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. --Eric Banks
Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum. He has contributed to The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, and the Financial Times and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.
Read an Excerpt
By Richard Sennett YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Troubled Craftsman
The Craftsman summons an immediate image. Peering through a window into a carpenter's shop, you see inside an elderly man surrounded by his apprentices and his tools. Order reigns within, parts of chairs are clamped neatly together, the fresh smell of wood shavings fills the room, the carpenter bends over his bench to make a fine incision for marquetry. The shop is menaced by a furniture factory down the road.
The craftsman might also be glimpsed at a nearby laboratory. There, a young lab technician is frowning at a table on which six dead rabbits are splayed on their backs, their bellies slit open. She is frowning because something has gone wrong with the injection she has given them; she is trying to figure out if she did the procedure wrong or there is something wrong with the procedure.
A third craftsman might be heard in the town's concert hall. There an orchestra is rehearsing with a visiting conductor; he works obsessively with the orchestra's string section, going over and over a passage to make the musicians draw their bows at exactly the same speed across the strings. The string players are tired but also exhilarated because their sound is becoming coherent. The orchestra's manager is worried; if the visiting conductor keeps on, the rehearsal will move into overtime, costing management extra wages. The conductor isoblivious.
The carpenter, lab technician, and conductor are all craftsmen because they are dedicated to good work for its own sake. Theirs is practical activity, but their labor is not simply a means to another end. The carpenter might sell more furniture if he worked faster; the technician might make do by passing the problem back to her boss; the visiting conductor might be more likely to be rehired if he watched the clock. It's certainly possible to get by in life without dedication. The craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged. One aim of this book is to explain how people become engaged practically but not necessarily instrumentally.
Craftsmanship is poorly understood, as I noted in the Prologue, when it is equated only with manual skill of the carpenter's sort. German employs the word Handwerk, French the word artisanal to evoke the craftsman's labors. English can be more inclusive, as in the term statecraft; Anton Chekhov applied the Russian word mastersvo equally to his craft as a doctor and as a writer. I want first to treat all such concrete practices as like laboratories in which sentiments and ideas can be investigated. A second aim of this study is to explore what happens when hand and head, technique and science, art and craft are separated. I will show how the head then suffers; both understanding and expression are impaired.
All craftsmanship is founded on skill developed to a high degree. By one commonly used measure, about ten thousand hours of experience are required to produce a master carpenter or musician. Various studies show that as skill progresses, it becomes more problem-attuned, like the lab technician worrying about procedure, whereas people with primitive levels of skill struggle more exclusively on getting things to work. At its higher reaches, technique is no longer a mechanical activity; people can feel fully and think deeply what they are doing once they do it well. It is at the level of mastery, I will show, that ethical problems of craft appear.
The emotional rewards craftsmanship holds out for attaining skill are twofold: people are anchored in tangible reality, and they can take pride in their work. But society has stood in the way of these rewards in the past and continues to do so today. At different moments in Western history practical activity has been demeaned, divorced from supposedly higher pursuits. Technical skill has been removed from imagination, tangible reality doubted by religion, pride in one's work treated as a luxury. If the craftsman is special because he or she is an engaged human being, still the craftsman's aspirations and trials hold up a mirror to these larger issues past and present.
The Modern Hephaestus Ancient Weavers and Linux Programmers
One of the earliest celebrations of the craftsman appears in a Homeric hymn to the master god of craftsmen, Hephaestus: "Sing clear-voiced Muse, of Hephaestus famed for skill. With bright-eyed Athena he taught men glorious crafts throughout the world-men who before used to dwell in caves in the mountains like wild beasts. But now that they have learned crafts through Hephaestus famous for his art they live a peaceful life in their own houses the whole year round." The poem is contrary in spirit to the legend of Pandora, which took form at roughly the same time. Pandora presides over destruction, Hephaestus over the craftsman as a bringer of peace and a maker of civilization.
The hymn to Hephaestus may seem to celebrate no more than a cliché that of civilization commencing when human beings began to use tools. But this hymn was written thousands of years after the fabrication of such tools as knives, the wheel, and the loom. More than a technician, the civilizing craftsman has used these tools for a collective good, that of ending humanity's wandering existence as hunter-gatherers or rootless warriors. Reflecting on the Homeric hymn to Hephaestus, a modern historian writes that because craftwork "brought people out of the isolation, personified by the cave-dwelling Cyclopes, craft and community were, for the early Greeks, indissociable."
