Soulcraft, stoves and giggling freaks

Something about this post has been bothering me: the impression that we can cleanly sort people into moral categories from a disinterested perspective. I completed Catch-22 yesterday, and find it has something to say on this.

The novel’s protagonist, bombardier and sometime refusenik Yossarian, shares a tent with a pilot named Orr. Orr has buck teeth and bulging eyes, spends his time grinning or “giggling like a crazy little freak”; he is an “unsuspecting simpleton” who delights in being seemingly unable to answer a simple question with anything approximating an answer. As Yossarian comments, “Orr hasn’t got brains enough to be unhappy.” Clearly, The Idiot fits nicely.

But there’s more to Orr. Thoughout the book he is obsessed with the maintenance of a gas-powered stove.

He worked without pause, taking the faucet apart, spreading all the tiny pieces out interminably, as though he had never seen anything remotely similar before, and then reassembling the whole apparatus, over and over and over again,with no loss of patience or interest, no sign of fatigue, no indication of ever concluding.“

This constant preoccupation grates on Yossarian, his tent-mate and possibly only friend. Late in the book Yossarian beseeches Orr for some peace:"Don’t start,” he begged in a threatening voice, both hands tightening around his beer bottle. “Don’t start working on your stove.”

Orr cackled quietly. “I’m almost finished.”
“No, you’re not., You’re about to begin.”
“Here’s the valve. See? It’s almost all together.”
“And you’re about to take it apart. I know what you’re doing, you bastard. I’ve seen you do it three hundred times.”

They go on, Orr asking for permission to continue:

“Once more?”
“When I’m not around. You’re a happy imbecile and you don’t know what it means to feel the way I do. Things happen to me when you work over small things that I can’t even begin to explain. I find out that I can’t stand you. I start to hate you, and I’m soon thinking seriously about busting this bottle down on your head or stabbing you in the neck with that hunting knife there. Do you understand?”
Orr nodded very intelligently. “I won’t take the valve apart now,” he said, and began taking it apart, working with slow, tireless, interminable precision, his rustic, ungainly face bent very close to the floor, picking painstakingly at the minute mechanism in his fingers with such limitless, plodding concentration that he seemed scarcely to be thinking of it at all.

We seem to have a textbook case of The Curious. Orr has all the attributes of the idiot and is happy to turn his narrow focus onto a manual activity. He has no appreciation of context, of the harm his obsession has on the people around him, even with it spelled out in plain terms.

The passage goes on to complicate this picture, however. Through Yossarian’s reflections, we get a wider picture of Orr: far from being a limited hobbyist, Orr possesses “a thousand valuable skills” – with soldering iron, drill, hammer and chisel, improvising constructions with excess bomb parts, mixing paint, meausring, building fires, bringing water. “He had an uncanny knowledge of wildlife and was not afraid of dogs or cats or beetles or moths, or of foods like scrod or tripe.”

Orr begins to feel like someone genuinely equipped to take on the world. But what about his insular focus? When Yossarian challenges Orr on the need to hurry on with the stove, he has an unexpected rationale.

“I’d like to get this all finished for you while there’s still time. You’ll have the best stove in the squadron when I’m through. It will burn all night with this feed control I’m fixing, and these metal plates will radiate the heat all over the tent. If you leave a helmet full of water on this thing when you go to sleep, you’ll have warm water to wash with all ready for you when you wake up. Won’t that be nice? If you want to cook eggs or soup, all you’ll have to do is set the pot down here and turn the fire up.”
“What do you mean, me?” Yossarian wanted to know. “Where are you going to be?”
Orr’s stunted torso shook suddenly with a muffled spasm of amusement. “I don’t know,” he exclaimed, and a weird, wavering giggle gushed out suddenly through his chattering buck teeth like an exploding jet of emotion. He was still laughing when he continued, and his voice was clogged with saliva. “If they keep on shooting me down this way, I don’t know where I’m going to be.”

The stove does end up keeping Yossarian in comfort when Orr’s words prove prophetic and he is shot down, not to be recovered. His actions prove to be extremely useful, and in the end, Yossarian realises, even visionary.

Catch-22 is a book that demands we open our eyes to “how many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors” – and “how many wise guys were stupid”. To fully understand Orr, and all the rest, would require reading the book (and need it be said, it is magnificent). But from considering just these few excerpts I believe that using Crawford’s moral categories usefully means shifting our focus from the individual to the relational. It’s not just where they put their attention, but where we put our own. 

Yossarian is angry and closed off, understandably so, but this clouds his ability to see what is really going on and the gifts that Orr offers him. Orr isn’t an Idiot, or Idiotically Curious, except that Yossarian has made him so. The practical wisdom that Orr is offering becomes real only when its recipient recognises it as such.

In case this isn’t obvious, I’m also talking about improvisation.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: the third lesson is awareness

(This post continues my meander through Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. Two posts precede it, here and here.)

