The Help of Your Good Hands: Reports on Clapping

The Help of Your Good Hands: Reports on Clapping

Steven Connor

This piece has been published in The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2003), pp. 67-76. It may also be thought of as part 8 of Windbags and Skinsongs, a chapter written for, but not included in my The Book of Skin (London: Reaktion; Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).


It is to be supposed that clapping among humans may have evolved from the action of slapping and cuffing the body, often accompanied by jumping and stamping, which is characteristic of primates in states of excitement. It is sometimes suggested that clapping and stamping may have provided the first systematic music produced by human beings. Clapping the hands together has several advantages over slapping the body. First of all, it produces a much more emphatic, consistent and easily controllable sound. In clapping, one aims to do more than merely sound skin against skin: think of the flat, insulting patter of applause delivered with gloved hands. Clapping is actually complex action to perform: the truly effective or vital clap aims to compress and explode a little bubble or bomb of air, compressing and accelerating the air momentarily trapped between the palms, just at the sonorous ‘sweet spot’ so relished by tennis players. Suetonius describes the modes of clapping that Nero taught Neapolitans to use in applauding his singing, notably the imbrices, which seems to have involved clapping with the hands hollowed like a roof-tile (imbrex) in order to create a sharp crack (Suetonius 1924, 2.116-17). Despite the association of handclapping with childish glee, children take a long time to learn how to do it properly, though they seem to learn – or are taught – very early on to want to.

Clapping can be understood as a specialisation of the action of manual striking which is a distinctive accomplishment of primates. Most animals employ an action of tearing to attack or defend themselves: lions and sharks with teeth, owls and eagles with beaks, crabs and stag-beetles with claws. Some quadrupeds (mostly those whose real speciality is in fact running away) rely upon kicking, of which the action of hitting with the fist special to primates is a specialisation. Given the importance to primates of the actions of pushing, prodding, shoving, rapping, knocking, thumping, slapping, slamming, buffeting, punching, and the other actions proper to the hand, it is not surprising that we should have evolved such an interest in the actions of concussion or violent conjuncture in nature. Ad-vers-ity, the impacting of things, things that come up violently against each other: many other kinds of contact or encounter occur in nature, but the attention of human beings continues to be irresistibly drawn to such processes. The work of war continues to enlarge and develop the typologies of impact, through the club, the knife, the arrow, the bullet, the bomb, the missile. It is surprising that other ways of defeating or exterminating one’s opponent – through radiation, poison gas or biological agents, and other forms of infiltrating assault – should have taken so long to develop. Many of the words employed to designate enemies – the opponent, the adversary – suggest this meeting, collision or coming together of what stands face-to-face. This notion of adversity – the agon of the blow or smiting – has predominated in definitions of sound.

Not that adversity is always adverse. The word ‘smack’ which can refer to the sharp sound of an impact with the open hand, usually on another expanse of skin, to the sound of the lips coming together and parting, and to a taste (as also in German schmecken), seems to suggest the compacting of sound, touch and taste in the primary action of feeding from the breast. Is not the birth cry itself traditionally elicited by the midwife’s smack, as though to start the infant’s clock of skin? William James (1890 2.481) refers to the suggestion (apparently first advanced in F.G. J. Henle’s Anthropologische Vorträge of 1876-80) that the action of clapping is a ‘symbolic abridgment of an embrace’.

Clapping is a neutralisation and diversification of these actions. In its primary meaning, clapping retains its associations with violence, functioning as an emblematic display on the body of the aggressor of what may be in the offing for his victim. Clapping of hands retains its association with anger, triumph and insulting contempt through the Old Testament. When Balaam has failed to curse the tribes of Israel as he had been commanded, ‘Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together’ (Numbers 24.10). It is said of the despised Job that ‘Men shall clap their hands at him, And shall hiss him out of his place’ (Job 27.23), and Job is said to return the insult: ‘he addeth rebellion unto his sin. He clappeth his hands among us, And ’ multiplieth his words against God (Job 34.37). In fact, the expression ‘clapping hands’ in English translations of the Old Testament collapse together a number of expressions from different semantic fields (Fox 1995, Rogland 2001).

Similarly, clapping the hands is also associated with the accomplishment of magical actions and transformations in many cultures, presumably because it enacts a sudden, paroxysmic concentration and release of vital force. Many cultures share a notion of the annunciatory role of the thunderclap. Clapping can summon spirits, and also drive them away. I am told by Santanu Das that, in rural parts of India, hermaphrodites or sexually indeterminate persons signify their approach by clapping.

