a minimum of of effort in operating the things. We don’t want to pump or hurl to have light or water, or to grind coffee. We just want to press a button. The effect is in no proportion to the effort. A whole mythology of power has grown around the invisibility of the technical frame and the pressing of the button that operates it. In the end this mythology is based on the expectation of total mechanization, a maximal discrepancy between effort and effect. With a push of a button we command the visibility and invisibility, the audibility and inaudibility of the world; with a push of the button we can make the world perish. The road between effort and effect seems so short because it is invisible.

This, the invisibility of the technical thing and the comfort, has a deep meaning in our lives. What is invisibly present seems to have been given to us like the elementary, air, earth, water. It stops being a blessing for which we could optionally be grateful, at least in as much that we look at them. It also stops being a history in which we are involved ourselves. For what is being made, is no longer made to be seen, but to be overlooked. It is therefore made in the same indifferent way with which the underside of the floor is treated. Production evades from our perception and responsibility and the product is there in the way of something that isn’t made, but already there, something that is supposed to be self-evident. That is how the thing drifts away from our world and how it stops being a property; the thing becomes invisible and the property becomes abstract. The owner has an interest in the things, but he does not own the things. The more heated the production works, the more the thing disappears into the production process itself.

If the thing has become invisible, then for the eminently made thing, the work of art, we have to either lift ourselves a little above the floor on which we live and venture into the often pretentious world of modern art, which has distanced itself quite a bit from usability and had to do so, in order to remain visible. It continually has to dissociate itself from the industrial usefulness and the utilitarian world in order not to fall into invisibility along with industrial products. That’s why it has to be noteworthy and pretentious, to the point of affectation. Or: to experience production we have to go back to the time before the industrial revolution and the division of labor, when one man still made a whole product. Such a product of one man, made by hand, is now a work of art. More than a century of invisibility has opened our eyes to the antique utensil, no matter how humble. Every nail or even just a needle, made outside of the factory, has become a work of art.

The more a thing disappears into invisibility, the less it is a thing, and the less we own it. For in its dependence on a framework its is no longer a complete, independent thing and therefore not a thing to own. A television is an important and useful instrument, as is a car. But they are, no matter how expensive, not possessions, where the worthless nail is. They are not because they cannot be separated enough from the technical frame of which they are attributes. The television disappears into the network, by which it’s fed: apart from that it is an embarrassing piece of furniture. A car is a useless thing without a road network, really already when it stands still. That’s why they are possessions in an economical sense, that is in our economy, but not in an anthropological or psychological sense. I can get attached to a painting, not to a car. Thing, possession, can only be what has meaning in and of itself.

III ‘Handmade’

The industrial revolution has changed the things, taken away its character of possession. It is therefore not only an interference in human life, but also in the existence of the things. In his book Life in Multiples Van de Berg demonstrates this abundantly clearly with the examples of the production of needles, leaning on data by Adam Smith and Marx. “The division of labour, that was made possible by the industrial revolution, made a labourer able to, instead of the twenty needles, that he could make himself in a day, make hundreds of thousands. Or really he doesn’t make them anymore; his hand is drawn back from production; the production becomes invisible. You cannot tell by the needles anymore that they’ve been made and how they’ve been made. The needles might have become more useful, but they are no longer things. Throw a thousand needles into a bowl, and there is not a single one that is different from the others. Sprinkle the twenty from yesteryear into the palm of a hand: they are all disparate. The numbers suit this difference -as does the gesture… How many needles have been made across the world since Marx? I don’t know the number, don’t have to know the number, to realise, that this number far exceeds the need. -One cannot say, that needles get worn out? The needles from before Smith, those were being worn out. Needles from the time of Smith, I suspect, were being used frugally. But no one handles needles frugally since Marx. They don’t wear them out. They drop them. For they are worthless.

Multiple, equal, worthless and throw-away. This foursome belongs together and it is surely not just the case with needles. Scarce, unequal, valuable, for wearing out or keeping. This foursome also belongs together, also not just in the case of a needle.

They are two time periods. We live in the second time period (p. 173).” We live in the time period of worthless, invisible things. The things from an earlier period are essentially different. A modern nail is for using or for throwing away, in any case not for being seen. A nail that was made by the village blacksmith a hundred and fifty years ago, to us is a thing, a possession, a work of art.

