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Back to Basics

The Craftsman

by Richard Sennett
Yale University Press, 326 pp., $27.50

The Craftsman, Richard Sennett’s new book, is a far-roving intellectual adventure. Touching here on the cooking of poulet à la d’Albufera and there on the construction of tunnels, here on Hesiod and there on evolutionary psychology, Sennett’s curiosity races across disparate fields of expertise much as an eclipse might sweep over the globe, slicing an unfamiliar path from Brazil, via Egypt, to Mongolia. In part Sennett’s project is to draw some conclusions from a polymathic career. To his intimate knowledge of haute cuisine and of cello playing he can add over thirty years as a sociologist known for his influential reinterpretations of class relations, of Western cultural history, and of urban life.

At the same time, Sennett in his mid-sixties—now, by his own description, one of the “elderly”—is attentive to immediate contemporary concerns. Early in his argument’s trajectory, the ongoing debates over Wikipedia fall within its penumbra. Is the wildfire expansion of that nonprofit reference Web site a trend to celebrate, or does it show that knowledge acquisition is succumbing to “part anarchy, part mob rule”1? Does the incessant shuttle of volunteers’ entries and editorial alterations amount to nothing more than an “online multiplayer irreality game,”2 as a onetime editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica has alleged?

Sennett notes that Wikipedia has problems with the quality of its input, but the drift of his thinking comes to the Web site’s support. For in principle, at least, it is an “open source” project, one that encourages its users to act as its codevelopers and that publically reveals, rather than conceals, the constant evolution of its content. As with the Linux operating system for computers, the trailblazer for “open source” models in software development, Wikipedia trusts to the good sense and goodwill of interested parties at large. The kernel of the Linux code “can be employed and adapted by anyone; people donate time to improve it.”

That is the type of institutional model that Sennett, who inclines to some form of socialism, tends to favor. The foil he sets against it in this context is the Microsoft Corporation, with its secretive, proprietary approach to product development. By contrast, those engaged in “open source” projects such as Wikipedia put considerations of ownership behind them. Their signatures are not on display. Concentrating on the identification of problems and the exploration of fresh possibilities, their online chat is terse and content-packed. A “blunt impersonality turns people outward.”

And in such a light Sennett, with a characteristically bold sweep of the hand, associates these networkers with the nameless potters, smiths, and weavers that Hesiod celebrated in archaic Greece, when he composed a hymn to their master god Hephaestus. “Open source” participants form

a community of craftsmen to whom the ancient appellation demioergoi [literally, “public producers”] can be applied. It is focused on achieving quality, on doing good work, which is the craftsman’s primordial mark of identity.

For Sennett, then, the “craftsman” across the ages has been a person who knows how to do “good work.” What is good work? Answers to that question are what he constantly tries to find on his book’s rarely beaten and sometimes rugged track of argument. He wishes to close in on a certain quality of activity, rather than on the particular social role that his chosen title might seem to denote.

Inevitably, as Sennett remarks at the outset of his investigation, the epithet “craftsman” will summon up a poignant image in many a mind’s eye: “Peering through a window into a carpenter’s shop, you see inside an elderly man surrounded by his apprentices and his tools.” And fleshing out that Norman Rockwell–flavored glimpse, Sennett wryly notes that this putative carpenter’s shop is bound to be “menaced by a furniture factory down the road.” Modernization as the aggressor, the small guy as victim: we all feel we know the story. Indeed, later in the book we get to meet the endangered species in person—one Len Greenham, last of a family line of morocco-grainers from the English town of Northampton. Fastidious in his habits, obsessively devoted to his craft of leather bookbinding, Greenham laments the global economics by which businesses in India terminally undercut his trade. The author’s voiceover duly nudges at our emotions: “But still he keeps working with a will: that’s the craftsman in him.”

Regret at the passing of small-scale cultures of work, tinged by resentment at the systems that trample them—it is a stream of sentiment that has flowed strong ever since the Industrial Revolution. Sennett is happy, here and there, to draw from it. But he aims for a more inclusive perspective. He extrapolates from his own experiences as a musician and a cook; he will welcome into his community of craftsmen not only computer programmers but every type of person who is thoroughly versed in their own practice, whether that be medicine, civil engineering, or cell phone manufacture.

He would like, on principle, to extend his category of craftsmanship to cover the skills of parenting—no less challenging to people’s abilities, no less time-consuming to acquire. More than that, he raises the prospect of a “craft of experience,” an application of good working procedures to life in general. To render his argument manageable, however, most of the crafts under review turn out to be things that people do to earn their keep.