 I found Soulcraft especially illuminating in its third lesson, that manual work connecting us to material reality. Crawford draws out the risks of absorption, not only with oneself, but also with a task in hand. Those who take the first route he labels The Idiot – utterly disinterested in the workings of the outside world; unsurprisingly, he’s not fan. The second, he sees as The Curious – one who must follow one thing through to its full conclusion, irregardless of wider concerns. This is a pitfall, or at best a stepping-stone, not a desired state of being. If I, as a recovering Idiot, learn to whittle, learn to love whittling, and whittle all day through, then in Crawford’s eyes I haven’t addressed my habit of indulgent absorption – I’ve merely shifted its subject. And this is what manual work – rather than a manual obsession that exists for its own sake – allows us to transcend. Work has an object, in the form of a customer, or a project. It introduces competing demands, a wider context: Mrs Roberts may want a carved ashtray, but she can’t afford much for it and needs it by Wednesday, so I’ll forego my indulgence in the wood for a wider appreciation that includes the wood, Mrs Roberts, and the value of my time. 

This is an ongoing struggle, rather than an end-state: in Crawford’s words, “being a clear-sighted person who looks around and sees the whole situation…is something that needs to be achieved on a moment-to moment basis”. There’s a call to betterment there that fits snugly with a variety of spiritual practises, from eastern approaches anchored with meditation through to the Christianity of CS Lewis, and it also resonates with current trends towards mindfulness that recognise the importance of the everyday. To become this individual, who transcends themselves through curiosity, and transcends narrowness through context, allows you to transcend alienation and become fully enabled, ready to take on the world as is. And against the vein of individualism that I read into the text, Crawford agrees our choices in making and doing only gain meaning by how they are measured to the needs and demands of others.

Reading back, I wonder what Crawford and David K Reynolds would make of each other. Reynold’s Constructive Living framework, based partly on Morita therapy and further back into Zen, focuses on immediate connection with the world itself, as it offers itself to you right now. It charges us to undertake every activity with full attention and awareness, eschewing self absorption and neurotic concern. Inspired by its other source of Naikan practise (itself from Shin Buddhism), it focuses attention on gratitude towards and concern for the needs of others, appreciating at the greatest level possible the web of human context that makes any action possible (such as the manifold steps that get an item into our hands for use). And his Handbook for Constructive Living emits a certain unsentimentality and gloves-off attitude that Matthew Crawford might approve of.

I’ll call a halt on this, as I could talk and talk and talk. Particularly on how this is the foundation for improvisational theatre, how improv itself is a training regime for connection with the moment, connection with the real (it may be perverse to say so for a form full of mime and invention, but it’s true), connection with one another. Another time. I’m aware also that picking Reynolds to contrast may seem chauvinist, given that explorations of interconnectivity and groundedness  are a rich space of feminine discourse. But that’s partly my point: Soulcraft feels to me as a very masculine exploration of these topics, and it’s important to recognise this, for what it adds and how it may be limited. To balance this a touch and in fairness to Crawford, I’ll close with a few quotes he takes from Iris Murdoch in support of his argument. Murdoch states that anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue”; putting it another way, “virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is”. Which we can do by following our hands.

The three lessons – agency, endeavour and a wider awareness of our position in the world – map very well onto Martin Seligman’s three kinds of happiness. The pleasant life, accessing the things you want to be comfortable and experience pleasure, is massively supported by having economic freedom and unburdening yourself of helplessness and stresses. The engaged life, experiencing flow and identity with your activities, clearly arises from physical endeavour, which is often used as an exemplar of engaged activity. And the meaningful life, of being part of something bigger than you, is served by a wider awareness of the web of life within which we are engaged, both moment-to-moment and at a social level of obligation and giving.

Bibliography and Links

Matthew Crawford (2009). Shop Class as Soulcraft. Penguin Press. Link

David K Reynolds (1995). A Handbook for Constructive Living, Morrow, N.Y. Link

David K Reynolds’ site

Morita therapy and Naikan on Wikipedia

Martin Seligman’s site

Shop Class as Soulcraft: lessons for agency and endeavour

(This post continues my meander through Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft.)

Soulcraft’s topic is manual competence, and what it means when we lack it. I come away from the book reaffirmed that this matters for three reasons. The first is that being able to achieve things that matter in the real world makes us free and more secure. The second is that challenges that are tangible in character – flesh, blood, wood, earth, steel – are those that most stretch our capacities, a major reward to us thinking beings. The third is that constantly putting our attentions on the real world is important for the human spirit (a topic for the next post).

The first issue is essentially one of agency. If my plumbing breaks on New Years Day – thanks to the table I’m seated at, I am touching wood as I write this – could I deal with it? Or would I be powerless? (The latter, I’m afraid.) How indispensable am I at work? If I’m threatened with my role being outsourced overseas, can I point out my knack for repairing engine damage caused by frequent local dust storms, or restoring waterlogged lily gardens, knowing the soil composition round these parts – or simpler yet, say ‘I hope they enjoy the commute!’ Or could the outputs of my cubicle be replaced by one in Mumbai, leaving me perennially at the mercy of my last good idea? 

