The Techno-Future and Pre-History of Toes

by Aditya Dev Sood

Grasp I was riding the 2/3 to Brooklyn the first couple of days I was back, when I saw this guy in a baggy pair of shorts, a T-shirt, and these kinda shoes I’d never seen before. They wrapped around each toe, exposing the toes basically, through the thin skin of the shoe. Years ago, I remember reading a children’s encyclopedia on Surrealist Art, where I saw a charcoal drawing of an empty pair of boots with laces whose burnished, buffeted folds drew further and further down to reveal toes. There was something spectral and scary about the catch in the mind, which confused shoe for feet, with the after-image of the even grosser idea that the skin of one’s feet might someday serve as the boots of another. These bizarre shoe-things with toes brought all that to mind and more. The mind understood sandals, it understood shoes, but these things were total genre busters – like the Sporks of footwear. They were somehow unseemly, uncanny, desirable. I had to have ‘em!

Grip I got online and found myself bang in the middle of a cultural revolution, where running is the leitmotif for a responsible and contemporary lifestyle. As many readers will already know, recent studies have suggested that human form emerges as a result of endurance running, whereby our distant ancestors ran and walk their prey to exhaustion and ultimate death. While we humans can easily be outclassed in a sprint and overwhelmed in a full frontal attack at close quarters, our intellect and genius for tracking was able to manifest a potentially overwhelming evolutionary advantage at long distances and over longer periods of time. Also relevant are recent pop-anthropological studies of Meso-American tribes who can still be observed running and hunting over long distances barefoot, perhaps evidence that we humans truly are born to run.

Ribbed for pleasure While there’s a small and growing sub-culture of barefoot runners these days, there’s also the view that this is a sure track to contracting Hepatitis C. This is because enough people have it, and enough of them are urinating out and about the city, so it is only a matter of time and chance for the moment when you have a cut on the palm of your foot, which becomes infected. But even in rural and remote regions of the world, walking or running barefoot can be a high-risk activity, exposing the body to hookworm, podoconiosis, and other neglected tropical diseases. Seen from this perspective, the shoe is a prophylactic, protecting the body from the diseases that may be locked into the loam of the earth. The goal of further design and innovation in shoes, therefore, should be to afford the flexibility and sensation of going bareback, while still ensuring that users enjoy safe sports.

What a big toe The success of the global culture industry rests on its ability, every so often, to spin out a new kind of consumer product or service that can offer up rich desirable experiences that could not have even been imagined just a few years earlier. I’m thinking of Levi’s, Nikes, the Walkman, the Spielberg blockbuster, iStuff, Social Networking. These foot-gloves approach these heights of socio-technical and cultural innovation, for they embody a new way of living in the very form of their product offering. No other company offers what they offer at this time, their brand is coterminous with the category they have created: five-fingered footwear. The foot-gloves are made by an Italian rubber soles manufacturer called Vibram, which has enjoyed long-standing repute among the hiking and mountaineering community. With the development of their uniquely designed sock-shoe-sandals, however, they are now funding biomechanical and sports-medical research, which in turn fuels fevered popular reception, discussion and commentary on how best to walk and run as a contemporary human. Vibram S.P.A. is understandably reluctant to make specific claims about the advantages of its footwear over conventional sports shoes, but the popular receptions of the product have discussed the natural splay of human toes across the ground while running. Five-finger footwear is perceived as being able to better approximate the putative bio-mechanical and evolutionary values of that splay, as the foot slaps the ground and spring up again.

Certainly, the products are made with a precision of design and manufacture that would have been unimaginable only decades ago, not only for the materials science involved, but also for the computer-aided design and precision joinery that the products require. Where other shoes from our own time may have heels made of wood and steel, and might even use nails to bang uppers and lowers together, these foot-condoms are almost seamless, just a series of cutting-edge materials circling in and around one another to wrap the foot with grace and precision.

