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.
An eminence of this caliber has long since earned a permit to swagger and scatter a little glitter: “We will digress, as is the philosopher’s wont….” “The work of theirs I’ve held and played [‘they’ being the sons of Stradivarius] is excellent, but no more than that.” “As the poet James Merrill once told me….” Or to chat about pleasures: his tastes in tomatoes, for instance. But above all, to issue directives: “We should not give up on the workshop as a social space.” “The eighteenth century embraced the virtue of abundance, mechanically produced, and so should we.”
That last sentence indicates where Sennett and his pragmatism stand in the geography of argument—a position that needs some bearings. It hardly needs saying that in the history of craftsmanship, a further factor arrived to upset the age-old triangular relationship between hands, tools, and materials: the machine. The mid-eighteenth century—as Sennett vividly recounts, describing Jacques de Vaucanson’s new automated loom and the reactions it provoked among Lyon’s weavers—was the moment when mechanical production truly arrived to stay. From that moment onward to this, it seems, human hands have been inexorably doing themselves out of a job.
How, then, should minds respond? In outrage, like that of the Lyonnais weavers? That remains an option because, when the new mechanical age had taken firm shape a century later, writers—above all John Ruskin—evolved a rhetoric to articulate the loss of craftsmen’s self-esteem and to compensate for it. And we inherit the terminology with which they gave value to handiwork. “Authentic”; “original”; “natural”; “organic”—such keywords, latent in the discourse of “fine art” since the Renaissance, fed back into the “Arts and Crafts” movements of the late nineteenth century, and thence into every craft fair since. (The troubled historical relations between “craft” and “fine art” inevitably weave into Sennett’s complex knot of arguments, but only as a relatively minor thread.) Echoes of Ruskin’s poignant, indignant rhetoric modulate even now the feelings with which we regard the old carpenter and the furniture factory down the road.
“Authentic”; “original”; “organic”; most dubious of all, “creative”—Sennett has no truck with any of them. He is profoundly suspicious of that whole nexus of Romantic or post-Romantic values: his inclinations lie instead toward the “blunt impersonality” and outward-turned attitudes of the “open source” online communities he praises. The book that first established him as a polemical cultural historian, The Fall of Public Man (1977), was a rebuke to the “narcissistic” mindset of the contemporary West, and to a generation of sentimentalists who had immersed themselves in warm, woolly blather to the detriment of the common good. Sennett set against them the corrective yardstick of eighteenth-century civic culture, where self-expression was held at bay in theatrical role-playing. And it is to that era that The Craftsman returns, as it seeks to commend craftsmanship without succumbing to kneejerk reactions against industrialization. The Enlightenment, Sennett repeatedly urges, was so much saner about these issues:
The enlightened way to use a machine is to judge its powers, fashion its uses, in light of our own limits rather than the machine’s potential. We should not compete against the machine…. [It] ought to propose rather than command….
These are the directives that he tells us Diderot would have offered, if only he had been asked—since the author of the Encyclopédie, with its dedicated attention to everyday working practices, is Sennett’s true literary idol. Even more than a contemporary pragmatic philosopher, Sennett would love to have been a philosophe. Back in mid-eighteenth-century Paris, the marvels of machinery (in which Sennett takes a characteristically American delight) were robustly appreciated as one aspect of humanity’s self-improvement, complementing rather than pushing aside work driven by muscular effort. Now, seeing himself as the Enlightenment’s latter-day spokesman, Sennett issues the era’s putative rebukes to Romantic navel-gazing, to Ruskin’s anti-industrial jeremiads, and to anti-scientific continentals such as Martin Heidegger, who hypocritically belittled technology even as he installed electricity in his Black Forest hut.
In fact The Craftsman’s initial point of departure, Sennett tells us, was a wish to reply to an argument put to him by Heidegger’s pupil Hannah Arendt. Back in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arendt told him in a New York street that the dire predicament in which nuclear physics had placed the planet proved that technology could not be its own master, for “people who make things usually don’t understand what they are doing.”
I have tried to suggest that Sennett’s belated response to Arendt has become an exceptionally complex palimpsest, crisscrossed with ambitions sociological, ethical, historical, and philosophical. How does it read? Wonderfully well, in large stretches. As a cultural historian, Sennett is adept at entertaining with astonishing and provocative linkages. He asserts for instance that Christopher Wren’s early (and gruesome) experiments in injecting dogs with emetic poisons in order to test William Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood helped him think through the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Wren realized that a network of one-way streets could work like arteries and veins to move goods and people efficiently through the city.
As an investigator of working practices, Sennett is deft at getting to the nub of any operation, whatever its setting—a Chinese kitchen, a brickmaker’s kiln, a tunnel under the Thames—and translating it into exact and at the same time imaginative prose. Like the work practices he typically admires, Sennett’s sentences are concise and muscular. He paints chiefly with verbs, watching for instance the daylight “crinkle and flutter” on the titanium cladding of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao. Naturally, he is very conscious of the need to demonstrate a virtuous craftsmanship in the description of others’ skills—he devotes a short chapter to the issue—and what he has achieved here, anyone might learn from. He likewise flourishes literary agility, in tying sequences to a common subject matter—defining three attitudes toward physical change, for instance, through reference to pots and bricks (clay being, as he notes, the “most philosophical of materials”). The route that Sennett follows may cut sideways across many a more familiar highway—few have preceded him in outlining an overall account of “good work”—but in such a fashion, its stages start at least to fall into order.