This is peculiar enough in different aspects. What is now so much desired, namely the somewhat dubious predicate of ‘handmade’ in an industrial world, hasn’t always had this prestige. Before the industrial revolution it was the normal course of events, that the things were made by hand. There wasn’t any other way of making them, also not for artworks. If only for that reason the arts and the crafts were much closer together, or were more or less identical. The step into a mythical past that we make now by admiring handmade work, was a step back into prehistory back then. What was made by human hands did not have prestige, but what was said to be acheiropoietos, made without hands, that is given by the gods to man, fallen from the heavens in perfect completion, did. There are icons that enjoy this prestige. The idea probably harks back to the thought, that in prehistory the things suddenly arose, created by a god in an exemplary way. The things from history are repetitions, imitations of these things from prehistory, which are models. What remains from this prehistory, therefore naturally has a special, divine value. Every thing is the representation and the repetition of a primal thing. And that primal thing, not made by human hands, enjoys the prestige that the idea enjoys with Plato. That is why man shouldn’t create which isn’t already there in a primal shape; it is hubris to design something new. That is why the industrial revolution is so revolutionary; it moves the primal thing from the heavens to the machine. Not the new thing, but only the new machine adds something to the file of the things. The things themselves no longer have an identity.

IV Nature and history

The nail is all the more ‘made’, a product of human hands, albeit an elementary product, because iron, from which it is made, does not have a shape of its own. Iron is without character, amorphous. It does not exist outside of the form, that man gives it. Technique or craft actualises the iron to the thing that it has to become. With marble or wood, as noted by Alain, we can muse about the shapes that slumber in a block. ‘Le fer n’a point de noeuds ni de fibres; la forme qu’il reçoit lui est étrangère.’ (Iron has no knots or fibres; the form it receives is foreign to it.) The veins in marble and the rings in wood can inspire the sculptor to ‘liberate’ certain slumbering shapes. In any case they keep the nature of the material in account. The material has its own beauty, which helps actualise the product. A marble statue is very different from a wooden statue, even if it is carved from an equally big block and from the same model. Material here is to such a high degree important, forming and shaping, that it determines the product. Iron does not have this characteristic. It is completely technical, that is to say dependent on the possibilities of the technique and determined by it. To name a clear example: without fire there is no iron. An enormous leap was made in history, before iron could be handled. When you touch iron, you hold a piece of human history and hubris, a chunk of characterlessness that has been put to the service of man for its often aggressive intentions. It’s not for nothing that in the hierarchy of ages iron was put in the last place; it represents the biggest progress, but also the deepest misery. With iron we think of weapons, of stabbing, penetrating, splitting and carving. It is a human, historical material, that to a certain degree lies outside of nature and what it has to give directly. A piece of iron represents a piece of history. This ascertainment can be specified in several ways. In and of itself it is too elementary to say much at all.

In his book Forgerons et Alchémistes (p. 26) Eliade talks about the ‘holiness’ of iron. ‘Qu’il passe pour tombé de la voûte céleste, ou qu’il soit extrait des entrailles de la Terre, il est chargé de puissance sacrée.’ (‘Whether it is thought to be fallen from the heavenly vault, or is extracted from the bowels of the earth, it is charged with sacred power.’) This holiness in its turn is too all-encompassing to be determined globally. It can contain both the falling from the sky as the being dug from the lap of the earth. Pointing towards the first could possibly be the etymology of the Greek word for iron, ‘sidèros’, that shows kinship to the latin word for star ‘sidus’, genitive: ‘sideris’. Iron is a matter, that falls outside of the normal order, whether it comes from the heavens, whether it just received that name simply because it shines like the stars. For it is this shine that the word indicates. It is a notable accomplishment, with which man steps outside of the order given to him by nature. That is why iron is holy in a different sense than old trees are holy; it is holy in this sense, that it places man opposite himself and his own history. With iron he acquires a responsibility of his own, with which he can target the established order. The archaic shudder for iron is completely comparable to how modern man feels about the immeasurable powers of atomic energy: for that shudder is too, no matter how modern we are, charged with magic and holy. The holiness of iron is a historical fact and has historical suppositions; it hasn’t been given with the form and the nature of the material.