While this is not immediately intuitive, it seems to me that Vibram’s expertise with rubber soles may in fact be central to its success with the toe-pocket design. This is because there is enormous variety in human toe forms, with the second toe sometimes being longer or shorter than the big toe, varying degrees of splay across toes and variations in the decrease of toe size from big to pinkie. The Vibram foot-glove, however, provides for an optimal pocket for each toe, while also creating an exoskeleton of sorts in rubber, which curves up and around the toe, even if it is incompletely filled. This is the central design innovation that makes the Vibram foot-glove workable in both functional as well as visual-aesthetic terms, rather like an underwire and padded bra. The technology serves to reorganize and re-form the flesh and bone of the body like an orthotic, but also to make it visible and consumable in a new way.

Toe job There is certainly something scandalous about a shoe that reveals the toes that it hides, like a male ballet dancer’s tights, revealing the form of his cod piece. Our mind’s eye should be forgiven the confusion, for as Freud noticed, the digits of our feet do poke out in rather the same odd way as male genitalia, and like the nose, may also serve as a substitute or transposition for the male penis. In Exodus, for instance, Sarah protects Moses from the wrath intended for the Egyptians by touching the foreskin removed from their son to his foot, or member, the text is obscure, thereby effecting a ritual circumcision. So also, diverse Shaiva rituals which are vestigeally preserved in caste Hindu households, require the bridegroom or the father-in-law’s toe to be ritually cleansed with water and milk, ritual symbols for fertility, potency, patrilinality. I’ve heard several people express both pleasure and unease at the visual form of the Vibrams, and I’m willing to propose that this does have something to do with the visual suggestiveness of these exposed-yet-cosseted human members which are also newly available to the eye because they have been cosseted.

To begin to use your Vibrams is to learn new ways of managing and inhabiting your body. It’s not all that easy getting your toes into the tiny spaces allotted for each of them without practice. It is like being a child again, and learning to put on your shoes without a shoe-horn. Or perhaps wearing your first pair of gloves backwards, and having to link the kinesthetic and tactile data from your hands with the good sense of your eyes, so you can align all of your digits into the fingers of the glove. Already something interesting is going on here: ways of using my mind that are supposed to apply for the upper half of my body are being applied downwards to parts which are usually not so well cared for, hidden, forgotten, and even abused.

Parkour The recovery of one’s toes — nay, the recovery of one’s feet as such, a hitherto concealed and forgotten organ — gives one to have a new sense of one’s own corporeal construction. Our two sets of limbs have become increasingly asymmetric in their role and purpose, but foot-gloves bring back the kinship between our divergently adapted upper and lower members. The navel now marks the point of a horizontal line of symmetry between the tops and bottoms of our body. Now that I have foot-gloves, I want a set of hand-shoes as well, so that I can swing from the train bars, parkour in and out of the subway, live a little, beyond the repressive cultures of foot-concealment. There are millions of nerve endings, I remember being told, in each of my finger-tips, which are partially responsible for my gentle tapping on this keyboard, even as my toes wriggle in sympathy from down below. I’m beginning to want an end to this apartheid — I only want for my toes what I enjoy for my fingers.

Do you not also worry about our toes’ uncertain evolutionary future? I’ve often thought that the pinkie is already so squashed and so nearly vestigial in its form that we won’t hardly miss it in a few generations. And really what good do our toes do us in the course of everyday bureaucratic life? They will surely be reabsorbed by the skin around them, giving us a kind of webfoot, perfectly evolutionarily adapted for wearing Gucci loafers, kick-powering office roller-chairs and balancing ourselves on Segways. There is a madness to this form of civilization that the barefoot runners’ contingent are right to reject, in favor of a closer, more direct relationship with the surface of the earth. For what’s still missing in these foot-condoms is the sweet kiss of grass, the dank cloddedness of soil, the grainy play of gravel, the full array of sensations of earth that our feet, those wonderful and underused sense organs, afford us. Thanks to toes, our feet are a fundamental way of knowing where we stand in the world.