Leonie Hannan


A surgeon and a sculptor, Roger Kneebone and Mat Lane Sanderson, introduced us to metal as a material full of emotional potential. From solid, purposeful surgical instruments to porous, fibrous constructions of wire and mesh – we were asked how these things made us feel. Immediate responses focused on the cold, hard, dangerous qualities of some of the more serious looking of the surgeon’s tools. But in the right hands, these instruments empowered and gave comfort – they formed one third of the surgical triumvirate of hand, tool, and human tissue. Likewise, Mat described his sense of enormous pieces of metal as ‘approachable fibres’, malleable and open to alteration – as a sculptor he did not see metal objects as having a material permanence.

The surgical instruments we handled no doubt provoke very different responses in the patient and the surgeon. However, in order to discuss the emotional impact of a surgical instrument – it was necessary to engage with different kinds of surgical operation – from light-weight, fine-tipped scissors for eye surgery to the heavy skull drill that operated with the full weight of the practitioner behind the mechanical rotation of the drill. I was particularly struck by the shift that has taken place between open surgery and keyhole surgery – a technological change that has utterly altered a surgeon’s tactile engagement with instrument and tissue, converting it into a very different ‘ballet of hands’ as the interaction with human flesh is watched on a monitor instead of being experienced in one’s own hands. But having considered the contrast between these two forms of surgical practice, it was helpful to dwell on an over-arching experience that unites surgical practice (and perhaps all acts of making or mending) – one of extreme focus. Roger suggested that it was his focus on the instrumental aspects of surgery that might subdue unhelpful emotional responses to the action in the operating theatre. But it might also be possible to think of focus as an emotional engagement in its own right – one that fundamentally mediates a practitioner’s relationship with their craft.

Having glimpsed the significance of sensory engagement with tools and materials for the person whose task it is to make, adapt and mend things – it feels more difficult to discount this dimension of human experience in our analysis of the past. One answer to the distance between the historian and the tactile imperatives of craft is to take up practice as a legitimate part of his historical enquiry – to grow a closer understanding of the material through direct engagement with objects and processes of making. But, of course, this is not a straightforward innovation. Aside from the gulf that exists between a sensory experience that can be manufactured in the present in response to a perceived experience of the past, there is a more basic difference to overcome. It is something to do with the here and now. For a surgeon or a sculptor, practising in whichever place or time, the task is to remedy an immediate situation, a situation that is present at hand. In contrast, the aim of the historian is to reach a nearer understanding of the past which entails a process that is often slow, iterative and emergent. What I want to understand through the workshops is how we might harness an engagement with material practice for the purposes of historical research. Can a present day material practice usefully inform our analysis of a two hundred year-old one? Does familiarity with materials and processes actually lead to insight? I would like to explore further how we can develop, as Carolyn Steedman refers to it, a ‘critical intimacy’ with our historical sources.[1]

[1] C. Steedman, ‘Intimacy in research: accounting for it’, History of the Human Sciences, 21:4 (2008), pp. 17-33.


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