Shop Class as Soulcraft: Impressions

In the run up to the new year, I will be dedicating this blog to some thoughts inspired by Matthew Crawford’s book on craft. Doing this now is spurred by a post Tim Boucher wrote on the subject, together with realising that a suitcase sitting innocuously in a corner of my house was stacked full of my books, including Crawford’s. It’s much nicer to write about something when you have the physical object to handle; as we shall see, that’s a sentiment that accords well with Crawford’s position. I’m not interested in writing a review, per se*, but in using it as a jumping-off point for various ideas. I was in a note-taking mood when I read the book, and this will be the belated product. 

Tim writes

Recently ran into a higher educational program for theatrical designers, but discovered they don’t actually build any of their own designs. Coming from a strictly hands-on school of technical theatre and scenic carpentry, this completely mystifies me. How is the designer supposed to understand how forms, shapes, materials, construction techniques, etc actually work in real life if they are not dealing with them on the ground level? 

…One of the best experiences I’ve had working in technical theatre was working this past season at a summer stock theatre where the roles of scenic designer, lighting designer, technical director and crew chief were collapsed into one person: me. Anything I designed, I was immediately thereafter made aware of how shitty or impractical my concept was. 

…But as a result of that experience, I’ve managed to acquire a really close connection to what it means to actually build something, cut wood, put screws in, communicate with other people building, etc. Imagine what a good designer could do with that wealth of practical experience!

This is a concern that Crawford takes up with gusto in his book, titled Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work in the US and The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good here in the UK. I’ll refer to it as Soulcraft for convenience hereon (quite different from Soul Craft). A trained philosopher, he uses the book to pursue the argument that the work that empowers, that ennobles, that tests the mind and enlightens, is not disembodied ‘knowledge work’ but manual work. 

If you think this is ground that has been ploughed elsewhere, you may be thinking of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, by the accounts of many a masterwork**. It’s sitting next to me right now, and just leafing through the acknowledgements I note Sennett giving his credo for the book as “making is thinking”, which you can compare with Soulcraft Chapter 7: Thinking as Doing; the resemblances certainly go further (Crawford references Sennett’s work, though not The Craftsman, and Sennett is quoted in the book blurb). What sets the two apart (here I should admit that I haven’t finished The Craftsman, rewarding as it is) is  that Sennett’s book is founded on a series of philosophical insights backed by a historical and sociological story he assembles, whereas Soulcraft is driven far more by Crawford’s own direct experiences, in the knowledge world of think tanks and publishing, contrasted with his time as an electrician and now as a motorcyle tuner.

The personal nature goes further: Crawford is positively punchy in making his case: derogation of the blue collar in favour of the white is a big mistake, and making it is going to cost you. That applies when he’s levelling his guns at government, with their reduced investment into shop class (we called it CDT – craft, design and technology) and equally when he levels them at his readership, recognising that it’s probable their fingers are trained merely to unthinkingly type. Watch out, he warns, you’ve put your eggs in the wrong basket. I found the book uncomfortable reading at times; this need not be a bad thing but I felt there was a certain degree of individualist machismo that underpinned it. Yours may be one of the “30 to 40 million U.S. jobs to be potentially offshorable”, but the author is safe – he’s put in the copious time needed to master a desired skill that can only be delivered in-person. I can only imagine what he makes of someone choosing to be an artist: are you crazy? TV, MP3, Youtube – you’re sooo replaceable by 4 billion people with a fraction of the cost of living – give it up. Perhaps I’m being uncharitable. That’s what I felt.

I raise this because it points to a broader issue: a celebration of craft and handwork seems to be on the rise: together with Soulcraft and The Craftsman (and the books footnoted below), we have Crafting GentlenessEtsie, the make-not-mend movement, Makerhood and much more. The motivations for many of these movements seem to be different. Some are extremely community-centric (Makerhood comes to mind), whereas Crawford’s thesis is pretty individualist, about personal excellence and individual attainment. Some are rooted in environmental concerns – Transition Towns are all about reskilling for a low-oil future. Lauding high-end motorcycle tuning is orthogonal or even opposed to these concerns (thanks to @steel_weaver for crystalising that!). Dissensus is no bad thing, but I wonder if some of these positions aren’t genuinely at loggerheads. As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

In the next post I’ll explore some aspects of Soulcraft that particularly resonate with me.

*There’s a good review here!

** Actually, a quick review shows how many books there are in this particular family: Thinking through Craft, Culture of Craft, The Craft Reader etc

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