The Craftsman

In The Stones of Venice, his masterpiece indictment of “flamboyant” virtuosity, John Ruskin wrote, “you can teach a man to draw a straight line; to strike a curved line, and to carve it?with admirable speed and precision; and you will find his work perfect of a kind; but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that, he was only a machine before, an animated tool.” Richard Sennett draws on this passage in The Craftsman to call attention to an aspect of craftsmanship that distinguishes it from work executed as a means to an end: the intimacy of problem solving and problem finding that craftsmen salubriously embrace, their hands and heads in dialectical engagement with the material being formed.

In this deeply thoughtful study, which resembles books by his teacher Hannah Arendt in combining sociological analysis and a supremely humane, ethical call to awareness, Sennett has cunningly widened the scope of what the words “craftsman” and “craftsmanship” traditionally denote, defining the latter as “the desire to do a job well for its own sake” as opposed to the job being merely the achievement of a practical purpose. This allows him to consider Linux programmers and surgeons alongside medieval guild brick manufacturers, violin makers, and glassblowers and to probe what all these have in common (as well as how they differ). Over the course of The Craftsman, Sennett comes at his subject from every social and historical angle — examining such diverse phenomena as the organization and transmission of knowledge, the question of authority, the fear of new technology and its potentially baleful influence in the workshop and laboratory, the neurophysical contract between hand and brain. Nothing seems to escape Sennett?s notice. In a delicious chapter titled “Expressive Instructions,” he analyzes the struggle of language to depict physical action by unpacking three very different sets of recipe writing — one by Julia Child, another by Elizabeth David, and a third by his former cooking school instructor — on how to prepare Poulet ? la d?Albufera. If this sounds bravura, it is; but it?s not just that, for Sennett is demonstrating what the chef, as craftsman, achieves in a form of knowledge transmission, connecting technical craft to the imagination.

The Craftsman, which Sennett introduces as the first in a trilogy of books, follows on his studies The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (1998) and The Culture of the New Capitalism (2006). He had been ruminating on the structural and institutional problems facing the development of skills among new-economy workers. Corporations engaged in the new tech-oriented economy have a short-term focus and don?t reward seniority with increases in pay. They prefer younger workers, and the technician who remains on the job for long finds that, paradoxically, as “his or her experience accumulates, it loses institutional value.” But even if workers develop specialized skills, “craft does not protect them,” thanks to outsourcing of jobs to India and China. The alienation that results gives rise to a familiar and much-explored sense of anomie, asociality, and inwardness.

Extolling the kind of lubricious social relations that the craftsman?s practice ideally makes possible, Sennett explores other ways of engaging with one?s work, pointing as an example to the difference between the closed experience of a handler of proprietary software code and the dynamic relations among Linux programmers. Because the institutional structure of writing open-source software like Linux makes the hoarding of information impossible, programmers must confront a dilemma: the coexistence of highly technical expertise and the demand for free and equal exchange in a community. When such exchange is built into the enterprise, it encourages workers to think constantly and creatively — and collaboratively — about how solving a particular problem opens up a new, unforeseen set of problems; the thing being worked on is never static and is actively transformed in the process of one?s labor. Sennett sees in the “kindred impersonality” of such work groups an analogue to the workplace of archaic craftsmen: “In one of the British-based Linux chat rooms to which I belong,” he writes, “the normal polite feints and indirections of British culture have disappeared. Gone are such locutions as ‘I would have thought that?’; in are ‘This problem is fucked-up.’ Looked at another way, this blunt impersonality turns people outward.” Specifying facts, then questioning them almost instantaneously: It isn?t hard to envision that this relationship with the material world makes not only for higher-quality work but for a higher-quality polity as well.

Sennett is calling for a new way of thinking about our material culture and about our culturally defined ideas of expertise, ability, and creativity: “The better you are at something, the fewer of you there are,” he writes. “This view has been applied not only to innate intelligence but to the subsequent development of abilities: the further you get, the fewer of you there are. Craftsmanship doesn?t fit into this framework.” The range of domains that Sennett turns to are staggering (his training as a cellist leaves him particularly suited to discuss how a musician works, learns, and passes on his or her craft, and it?s no surprise that he finds much in the Suzuki method of teaching as an apt model for the sympathetic relations between the master and the pupil). It?s a rare compliment, I suppose, to say you think that a book should have been longer, but that?s exactly how The Craftsman left me feeling. Its questions couldn?t be more pertinent. Americans consume a lot of things, and these things, we fear, have begun to consume us. Just look at the very medium you are interacting with now, the Internet, and the device that is making this medium accessible, the computer. Do you feel controlling or controlled by these ever-present gifts of technology? It is probably safe to say that the offerings of what we quaintly used to call the “wired world” are somewhat akin to the apple that Eve succumbed to. Sennett?s text won?t erase our contemporary anxieties about our relation to labor, knowledge, and things (they?re as old as the Edenic couple), but it will help us to understand them better — and envision a new path outward.