Brief Notes on Hand Puppetry

Contemplating your hands is a common comedic trope in pop culture. Typically part of a hallucinogenic romp, the phrase goes something along the lines of, “hands are so weird; have you ever really looked at them?” Yet, psychedelics aside, most of us would agree that hands are curious objects. Because they are an irreducible element of human physiology, we can understand them as the most primal form-describing–and inscribing–tools. Sign language and psychology tells us that hand-forms are not only capable of producing an entire linguistic vocabulary, but they also have cultural and trans-cultural significance. One finger in particular comes to mind.

But, seriously, have you ever really looked at your hands?


“Ombres de la main,” Nouveau Dictionnaire Encyclopedique Universal Illustre.” 1885

In the famously illustrated Trousset Encyclopedia from 1885 there is an entry describing hand shadow puppetry. The accompanying image is a catalog of various animal silhouettes that can be achieved by folding, layering, and turning fingers and thumbs. But the resulting forms are never perfect representations. They are simultaneously familiar, yet abstract, rudimentary proxies of real animals. This is partly due to an uncanny trick of perception referred to as pareidolia or apophenia: an internal process where the human mind seeks out significant forms and meanings in arbitrary objects or fields. As a result, faces imbue inanimate objects with character, ink blots reveal our psychoses, and deities emerge in everyday meals. But beyond this oddity, we can also understand Trousset’s image as a taxonomy; extracting a specific visual vocabulary built purely out of the constraints of the hand. Thus, we can say that through topological mutations, the hand achieves a number of elementary types construed through psychological phenomena as familiar figures.

Trousset’s illustration also poses a curious realization. By suggesting, for example, that the wolf’s silhouette is fundamentally different than that of the dog, he leads us to believe that the art of the puppetry is not in universality, but rather in specificity. In other words, it is not enough that each type be recognizable, but it must also be noticeably distinct from each other. Therefore the abstractions themselves must take into account integral traits and subtleties of speciation and genetics. While there might be a generic canine or rodent form, variation arises out of an understanding of specific subsets or mutations of each classification. The dialogue between form and type then relies on a feedback loop of intentions, physiological phenomena, and most importantly, a priori knowledge.

This key analysis of the system posits an integral break in the logics of figuration and typology. The established types are tied to a specific figurative reference that straddles a line between signification and interpretation. Moreover, because the initial topology is so constrained, mutations and morphologies are limited to extremely precise gestures. The rules of the puppetry then become less about achieving geometric difference or complexity for novelty’s sake, and more about curating a specific, meaningful taxonomy within a highly constrained system.

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