Compulsive hand clapping is a common behaviour among autistic children, and can also be therapeutically employed among victims of burns suffering the intense solitude of sensory deprivation, perhaps because it provides definition and structure in an otherwise chaotic and insufficiently differentiated flux of experience (Christenberry 1979). There is some evidence (Van der Meij 1997) that clapping can induce pleasurable epileptiform episodes in the brain.

There are important distinctions to be made between the individual clap – the Caliph calling for his dancers, the magician dismissing or summoning his spirits, the clapping which inaugurates and completes the action of Shinto prayer – and collective clapping. A single clap is convulsive and climactic. It marks a precipitate change of state, a coming to completion, or a new beginning, or a reversal: in all cases, a sudden, sharp interruption to the steady unrolling of time. Clapping draws a line in time, as in the ‘clapperboard’ which divides up scenes in film-making. Clapping belongs with the instinctive ejaculations of the body – coughing, sneezing, vomiting, ejaculation of sperm, all of those actions of violent exteriorisation which have been thought of as the overtaking of the body by some outside agency, but which can be brought under voluntary control in the single or separated clap. During the 1990s, Krishan Chander Bajaj began a clapping cult in Delhi, claiming that clapping for about 20 minutes a day had reversed his glaucoma and could cure many other diseases by increasing circulation and dispersing blockages in the blood. (<>)

Collective clapping, by contrast, is convergent and conjunctive. Rather than intensifying time, it thickens and spreads it. One might say that the single clap temporalises time, takes a featureless space of time and exposes it to temporality by concentrating it into an instantly diffused instant, while collective clapping slows or arrests the passage of time, forming it into a mass, or durative volume. The clap enacts instantaneity; applause enacts extension. At the same time, extended passages of formless applause themselves mark transitions. It has been suggested (Needham 1967) that the principal role of percussion in some cultures is to mark contacts between the human and supernatural worlds, and ritual transitions between them, and clapping may be a specialised form of this general use of percussion to produce amorphous masses of sound.

Clapping mediates two primary aspects of sound, namely its power to penetrate boundaries and, by a reparative action, its power to form protective milieux. Put simply, sound can be both an intolerable wound, and an armour or cataplasm against the injurious effects of sound itself. Sound pervades, but also surrounds. Clapping turns the puncturing, penetrating sound of the individual clap into a diffuse, knitted multiplicity.

In my book Dumbstruck (2000), I suggested that the voice formed itself into characteristic profiles and postures, that could be thought of as imaginary ‘voice-bodies’, bodies shaped performatively out of the implied or enacted relations of the voice to the substance of its sound – self-caressing, self-assaulting, self-inflating. Perhaps clapping, by contrast, is a body-voice, noise made quasi-vocal. Clapping is a spilling over of feeling into formless expression: that nevertheless gives expression a form (a sharp, rapidly declining, rapidly renewed, spike of sound). The clap is one of a number of profane, because indeterminate sounds that humans make. If the distinctive sound of the human is the sound of language, then the quasi-language of non-articulate sound produced from other places than the mouth, always has the taint of the gratuitous, the excessive, or the proscribed. Clapping is the benign superflux of the body, the diarrhoea of sound. Clapping is the absence of speech: clapping is a reduction of sound to primary elements. Early usages of the word clapping reflect discredit on the tongue which, in empty speech, is reduced to a percussion instrument, knocking vacantly against the mouth.

What is wrong with desultory applause, the kind rendered so effectively in the ‘Sirens’ episode of Ulysses, to mark the end of a song sung in a bar – ‘Clapclap. Clipclap. Clappyclap’? It is applause that is tattered by gaps. There are few actions as acidly derisive as the slow handclap, especially when conducted by a single individual. Instead of an excited crackle of sound, there is an ominous series of empty clacks, leaving gaping silences between them. The warmly lapping or engulfing garment of sound produced by applause is thereby rent and emaciated. The analogies between clapping and the idea of an ideal garment are dramatised in W.B. Yeats’s question at the beginning of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

Clapping is made up of gaps, but it aims to obliterate them. Clapping is like the fiercest, most effacing sort of scribbling. Why can no audience sustain a slow handclap? It always disintegrates, or speeds up. It is as though we crave the merging of the separate rhythms, the white noise, the drip-painting, the blizzard, the palimpsest. Clapping is the attempt to knit a continuum of sound, a surface, a volume, a body of sound. Applause forms a warmly lapping garment, a comfortable engulfment formed of many skins. When teams leave the savage exposure of the field of play, the passage into the safety of the dressing room through the birth canal of the player’s tunnel is often mediated by the practice of ‘clapping one’s opponents in’. In this one team forms two lines of applauding players through which the other team funnels in single file. Usually the applauded team will then form themselves into a tunnel through which the applauders can pass, recalling the threading exchanges of inside and outside employed in many forms of country dancing, which are themselves sometimes accompanied by clapping. In both contexts, clapping participates in an interweaving topology of sound and movement which converts adversary standoffs into inversive interrelations.

