Departments

Technique

1

Technique is the thing that takes the human body, formed by a million years of fight and flight, and turns it to ends nature never proposed. And it is one thing, beneath the conventional distinctions that hide its scope. The fingers of the musician and the body of the athlete are both natural means turned to unnatural ends. What does the turning is technique.

We do not know what our bodies may do. Biology, remember, is made of physics. All our movements only permute the universal grammar of simple machines. The body is a vocabulary: its material is limited, but its combinations are inexhaustible.

2

Technique is paradoxical. Physiology maps the body’s range, extension, and advantage, but the means by which we use them in concert, our techniques, either ignore physiology, or imply a false one. We control our bodies only as gestalt.

Consider relaxation. The perfect balance of loose and tight for a muscle is the same as for a knot—not so loose that it slips, not so tight that it binds. But we cannot calibrate this balance by feeling it, because the real action of the muscles is the sum of the voluntary tension we perceive and the involuntary tonus we do not. We have to think of relaxing just to prevent the mistake of bracing. It helps to be told to relax, it helps to try to relax; but if you actually relaxed, you would sacrifice control over the good alignment of your joints, and destroy your body as you used it.

3

Technique is not usually the product of research. Of course physiology is relevant to technique. Duelists applied the discoveries of anatomy in the fencing hall almost as soon as they were exposed on the dissecting table. But fencing survives as technique, not theory.

And research may be an impediment to technique. Techniques are of two kinds. Some techniques amplify our powers, improving what we would do anyway—jump, run, hit. Research helps here by aligning the technique with the underlying complex of mechanism and instinct. But other techniques rather enable than help: they let us do new things. Here research may be a mistake. Science invented the triangular pen to make it easier to write with the fingers; but in the technique of the penman the fingers must not be used at all.

Techniques like these, though not analytic, are not arbitrary; they have their own logic and converge across centuries, and civilizations. Modulo certain constraints of metallurgy, the knights of Christendom and the samurai of Japan worked out the same technique for the two-handed sword. Or, returning to calligraphy, the peculiar penhold used in Eastern brush painting is paralleled exactly in the technique of flourishing with the pointed pen.

4

All techniques belong to one of three patterns: cues, checks, and controls.

Cues belong to the mind. If we could see athletes and performers as they imagine themselves we would behold the strangest beasts, like the boxer with the wings of a butterfly and the stinger of a bee. Every discipline has its own imagery of this sort, which is part of its mystery, consecrating its pursuit as a shamanic ecstasy of communion with totemic essences.

Checks are miniature acts: the things you do before and after the main act, how you get ready and make sure. A check may be as formal as a routine or as spontaneous as a wind-up.

Checks are mostly important to the learner. Techniques are not behaviors; they cannot be shaped, in the behaviorist sense – perfected through approximation. Practicing wrong just reinforces the mistake. Checks splint the fragmentary elements of technique so they knit together true. Half of knowing how to move is knowing how to stand; half of knowing how to use a tool is knowing how to hold it.

Controls are what prevails, the meanwhiles and the durings. They are the simple things that take time to master, the first things you learn and you always remember: "keep your eye on the ball" or "keep your weight on the balls of your feet." A control is a sort of lever: it is easy, because all you have to do is pull, but it is slow, because by pulling on it you are moving everything else. Controls, as we turn them on and off, almost seem to let us switch between different bodies, adapted for different purposes.

5

Technique has many enemies.

Strength is an enemy of technique.

Of course brutish, blundering strength is the opposite of technique. But feats of strength have their own technique; the strongman is an athlete, not a species. He uses more sense than muscle.

Strength is problematic because it hides bad technique. With enough strength you cannot feel for yourself the difference between the right and wrong ways of doing something. The wrong way may even feel better: what feels more effortful often seems more effective. Jumping in and slugging through feels good, feels like something to be proud of, in a way that taking your time and doing it right cannot. And strength hides not only bad techniques, but even harmful ones: keeping the harm silent until it is irreversible.

Instinct is an enemy of technique.

Instinct is problematic for learners. The hardest technique, for you, is the one that comes naturally to everyone else. No one will teach it to you, because no one teacher it at all, because it is not obvious that it is possible not to know. Sometimes those who do not have the instinct give up on the skill; but they, though slow to learn and likely to be discouraged, may prove best, because they earn an awareness others lack.

Instinct is also problematic for masters, who always want to streamline their technique—to do more with less. But in doing so they risk omitting something essential they did not know was there, because it was never named to them; something they may find it difficult to regain.

Skill is an enemy of technique.

Masters are rarely good teachers. They may be impatient—ars longa. Even if they are patient, they may be unsympathetic—was I ever such a…? Even if they are patient and sympathetic, what they teach may be not what they do now, but what they did when they still had to think about it.

And even if they are patient, sympathetic, and self-aware, they may teach the wrong things. Techniques feel different when they are new. The gestalt that mastery experiences is not raw but cooked. If it cannot be taught in its finished form, it must be arrived at.

Moreover teaching is a rare and demanding ability; few masters are good teachers, and even fewer have time for it.