Crawford emphasises that manual jobs are situated and substantial – they have to be done here, and they have to be done. Conversely, knowledge work is ephemeral: it could be done elsewhere, and when priorities change it may not need doing at all, such as snipping R&D to focus on existing products. The progress of technology seems to support this: the low hanging fruit of massed physical labour were picked during the industrial revolution, largely through the factory line, but manual work that is mobile, personalised, or open-ended seems well beyond what robotics can offer, and is certainly cost ineffective for the foreseeable future. Innovations in technology serve the manual worker rather than supplant him, offering up strength and finesse through stronger tools, better lenses and so on. This is the ‘enlightened inequality’ that Richard Sennett describes in The Craftsman, where the machine does one thing well where the person is weaker, but is unable to perform other parts of the role. The handy-man, gardener, and mechanic can all rest easy.

The second issue turns to the ground well explored in The Craftsman: doing as thinking. Let’s look first at Crawfords negative case, against thought in knowledge work. This seems counterintuitive; surely, regardless of whether using your hands is a thoughtful exercise, knowledge work surely must be. We’re employed for our minds, for our ideas, for our prudent decisions and radical innovations. No?

If we examine the case closely, we know this just ain’t so. Just as Time and Motion studies chiseled autonomy away from the factory worker, determining fixed steps of maximum efficiency and hard-coding these into each job, a similar fate is befalling the knowledge worker through ‘time and thought analysis’. The heads of experts are mined to fill the quarries of knowledge management systems, centralising the needed information and making those experts redundant, or at least in a markedly weaker state to negotiate their worth. 

It seems to me that the only sanctioned move we’re able to make, pathetically, is to become an expert in the knowledge systems themselves. No longer valuable for knowing stuff, now (somewhat) valuable for being able to navigate the system that does the knowing for us. If the system changes, or doesn’t need us any more, bad luck. This resonates with me: before I began working for myself, I spent countless days spent coaxing byzantine systems to deliver information like costings of projects, where once I would have been permitted to use my own judgment to do it. I would hazard that a reasonable amount of the average person’s wage is paid for them to patiently wait as screens slowly refresh to reveal a preordained decision that is Ctrl-C Ctrl-V’d into place. Crawford calls it “a rising sea of clerkdom” and I think that’s dead right.

Meanwhile, manual work presents us with problems that are material and unavoidable. Each may have a single solution, or multiple ones of differing elegance. We must carefully try options, using rules of thumb to choose from the common, the laborious, the unusual, and outright inadvisable to get things done. We must use our full expertise at the service of our judgment which is exercised over countless decision points, each one a source of future learning. When it is done, we can see the outcome as correct – though we may need to check our working before signing off on it. This suggests not dull work but something akin to mathematics, whose problems are readily regarded as some of the highest intellectual pursuits within our culture.  

Compare that to say product branding for phones. You commission market research, which suggests calling your phone a Meetbox may go down well with a desired demographic. You argue your case in presentations with peers. The company goes ahead with a fair-sized marketing budget. Sales are… ok. What have you learned? Nothing definite, because the whole field of operation is so ambiguous and intangible. Could sales have been better? Maybe. By different branding? Possibly. Should you re-use the market research company? Maybe not (but maybe). Would a bigger marketing budget have made a difference? You could make a case for it (but maybe running the numbers the other way would say the opposite). We don’t have a firm feedback, we can’t say this was a success or failure – except of course, in the eyes of others. 

The learning you are most likely to take away from a modern work situation is the most direct component: manipulating your colleagues to a desired outcome. For instance, you mentally note that courting Sally before the meeting would have garnered more enthusiasm for the project overall, and plan to do so again. Crawford argues that as the tangible aspects of work wilt away, we are left focusing on managing our personal brand and becoming more involved in maintaining the best face, from all angles, in the hall of mirrors that is the workplace. In Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich recounts how the noble class within Europe  moved from a culture of individual endeavour – warrior-lords leading their men directly through prowess – to one of social surfaces, of courtiers concerned with intrigue and alliance. The engine for this was the centralisation of military power, requiring nobles to define themselves around something other than martial skill. This process continues now with the knowledge class.

I’ve deliberately avoided discussing one component of endeavour, that of creativity. Here, Crawford is equally damning about the condition of the non-manual worker, but I am more optimistic. I’ll come to this in a future post. The next post, meanwhile, is on awareness.

Bibliography and Links

Matthew Crawford (2009). Shop Class as Soulcraft. Penguin Press. Link

Richard Sennett (2008). The Craftsman. Allen Lane. Link

Barbara Ehrenreich (2007). Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Metropolitan Books. Link