How cogent do Sennett’s arguments appear to those of us who cannot claim to have cooked poulet à la d’Albufera, worked our way through Bach’s three-part inventions, or helped redesign a slice of Manhattan? To this outsider to the campus, the eminent sociologist seems, strangely, to have rather lost interest in the broad ecology of human behavior. He may be right that there are too few opportunities in the average contemporary workplace for employees to develop a sense of craftsmanship—of beneficial routine, that is; of finely honed muscular skills; of sustained and serious teamwork; and altogether, of the outward-turned pursuit of excellence. But what does Sennett imagine is happening outside that workplace? Before and/or after work: the gym; the sports field; the countless galaxies of classes, workshops, clubs, and groups. Before and/or after them: the home computer leading, very likely, to online communities such as the “multiplayer irreality game” of Wikipedia.
In such alternative zones, every one of the attributes that Sennett deems distinctive to craftsmanship is very much alive, if he cares to look: a vast continuum of dedicated activity virtually ignored in his text, except when he takes note of “open source” communities only to dub them “unusual” and “marginal.” I don’t suggest (as some would) that “open source” is the vanguard of some cyber-utopia, or that activities outside of work form a social panacea; but I do suggest that as an account of the way Westerners live these days, The Craftsman suffers from a very large blind spot.
Of course, all the workouts and the workshops do not count as “work”—and to an extent, that’s why they claim people’s allegiance. Commonly, we get into them to cut ourselves free from our paymasters and the claims they make on us, and we loosely call the impulse that draws us in their direction “fun” or “joining in,” whether or not we mention “self-improvement.” Sennett might argue that all these feelings are symptoms of the problem that concerns him. All that half-articulated desire for excellence should, by his logic, be rechanneled back into the workplace; or rather, the workplace should reshape itself to offer self-improvement more of a berth. And as far as that possibility is feasible, no one wishing to improve social conditions at large could reasonably disagree with him.
In comparison to some of Sennett’s recent books, the political dimensions of The Craftsman are relatively undeveloped. In the penultimate chapter, however, he argues that the broad mass of people have it within their reach to work well—to be good craftsmen—and it is precisely that broad middle band of the spectrum of ability on which education policies should concentrate—which currently, in the UK and the US, they fail to do. “Equating the median with the mediocre legitimates neglect.” Here—and generally—Sennett stands up for a wise, humane socialism, without too closely defining its doctrines.
The point remains that to dwell only on “work” itself gives a very partial view of human affairs. This has a bearing on Sennett’s philosophical position. Reading his accounts of manual and mental activity, I find much that corresponds in a general way to my own daily experience in the craft of painting pictures. But one aspect of that experience rather slips Sennett’s grasp. Glancingly he notes, as we have seen, the need “to let go of a problem, usually temporarily, in order to see better what it’s about.” Problem-solving, however, may not be what I have in mind when I let go of my brushes and stand back from the easel. At such intervals I switch from active to receptive: I simply want to see what I have made. These pauses might, I suppose, be dismissed as the kind of shirking-class self-indulgence to which “fine arts” types are singularly prone. I would contend that there is more to them than that: that they are a small but symptomatic instance of how work in general is structured. In the first and largest of all accounts of making, the God of Genesis, having made the light, “saw that it was good.” At the end of the six days, he “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”
Such a “seeing that it’s good” is not only the prototype for aesthetic feeling; it equally marks the moment when the maker’s handiwork separates from him and becomes other to him. The picture takes a life of its own; the machine starts running; what formerly depended on our hands becomes at once glamorous and alien. In truth Sennett, who longs for us to be wholly at home in our own making, ruefully acknowledges this shuttle back and forth between engagement and estrangement as he reviews Greek myth. Ungainly but honorable Hephaestus, lame god of craftsmen, was countered, he notes, by an alternative deity—sexy Pandora with her box of dangerous tricks. Fine craftsmanship here, malign product there; two sides of one coin. We come back to that old chestnut, the beautifully made bomb. And on that crux Sennett’s dreams of rebutting Arendt’s suspicions of technology (nuclear or otherwise) lie hopelessly hobbled.
The methods of pragmatism, as Sennett deploys them, supply too little leverage for fresh critical thought: that’s the level at which his book disappoints. Of the two ways of understanding things, getting stuck into the making of something and standing well back, they really only admit the former. Deep in his grappling with different kinds of handiwork, the writer loses sight of whoever it was he was meant to be arguing with. As a result, there is no challenge to received habits of mind that can match his masterly achievements in close description, his inventive forays into cultural history, and the overall humanity of the book’s purposes. One merely stumbles on nuggets of what, at best, could be described as wisdom lite. “The difficult and the incomplete should be positive events in our understanding.” “Simulation can be a poor substitute for tactile experience.” “Surprise is a way of telling yourself that something you know can be other than you assumed.” Yes, yes, yes. Good philosophy needs sharper teeth.