The word the hymn used for craftsman is demioergos. This is a compound made between public (demios) and productive (ergon). The archaic craftsman occupied a social slice roughly equivalent to a middle class. The demioergoi included, in addition to skilled manual workers like potters, also doctors and lower magistrates, and professional singers and heralds who served in ancient times as news broadcasters. This slice of ordinary citizens lived in between the relatively few, leisured aristocrats and the mass of slaves who did most of the work-many of whom had great technical skills but whose talents earned them no political recognition or rights. It was in the middle of this archaic society that the hymn honored as civilizers those who combined head and hand.
Archaic Greece, like many other societies that anthropologists until quite recently labeled "traditional," took it for granted that skills would be handed down from generation to generation. This assumption is more remarkable than it might appear. Social norms counted for more than individual endowments in the traditional "skills society." Developing one's talents depended on following the rules established by earlier generations; that most modern of words-personal "genius"-had little meaning in this context. To become skilled required, personally, that one be obedient. Whoever composed the hymn to Hephaestus accepted the nature of this communal bond. As with deeply held values in any culture, it seemed self-evident that people will identify with other craftsmen as fellow citizens. Skill would bind them to their ancestors as to their fellows. In their gradual evolution, traditional skills thus seem exempt from Hannah Arendt's principle of "natality."
If the artisan was celebrated in the age of Homer as a public man or woman, by classical times the craftsman's honor had dimmed. The reader of Aristophanes finds a small sign of this change in the contempt with which he treats the potters Kittos and Bacchios as stupid buffoons due the work they do. A graver portent of the artisan's darkening fortunes appears in the writings of Aristotle on the nature of craft. In the Metaphysics, he declares, "We consider that the architects in every profession are more estimable and know more and are wiser than the artisans, because they know the reasons of the things which are done." Aristotle abandons the old word for the craftsman, demioergos, and uses instead cheirotechnon, which means simply handworker.
This shift had a particular, ambiguous meaning for women workers. From earliest times, weaving was a craft reserved for women that gave them respect in the public realm; the hymn singles out crafts like weaving as practices that helped civilize the hunter-gatherer tribes. As archaic society became classical, still the public virtue of women weavers was celebrated. In Athens, women spun a cloth, the peplos, that they then paraded through the city streets in an annual ritual. But other domestic crafts like cooking had no such public standing, and no craftwork would earn Athenian women in the classical era the right to vote. The development of classical science contributed to the gendering of skill that produced the word craftsman as applying to men. This science contrasted the man's hand dexterity to the inner-organ strength of women as childbearers; it contrasted the stronger arm and leg muscles of men to those of women; it supposed that men's brains were more "muscular" than those of women.
This gender distinction sowed the seed of a still-living plant: most domestic crafts and craftsmen seem different in character than labor now outside the home. We do not think of parenting, for instance, as a craft in the same sense that we think of plumbing or programming, even though becoming a good parent requires a high degree of learned skill.
The classical philosopher most sympathetic to the archaic ideal of Hephaestus was Plato, who also worried about its demise. He traced skill back to the root word for "making," poiein. This is the parent word for poetry, and in the hymn, too, poets appear as just another kind of craftsman. All craftsmanship is quality-driven work; Plato formulated this aim as the arete, the standard of excellence, implicit in any act: the aspiration for quality will drive a craftsman to improve, to get better rather than get by. But in his own time Plato observed that although "craftsmen are all poets ... they are not called poets, they have other names." Plato worried that these different names and indeed different skills kept people in his day from understanding what they shared. In the five centuries between the Hymn to Hephaestus and his own lifetime, something seemed to have slipped. The unity in archaic times between skill and community had weakened. Practical skills still sustained the ongoing life of the city but were not generally honored for doing so.
* * *
To understand the living presence of Hephaestus, I ask the reader to make a large mental jump. People who participate in "open source" computer software, particularly in the Linux operating system, are craftsmen who embody some of the elements first celebrated in the Hymn to Hesphaestus, but not others. The Linux technicians also represent as a group Plato's worry, though in a modern form; rather than scorned, this body of craftsmen seem an unusual, indeed marginal, sort of community.