Clapping has silent correlatives in actions of self-touching, in prayer, crossing oneself, or in bringing a finger to the lips, or scratching a nose or ear, which often accompany actions of thought. If clapping is a form of bodily overflow into sound, we might also say that clapping belongs to a bodily system of overlapping. Perhaps the closest correlative to the use of the hands to produce sharp sounds is the conventional action of Christian prayer, which seems to act to close and double the body in on itself, as a way of turning it outwards towards some other centre of concern.

Clapping makes you aware of yourself: and of the other in yourself. In clapping, as in many other activities, you lay the two surfaces of yourself one against another. Children clap by bringing both hands together – the symmetry looks very awkward. Most adults in the West clap by clapping one hand on another; percussion of the self on self, usually the right on the left, or of the I-hand on the it-hand, the me-skin on the world skin. Clapping is ecstatic: it puts us beside ourselves: singular clapping is as inadequate and paradoxical as the idea of one hand clapping. This makes the Zen koan of the one-hand-clapping poignantly appropriate to contexts such as the experience of stroke in which there may be the agonising sensation of the loss of part of the self (Veith 1988). Clapping one hand on another dramatises the fact that you are a subject and an object simultaneously, a doer and a done to; you fold yourself over yourself, you form an interface with yourself, which joins to the interface you form with others. This, after all, is the condition of all sound. John Cage was mistaken in his dream of an art that would liberate the voices buried within things, letting things sing out their individual songs. For there is no sound that is not collateral, the sound of at least two things coming together. The voice is the abstract dream that an entity could have its own sound, though this is as impossible as the sound of a one-handed clap. Clapping lets copulation thrive and itself prospers on it. Clapulation. Collapulation. Collabatteration.

You cannot clap alone. Clapping is not applause (the word that has got so much of the spattering plosiveness of clapping in it). Applause is a kind of infection, inflammation, conflagration, cloudburst. The impulse to clap runs as fast as an electric shock, and certainly faster than thought. This makes applause both unstable and subject to manipulation. The growth of organised ‘claques’ and ‘claqueurs’ in early nineteenth-century French theatre stimulated outrage on the part of those who sought to restore to manipulated audiences their powers of independent judgement. But when the author of the pamphlet 1849 A bas le claque! sought to characterise the authentically attentive audience it was in terms of a quivering, sensitive organism, whose corporeal judgement goes too fast to be overseen by rational evaluation. This is not free and unswayed judgement, but a different kind of automatism:

Observe this attentive face, these dilated nostrils, these quivering lips, this taut neck, these hands ready to come together…What fire! What heat! What impetuosity! The pleasure experienced and the emotion felt in common run like an electric current through the whole crowd. There is no touch of the dead hand in this public! (Segaud 1849, 9)

Applause has sometimes suggested itself as belonging to the sphere of the irrational or the incalculable in human life.For example, the impulse to applause provided William MacDougall with one of his arguments against behaviourism in his 1928 debate with one of its leading exponents, J. B. Watson:

I come into this hall and see a man on this platform scraping the guts of a cat with hairs from the tail of a horse; and, sitting silently in attitudes of rapt attention, are a thousand persons, who presently break out into wild applause. How will the Behaviorist explain these strange incidents? How explain the fact that the vibrations emitted by the catgut stimulate all the thousand into absolute silence and quiescence; and the further fact that the cessation of the stimulus seems to be a stimulus to the most frantic activity? (Watson and Macdougall 1928, 62-3)

Presumably we speak of a ‘round of applause’ because of a sense of the circulation of energies within it, a transmission, a passage. It is for this reason, surely, that the size of an audience is proportional to the duration of its applause: why does it take an arena full of people much longer to deliver even a perfunctory round of applause than a small concert hall? Presumably because the clapping has to go round more people. Applause and the desire to applaud feeds on itself. Individuals certainly feel the need to clap hands in pleasure and exaltation, but rarely feel the impulse to applaud out of a crowd. Individual clapping is always slow and deliberate, when one might expect it to be fast and furious, as though to fill all the available gaps. Clapping creates a space, a shape in time and space. A group of people define themselves as a group, rather than merely an aggregate; they enter into an exchange with the one being applauded, who is at once placed in front of the applause, and centred in its midst. Applause performs the same merging together of particularities as occurs in what it names, applause is a collective name for ‘plaudits’.