And skill has a different use for technique than ignorance has. Ignorance has only two outcomes, getting it wrong or getting it right. Skill has many outcomes. Subtle adjustments and accomodations imperceptible to the ignorant produce wide divergences for complicated ends. The techniques the skilled pay attention to are thus ones the ignorant have no use for. Trying to teach them is pointless.

Of course, bad technique is an enemy of technique.

Techniques link to one another; a bad technique unchains those that depend on it. (To invert, when a generally accepted technique fails to work for you, it usually means you have a deeper problem.)

But good technique is also an enemy of technique.

Technique is its own enemy because the better you become, the harder it is to tell what works. When you are used to bearing a technique in mind, as your muscles learn to perform it on their own, your consciousness of it becomes redundant and may gradually exaggerate means into mannerism.

It becomes harder to test a technique; any change feels like an improvement when its rests tired muscles and favors rested ones.

And, once you have assimilated good technique, the body's mechanisms for self-protection have been disarmed. You could run wrong your whole life and never suffer more than an ache, but once you run well you might run wrong once and never run again. All the safeties are off.

6

What we learn when we learn is not just what we learn but how we learn. And sometimes we can reuse that knowledge. Obviously your third language is easier than your second. But this head start is not free. For languages, the work has already been done. There are languages with grammars, and there is grammar itself, as an abstraction. But technique as an abstraction does not yet exist, except in name. Between the snobbery of the gracile, to whom all strength is brutality, and the pride of the robust, to whom all delicacy is weakness, it has gone unseen.

I am no hellenizer. Mens sana in corpore sano is a good thing, but only because it is the sum of two good things. Of course the mind and the body benefit each other: a feeble body usually means a confused brain as a feeble mind usually means a clumsy body. But the one may be excellent while the other is only adequate, and when both are excellent it is just a case of two kinds of excellence.

Technique is of course how we build on nature. But technique is also how we find nature. Technique is human instinct: the cue in the totem, the check in the ritual, the control in the talisman.

The human form is caught between nature and culture. Before nature finished standing us on our feet, culture pulled us, still rough, out of the tumbler of tooth and claw. We are neither one thing nor the other. Our bodies depend on our minds as much as our minds depend on our bodies; half the human digestive system is in the oven.

Technique is another such supplement. Under the poorly fitted jacket of flesh and bone that lies heavy on our shoulders we are as far from the grace of the beasts of the field as from that of the beasts of the air. The easy and spontaneous embodiment the rest of nature inherits as its right is, for us, only possible through technique.

The Locomotive

On viewing a restored locomotive displayed in a pavilion.

Black beast, gnarled in heavy sleep
Red sun thaws cold iron.
Slack boiler swells, remembering steam.
Fused wheels flex, grasping the rails.
Scraps of shadow pour from the cold chimney
Silent shrieks rattle the mute whistle.
Face to the sun, I borrow a flush of hope.
Back to the sun, I tread a path of shadow.

Stock market

The stock market exists to discharge the gap between capitalism and reality. To a greater extent than capitalism’s most dedicated enemies imagine, whether a company is in the red or in the black, whether it is getting by or flourishing, is a matter of convention. The bottom line is like the horizon: exact, but it changes with your perspective. Accounting is an etiquette, not a science: the principles of accounting are accepted, not discovered. And because (in the short definition of capitalism) business can run as well on credit as cash, any large aggregation of capital that is not openly burning money remains viable as long as it remains credible.

The purpose of the stock market is to assign, to the companies that submit to its judgment, another value besides the one that stands on paper: one that answers not the accountant’s abstract question, “What is it worth?” but the more cogent and interested question, “What is it worth to me?”

Capitalism did not invent the bubble. Sri Lanka, I have just been reading, is covered in the massive ruins of an ancient irrigation network that was abandoned just as it was finished. The most parsimonious explanation is that ancient Sri Lanka had a bubble in aqueducts. Perhaps the answer to why the Maya built so many splendid cities, and then abandoned them, is a bubble in the building of splendid cities. Egypt had a bubble in tombs; Rome had a bubble in conquest; Europe had a bubble in chivalry. Bubbles are a human failing; capitalism is unique because it pops them.

The stock market is this sensitive needle. Its ticks transcribe the quick ebb and flow of an argument conducted in the binary code of short and long, buy and sell. And this is an argument to which we are all parties. Whenever you spend money or time you express an opinion about the economy. Buying a car is tantamount to saying “Car prices are fair.” Getting an education is tantamount to saying “My prospects are good.” Planting a food garden is tantamount to saying “Food prices are too high.” (Of course you may have other motives, but the economy is touchy and takes everything personally.) The stock market is the great bookie who takes these opinions about the economy and turns them into bets.

To put it another way: the stock market is an arrangement that pays people for being right about the future. This is unusual. Elsewhere in life, being right about the future is punished twice: before, with contempt; after, with hate. But with the stock market, the more unlikely the prediction—the longer the odds—the greater the payout. Thus, as the belief behind a bubble becomes more unquestionable, the reward for questioning it grows. 1929 was the year it became worthwhile to wonder if an upward trend in earnings really meant endless future growth; 2007 was the year it became worthwhile to wonder whether the housing market really could continue to grow forever without ever slowing down.

Crude as it is, this mechanism of homeostastis is unique; and it is what makes the gross, awkward, grasping, adolescent behemoth of capitalism fecund and invulnerable.