Hammers & Sandwiches

Time to time I will say to my students that media studies is ‘merely the study of how every human interacts with everything that does or doesn’t exist, everywhere, forever,’ which is a deliberately vast statement to stop them thinking of the discipline as just complaining about a TV show. It has the added benefit of being completely true, in a way that requires you to understand and unpack the greater concepts at work in it, some of which take a literal University course to explain. I’m not about to be able to step you through Latour’s Actor Network Theory (which isn’t about actors or networks, and isn’t a theory) on my blog very easily.

There are, however, some ideas, ideas about basic assumptions that help to illuminate your world.

A hammer is a tool. This tool is made in such a way that a human is going to interact with it. The human is expected to be able to grip the handle, which suggests that the handle be comparable in size to the human’s hand. The material of this handle has to be grippable, and long enough to give the user leverage. The head of the hammer needs to be heavy enough to do the task it needs to do, and provide a flat surface for impacting the nails.

And throughout that entire paragraph of reasonably neutral description of a hammer, I encoded a variety of basic assumptions. Some animals use hammers, which are absolutely not made for humans, like otters using rocks to crack open oysters. There are hammers you don’t use your hands to grab, because not every human has hands. There are hammers whose handles are not made to be grippable because you’re meant to lock them in place, not rely on grip strength. And of course, there are hammers which don’t have flat surfaces because they’re much closer to just ‘a rock’ and they’re not even designed for nails.

The thing you think of when you think ‘a hammer’ is an image that’s shaped by the landscape of media around you. And the thing is, when I mentioned otters and rocks, you may have gone ‘that’s not a hammer,’ which is a fair reaction, because after all, your vision of what we can attach the word hammer to is, itself, related to the dominant landscape of what hammers are. We call a trip hammer a hammer, and it’s probably just as different from ‘the default hammer’ than a rock is, but at that point hammer isn’t really describing an object any more. It’s describing a purpose, sort of, right?

This is the squirming reality of media: the hammer is a piece of media, influenced by base assumptions of the world it’s in, and which is used to express and signify ideas, and so to is the name itself of ‘hammer,’ which doesn’t necessarily have to be attached to the same signifier.

There’s a story about the origin of the sandwich, which runs that the Earl of Sandwich wanted something he could eat with one hand while he was playing cards. It’s a story that is widespread and reasonably believable and probably wrong because there’s no earthly way he was the first person to imagine have two pieces of bread with some meat, but also he was probably the first one with memoirs to write. What’s really wild is, until recently, Sandwich was considered a really shitty statesman – just an absolute boob who accomplished almost nothing with all the power he had access to.

Let’s accept the story then, that the sandwich happened because of this. The sandwich needed something that captivated attention from someone who could be waited on. It needed that captivation to not require both hands. It needed to engage the mind, so it was convenient and quick to order. It literally required a kind of card or gambling game (I honestly don’t know what game it was, though most tellings I’ve read suggested it was some variety of cards). That also required the Earl to have multiple functional hands, so he could eat and play at the same time. It needed these games to be long, too, long enough that they could run into meal times, and be high stakes or high tension enough that you couldn’t just stop it and go have a meal.

There’s a lot of the game to the sandwich.

Now, we use the word sandwich for almost anything. It’s a verb, it’s useful in discourse about burritos and tacos and pizzas. It’s something that we, in Australia, seem to categorically reject as a term for a burger, which makes immediate, immense, intuitive sense to me. The very word sandwich is a piece of media, now. It carries representation and significance, and humans that understand that word understand a complex set of relationships that make that word meaningful.

Back in January, I wrote about the idea of media veganism being both functionally impossible, but also:

Well, first there’s nothing wrong with liking shows because they’re part of a trend of pernicious media that’s designed to privilege an oppressive class. Because like, if you do want to cut out media like that, I have some bad news for you about literally everything down to things like hammers and sandwiches.

The world we live in, everything in it, is part of an interconnected web of meaning, encoded through a variety of different sources. When you start trying to disconnect your own experiences, and the things you find morally repugnant or respond to, from all their possible relationships, then you’re going to find that even the most modest and mundane things you can think of can still be connected to interpretations that are bad. The anthropocentric ableist idea of a hammer, the imperial empowerment of a sandwich, these are interpretations waiting to haunt your hindbrain if you let them, if you start thinking of media in terms of purity and not about what the media lets you usefully encode, what you find about yourself based on what you feel and how you react to that media.

It’s good to be critical. That criticality has also be willing to draw some boundaries, when the specificity stops being useful. Because it’s not just about that these things relate, but how.

I can have a sandwich without being a 18th century gambler. You can swing a hammer without hating otters.

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