This broad constituency of employees trying to work well, whoever and wherever they are, is no less on the defensive than the stereotypical carpenter and morocco-grainer: that is Sennett’s polemical starting point. Yes, the times truly are set against craftsmen. For they cannot develop their skills in a society where employers habitually value fresh energy over experience and dispense with investment in training. The ability that chiefly flourishes in today’s global economy is that of jumping ship: most of the breezy, bouncy “bonding” and teamwork of the contemporary workplace is insistently shallow, for everyone knows that the alliances thus formed are purely provisional. Here Sennett carries forward some of the criticisms of short-term thinking that he outlined in The Culture of the New Capitalism (2006). The timescale within which a worker can construct a “career”—which originally meant, he explains, a “well-laid road” through life—has been radically abbreviated.

Meanwhile, his or her productivity has been reductively digitized. Sennett cites the Fordist regime the British government has applied over the past decade to workers in its National Health Service. “A medical treatment system based on dealing with auto parts” itemizes the repair of “cancerous livers or broken backs rather than patients in the round” and has no place in its arithmetic for informalities such as chats between patients and staff. Yet it is exactly from such exchanges, in which experienced nurses and doctors apply their “tacit knowledge” to anecdotes and grumbles, that the soundest diagnoses often emerge. Reviewing contemporary workplaces in general, Sennett alleges that commitment to fine detail and loyalty to the firm have been systematically devalued. As a result, the demoralization of workers is endemic. A truly cooperative ethos such as that of the “open source” contributors to Linux or Wikipedia is, he contends, “unusual, indeed marginal.”

Sennett’s basic task, then, is to promote another way of working by describing it in a rich and engaging manner. To do so, he has to coax some of that “tacit knowledge” out of its habitat of silence, poring over the unconsidered minutiae that make the difference between adequate effort and excellence. Since we are all, one way or another, short-termists these days and thus apt to bridle at the words “repetition” and “routine,” he has somehow to persuade us of the value of learning things slowly. These literary challenges take Sennett back to the basics of craftsmanship in its most old-fashioned sense: he lends all the descriptive power he can muster to the actual interactions of hands, tools, and materials in diverse manual skills.

In one of many fine-tuned analyses of working procedure, he scrutinizes how Chinese chefs learned to guide “from the elbow joint the fused forearm, hand, and cleaver so that the knife edge fell into the food; the moment the blade made contact, the forearm muscles contracted to relieve further pressure”; in another, how, in a surgical dissection, “the muscles controlling the fourth and fifth fingers have to be contracted in order to steady the thumb and first finger in lifting the vein with the flat side of the scalpel.” He takes us step by step through the physical challenges of glassblowing and of learning to play in tune.

All the while, the close description takes on moral overtones—for values are ingrained, probably, in whatever words he chooses to employ:

One can play rapidly and cleanly only by learning how to come off a piano key or how to release the finger on a string or on a valve. In the same way, mentally, we need to let go of a problem, usually temporarily, in order to see better what it’s about, then take hold of it afresh…. Release is also full of ethical implication, as when we surrender control—our grip—over others.

And as a matter of fact, this moralizing of the hand is indispensable to the book’s general project. Much more than a manifesto apropos of labor conditions, Sennett means it to be a philosophical essay in “cultural materialism.” He would like to develop an account of humanity in general from such factors as “the evolutionary dialogue between the hand and the brain”; to ground the idea of the good in physical circumstance; to derive his oughts from a clutch of ascertainable ises.

Sennett has gathered up his personal insights into sociology, not to mention musicianship, cooking, and many another expertise, and intends to house them within the philosophical school of pragmatism. There, he wants his ideas to keep company with the thoughts of Charles Peirce, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty—each, in different ways, writers who were concerned to place people’s values within their specific native environments and to make thought “engage with ordinary, plural, constructive human activities.” Sennett’s annex to the mansion of pragmatism is to have three wings. The Craftsman will be followed, he explains, by a treatment of war and religion—a book that may, by the sound of it, offer an oblique perspective on the jihadist phenomenon; while an essay seeking to reformulate our attitudes to the environment will complete his panoptic overview of contemporary anxieties.

It’s a grandiose intellectual scheme, from a writer with an august demeanor. A rather different literary venture, the semi-autobiographical essay Respect in a World of Inequality, published five years ago, returned to Sennett’s childhood in a Chicago housing development—partly to register the vast distance he has since traveled from it, thanks to his musical and literary abilities. Another measure of that distance is the fact that Tony Blair deemed the author and the essay itself sufficiently important to cite them, as a dash of intellectual spicing, in a 2005 policy speech.

  1. 1

    Larry Sanger, “Why Citizendium?”; at the alternative reference Web site en.citizendium.org, founded in 2006 by Sanger.

  2. 2

    Robert McHenry, “I Get It; You Don’t,” Britannica Blog, March 7, 2007, at www.britannica.com.

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