Clapping involves listening as well as the creation of sound, in an agitated, energetic feedback loop; one is adjusting oneself all the time to what one hears, and what one hears is nothing more than the ongoing aggregation of all these minuscule adjustments. I know of no integrated history of the act, as well as the fact, of audience in human history, of the specific material ways in which listening has occurred, in different material circumstances, theatres, concert-halls, churches, classrooms, barracks. All the histories of audience response I have encountered (but I am still looking) seem to concern themselves with more cognitive or moral functions – with the ways in which audiences identify, understand, approve, and so on – rather than with their verifiable actions. The noisy action of clapping, along with all its accompaniments and variants – cheering, stamping, whistling, booing, hissing, catcalling – would form a central part of such a history. In its absence, it is surprisingly hard to know how and how much audiences have clapped in different places, circumstances and times. Though the word ‘applause’ derives from the Latin ‘plaudere’, which means to beat or strike (the hands) together, the uses of the English word ‘applause’ that I have been able to chart up to the twentieth century may include handclapping but need not refer exclusively to it. It is clear that, in the age in which recorded and transmitted performances are more commonly experienced than ‘live’ performance, the transmission of applause is a way of making audiences and the fact and act of audience audible. All orators and actors learn the art of manipulating the subtle, hairtrigger mechanisms of applause, but the increased audibility of applause makes the sound of this answering response enter in to the performance itself, in something of the way in which sound entered into the silent film image, not supplementing or colouring or rounding out the image, but penetrating and renaturing it. Applause is present as a field phenomenological possibility at every moment of the performance.

Applause can only really succeed in relatively formal situations, in which time is formally segmented or strophed. Under certain circumstances, a speaker taking the podium after having been introduced, the failure, or suppression of the urge to applaud can be as poignant as an absconded sneeze. Time which is broken up by action and response, is also blended into itself – the gaps between the claps are suffused with the incipience of the applause, the applause itself is mingled with silence and its own dying fall.

Clapped Out
Clapping is a pure multiplicity which is neither decomposable into its separate elements, nor wholly totalisable. It belongs to the order of swarms, storms, floods, epidemics and nature’s semi-random specklings, frecklings and maculations, of ‘crowds, packs, hordes on the move, and filling with their clamor, space’ (Serres 1995, 2). Clapping is a quasi-organism, a quasi-animate substance. The landscape of clapping has its very distinctive and individual contours, as well as its own tones and colours, loops, undulations and fault-lines. It has its moods, weathers, textures, consistencies, rhythms, intensities. Clapping is somewhere between an energy and a substance; an energy trying to solidify itself as a substance, a substance coagulated from events and energies. Clapping is solidity forming out of rupture. The clapperboard marks the place of the cut, but also the place of the synchronising join. Clapping derives its shape and sound from interference patterns, from the intersections and knittings-together of these interruptions. It is background noise of things brought into the foreground, noise become signal.The function of clapping is to interrupt, but it becomes interruption interrupted, as it forms a kind of shape and syntax out of interruption. Clapping involves the filling, and the emptying of time. It occupies time by suspending it. The telling of a joke, the action of a play, must be held back while applause breaks out; but the holding back prepares another impulse to applaud, even while the first is dying away, like an underwave or cross-wave pushing through the ebb.

There are precise gradations of duration in clapping, and clapping is a way of projecting duration into bodily form and taking duration into the body. Under certain circumstances, only clapping for too long can be enough. The operators of the house lights in theatres know that they must be brought up at a precise moment before the applause starts to flag, becomes conscious of its own fatigue. Clapping conjures life: At the end of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, children are enjoined to clap to signify their belief in fairies and to bring the expiring Tinkerbell to life. But clapping is itself subject to aging and decomposition. Clapping gathers and loses intensity, in a cycle of increase and diminishment: clapping is associated both with the propagation of energy – ‘going like the clappers’ – and with its depletion – becoming ‘clapped out’.



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