In nature we find iron ore, not iron. Iron doesn’t belong to the trousseau of history, but is one of its most prized accomplishments. The formlessness of the material brings relief to the skills of the Promethean, technical man. An iron object impresses, because it is the fruit of a visible technique. Plastic, on the other hand, just as amorphous as iron and perhaps of even greater use, does not impress: it is the fruit of an invisible technique. It doesn’t pose, the way iron represents the achievements of fire and metalwork. It not just too recent to evoke archaic historical images, but it is also too concealed. In this concealment it is withdrawn from our historical consciousness. And there is another thing: since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the technique has made so many rapid achievements, that it is very difficult in this accelerated progress to make distinctive caesuras, which determine an era. The possibility to split an atom is undoubtedly such a caesura, and we rightly say, that we live in the atomic age now. Until recently we lived in the iron age. A simple nail can awaken our historical consciousness.

The formlessness of iron therefore has a special meaning, inasmuch as it makes us realise history in a special way. However, it doesn’t only make us aware of that history as human hubris and human adventure, but also as a source of realities. The fact that iron isn’t a natural product, and so not like wood and stone been given a certain articulation and form by nature, by which it can be known and to which the operator has to conform to a certain degree in a form of serfdom towards the material and towards the nature which provides it, is connected to the way it was given us, namely as a historical achievement. With ‘given’ we think of a power that determines our being and having and we call this power nature. We find ourselves determined by nature and in nature, as the world we live in we come across the things as given. There is however another world we live in that gives us things, like we have them, that shapes human being and having. That is the world of history. We often say that our existence and our behaviour is culturally determined, and by that we mean that in different cultures and periods, other forms of behaviour and work can be observed. The term nature already loses in this antithesis to culture something of its magical prestige. Man is, we say, to a certain degree free of nature.

History as a determining power goes further. It gives, just like nature gives, and it gives a lot of which it was long thought, that it was given by nature. The prestige of nature, the way it applies in a mythical and essentialist thinking, merges more and more into that of history. One of the most clear examples of this is the theory of evolution. It teaches as history, what was thought to be nature. Evolution is history. The development of species and the burgeoning of higher forms of life is not a given of nature, but of history. Everything is history. But wood and marble are given of the prehuman or besides human history; iron is a given of the human history. It is whole history, conquest of myth. That’s why it sets history present.

V Magic and Symbolism

There is a curious Roman ritual, in which we can see, according to a certain interpretation, a dramatisation of the history-making function of the iron, the nail. At the end of a lustrum, at new years and at centennial, a nail was solemnly beaten into the wall of Jupiter’s temple in the Capitol. According to a very old law, only the highest magistrate, a dictator appointed especially for this, dictator figendi clavi causa, could perform this rite. The historian of religion W. Brede Kristensen gives the following interesting explanation for this. ‘The meaning of this action had apparently been completely forgotten in the time of the writers, which mention it. For nobody would probably settle for their explanation, that the nails were hammered in, so that the next generations could count the number of periods by the nails’ heads. For such work you didn’t need a praetor maximus or a dictator clavi figendi causa. Moreover, the ceremony wasn’t just held periodically, but also on the occasion of self-contained occurrences which had caused great unrest, such as contagious diseases or unheard of crimes. For the calculation of times the nails hammered in then would have been of little use. The action must have had a different use.

It was the last ritual at periodical feasts. That it indeed marked the ending is almost certain, as the nail, clavus, from claudere ‘to close’, in the consciousness of the Romans was a ‘closer’. One could say that the ritual hammering of the nail would be explained by that. But the case is not that simple… No period was simply closed, for it was the form of a imperishable life, including the fall and the rise. In the period the feared divine life order manifested itself, which superseded human interests. Romans called that order fatum… And now it turns out that the nail was the Roman symbol for that.’ (Collected contributions, p. 246) Kristensen does not explain how the nail becomes a symbol of the Fatum, probably because he limits himself too much to only the nail. There are different explanations of the ritual possible, that shed a more clear light on this.