The Linux system is a public craft. The underlying software kernel in Linux code is available to anyone, it can be employed and adapted by anyone; people donate time to improve it. Linux contrasts to the code used in Microsoft, its secrets until recently hoarded as the intellectual property of one company. In one current, popular Linux application, Wikipedia, the code kernel makes possible an encyclopedia to which any user can contribute. When established in the 1990s, Linux sought to recover some of the adventure of the early days of computing in the 1970s. During these two decades, the software industry has morphed within its brief life into a few dominant firms, buying up or squeezing out smaller competitors. In the process, the monopolies seemed to churn out ever more mediocre work.
Technically, open-source software follows the standards of the Open Source Initiative, but the brute label "free software" doesn't quite capture how resources are used in Linux. Eric Raymond usefully distinguishes between two types of free software: the "cathedral" model, in which a closed group of programmers develop the code and then make it available to anyone, and the "bazaar" model, in which anyone can participate via the Internet to produce code. Linux draws on craftsmen in an electronic bazaar. The kernel was developed by Linus Torvalds, who in the early 1990s acted on Raymond's belief that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow"-engineer-speak for saying that if enough people participate in the code-writing bazaar, the problems of writing good code can be solved more easily than in the cathedral, certainly more easily than in proprietary commercial software.
This, then, is a community of craftsmen to whom the ancient appellation demioergoi can be applied. It is focused on achieving quality, on doing good work, which is the craftsman's primordial mark of identity. In the traditional world of the archaic potter or doctor, standards for good work were set by the community, as skills passed down from generation to generation. These heirs to Hephaestus have experienced, however, a communal conflict about the use of their skills.
The programming community is grappling with how to reconcile quality and open access. In the Wikipedia application, for instance, many of the entries are biased, scurrilous, or just plain wrong. A breakaway group now wants to apply editing standards, an impulse that runs smack up against the movement's desire to be an open community. The editor "elitists" don't dispute the technical proficiency of their adversaries; all the professional parties in this conflict feel passionately about maintaining quality. The conflict is equally strong in the generative realm of Linux programming. Its members are grappling with a structural problem: how can quality of knowledge coexist with free and equal exchange in a community?
We'd err to imagine that because traditional craft communities pass on skills from generation to generation, the skills they pass down have been rigidly fixed; not at all. Ancient pottery making, for instance, changed radically when the rotating stone disk holding a lump of clay came into use; new ways of drawing up the clay ensued. But the radical change appeared slowly. In Linux the process of skill evolution is speeded up; change occurs daily. Again, we might think that a good craftsman, be she a cook or a programmer, cares only about solving problems, about solutions that end a task, about closure. In this, we would not credit the work actually involved. In the Linux network, when people squash one "bug," they frequently see new possibilities open up for the use of the code. The code is constantly evolving, not a finished and fixed object. There is in Linux a nearly instant relation between problem solving and problem finding.
Still, the experimental rhythm of problem solving and problem finding makes the ancient potter and the modern programmer members of the same tribe. We would do better to contrast Linux programmers to a different modern tribe, those bureaucrats unwilling to make a move until all the goals, procedures, and desired results for a policy have been mapped in advance. This is a closed knowledge-system. In the history of handcrafts, closed knowledge-systems have tended toward short lifespans. The anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan contrasts, for instance, the open, evolving, difficult, but long-lasting craft of metal knife-making in preclassical Greece to the craft of wooden knife-making-a more precise, economical, but static system of fabricating knives that was soon abandoned for the problems of metal.
Linux is most deeply "Greek" in its impersonality. In Linux online workshops, it's impossible to deduce, for instance, whether "aristotle @mit.edu" is a man or a woman; what matters is what "aristotle@mit .edu" contributes to the discussion. Archaic craftsmen experienced a kindred impersonality; the demioergoi were frequently addressed in public by the names of their profession. All craftsmanship, indeed, has something of this impersonal character. That the quality of work is impersonal can make the practice of craftsmanship seem unforgiving; that you might have a neurotic relation to your father won't excuse the fact that your mortise-and-tenon joint is loose. In one of the British-based Linux chat rooms to which I belong, 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.
<%TOC%> Contents Acknowledgments....................ix
Excerpted from The Craftsman by Richard Sennett Copyright © 2008 by Richard Sennett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Prologue: Man as His Own Maker....................1
PART ONE: Craftsmen 1. The Troubled Craftsman....................19
2. The Workshop....................53
4. Material Consciousness....................119
PART TWO: Craft 5. The Hand....................149
6. Expressive Instructions....................179
7. Arousing Tools....................194
8. Resistance and Ambiguity....................214
PART THREE: Craftsmanship 9. Quality-Driven Work....................241
Conclusion: The Philosophical Workshop....................286