It doesn’t just concern the nail, it concerns a ritualistic action that involves the nail. The nail get hammered into a wall in a ritualistic way. Not the nail as such is a symbol of fatum but more: the nail ritually hammered into a wall. Hammering a nail is a decisive action, to which quite a few religious and magical ideas can attach themselves. An enlightened man like Lichtenberg still wrote: ‘Wenn ich einen Nagel einschlage, nur um etwas anzuheften, so denke ich immer: was wird geschehen, ehe ich ihn wieder herausziehe?’ (‘When I strike a nail just to attach something, I always think: what will happen before I pull it out again?’) The ritualist, therefore emphatic and solemn hammering of a nail, has, like all rituals, a very complex meaning, which can’t be discharged with a simple explanation.It could very well be, that two opposite explanations can be given, neither of which can be dispelled by the nature of the ritual itself. In that case it is also useful to do that, because it sheds light on the nature of the rite. A rite is necessarily poly-interpretable, not just because it consists of a number of consecutive actions, each of which is interpretable in itself, and makes use of things and symbols, each of which are interpretable in themselves, but mostly because it, as a coagulation of all that, is not an efficient action towards a goal, but a fairly desperate action of expression, that comes from the willingness to do something, more than the knowledge what to do. It dramatises the willingness to do something into an imaginary action, which no matter how it is interpreted still remains an action. The hammering of a nail from which nothing is hung, is a decisive action. It forcefully ends a period. The period is as it were nailed to the wall and held in place, to be made clear, rounded to a past whole. The ritual hammering is a marking of historical decision, a way out of a crisis, a decisive turn. That is why most interpretations of the ritual mentioned earlier go in this direction. They see applied in the nail an apotropaeic magic, a means to ward off disaster, an aggressive weapon against demons. But on an Etruscan mirror the inevitable doom Atropos is depicted still as a winged creature with a nail in its hand. Fatum itself handles the nail, to emphasize its irrevocability. Magic, on the other hand, uses the same means, the plague can just as well be hammered as a period.

In magic the nail plays an important role, primarily as an aggressive weapon. Its name ‘nail’ invokes the association with the claw of an animal, ‘spike’ seems to be connected to all kinds of words that have to do with stabbing. In apotropaeic magic nails are used often. They do not only ward off disaster, but also wound the enemy. Instead of directly attacking someone, with the same effect one can stab nails into his footsteps or pierce his likeness with nails. The nail is used to fix a prayer or curse in place. Handling a hammer and nail is such an elementary action, that the useful targeted action it can be, is completely pushed to the side and washed away by primitive dreams of power and aggression, which accompany the action and, given a certain degree of desperation, that turn it into a action of pure expression. That a nail is used in the action of expression, means, that it has been completely integrated into the lives of humans, as it was made by history. It has become completely human and this has a deep meaning for its symbolical value.

That iron naturally does not have its own shape, but is handled in historically grown and confirmed shapes, doesn’t meanwhile imply, that those shapes haven’t also been determined by nature. This happens in two ways. Firstly by human ‘nature’, the fundamentals of man. The nails gets its shape from man and it is inevitable that its shape would get human characteristics, as it were. All of the archaic technique is anthropomorphic, thanks its shape and existence not just to its efficiency, but also to the human world, to which it is added as a visible historical achievement. The archaic, still visible technique is a proud extension of the human body and has been designed after its analogy. A hammer is a stronger and harder fist, a shoe is the sole of a foot, a jug is a belly. Man’s responsibility for its technique is easier to bear, the more it fits to the world of his physique, therefore when it isn’t completely designed by himself, but in consultation of what has already been given. That especially the genitals have had an important meaning in this, has been made very clear from numerous psycho-analytical researches, especially relating to weapons of attack like the sword and the spear, but also with ‘aggressive’ tools like the plough. It is certain without a doubt, that the human body itself has inspired technical shapes. That is also obvious, for it is with his body that man stands within and in front of the world, it is his first and most technical given. It is therefore too very much a possibility and even a probability, that the shape of the nail has been co-determined by the phallic symbolism that the psycho-analytics emphasise in the first place, and that it owes its magical prestige to that for a large part.

But that is still not all. The shape is also determined by the nature of the material, with which it is brought into contact, for example wood. That shape is not a self-powered fantasy of a narcissistic dreaming, but a product of a consultation with the nature of wood etc. This is where tool and art differ. But it is precisely this archaic efficiency, which so clearly shows a remainder of symbolism, which fascinates us so much in old tools. They are the paragon of humanised, historicised matter. That is why they are so fascinating to look at.



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