Shop Class as Soulcraft

I bought a book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford, a while ago, a few months after it came out.  At the time, I was teaching in G.E.D. and job-skills training program for at-risk youth in rural Alabama.  At work, I was designing and building small pieces of architecture; at home, I was designing and building small pieces of furniture.  I got about halfway through the book, letting it lull me to sleep right before bed each night.  Worn out from the day's labors, digging fencepost holes and slinging around railroad ties and absorbing the resentment of angry teens, Crawford's words failed to penetrate too deeply.  I eventually gave up on the book, finding it too abstract and philosophical to handle at that hour of the day.

I picked it up again recently, determined to wade through his arguments.  It proved to be much easier this time, partly because I now deal with the metaphysical aspects of craft a little more directly in my daily work.  

The book began life as an essay, published in 2006.  Expanded into a book, and pushed into a wider, less academic realm, Crawford's carefully researched, highly personal story became a minor phenomenon.  He landed everywhere from the New York Times to the Colbert Report, frequently accompanied by the photo of him from the book jacket wherein he leans casually against a doorframe, left hand tugging the dormant brake on a motorcycle, right hand holding a crescent wrench.  His story was compelling; after completing a Ph.D in Political Philosophy at the University of Chicago, and landing a job at a prestigious D.C. think tank, Crawford abandoned it all and opened a motorcycle repair shop, Shockoe Moto, in a leaky warehouse in Richmond, Virginia.  It had all the makings of a classic fish-out-of-water comedy, some hapless Woody Allen-type fumbling around in a garage, lighting grease fires and busting ass on dropped ball bearings.  

Matthew Crawford, from the New York Times.

This kind of life-story-as-book-proposal has become more and more common in the internet age (witness this very blog!), as digital media has made it easy to craft and then commodify one's experience (witness Julie and Julia, from blog to book to movie).  However, Crawford uses his life experience to frame a (somewhat shaggy) thesis about the value of work in today's society, as well as the split between so-called "knowledge work" and the trades.  He says, "This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as "knowledge work."  Perhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually." (p. 5)

Right off the bat, Crawford is hitting some of my own pet points.  I, too, have often felt that the work I do with my hands is more intellectually engaging than the "knowledge" work that I was trained to do in college.  Much of the work I did in school, or at architecture firms, was stripped of its fundamental creativity and unpredictability by dumbing-down design into a set of small, simple, discrete steps.  It had, to borrow Crawford's phrasing, reduced me to a clerk (of sorts).  As I've mentioned before, things like LEED and NCARB have painted the profession into a corner, forcing an unruly task to awkwardly fit into a quantifiable, bureaucratized system that can be measured, assessed, litigated, and paid for.  That said, architecture, and design in general, is one of the few "knowledge work" jobs that fuses these intellectual aspects of craft with difficult thinking about complex problems, whether buildings, websites, or furniture.  My experience at the Rural Studio was especially illustrative of these complex processes, as the idea of design becomes abstract when not leavened by practical necessity of building.

Because of this dual nature of design, I find Crawford's argument about the cleft between "knowledge" and "hand" work less compelling than his remarks on individual agency.  The recession has given rise to a new generation of DIYers, Etsy business owners, freelancers, and urban homesteaders, all trying to craft their way out of a hard economy.  However, "Frugality may only be a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers a deeper need: We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy." (p. 8)

However, in today's complex, service-and-technology-based economy, those "obscure forces" are often sitting in the corner office.  Modern management culture has become fuel for any number of pop-culture parodies, from "The Office", with the bumbling Michael Scott, to "Office Space", with the impenetrable Bill Lumbergh.  "Corporations portray themselves as results-based and performance-oriented.  But when there isn't anything material being produced, objective standards are hard to come by.  What is a manager to do?  He is encouraged to direct his attention to the states of minds of workers, and become a sort of therapist.  . . . consider the relationship between a machinist and his boss.  The machinist makes his part, then hands it to the boss . . . [who] either finds it within spec or doesn't. . . . Whatever the cause, the worker's failing is sitting on the bench, staring both parties in the face, and this object is likely to be the focal point of conversation." (pp. 126-27)  I had this experience, working in a firm, wherein I was part of a "team", management was "flat", and mistakes were floated around in a cloud of emails until collective responsibility had sufficiently diluted the blame without any single person feeling unduly burdened with the shame of failure.  On the job site, the level doesn't lie.  The square exists in an platonic world.  The engine runs or it doesn't.  Craftsmanship is a system of absolutes, where success or failure is right in front of you, not worked into a spreadsheet at your quarterly performance review. 

A similar dulling of our collective will to participate in our own lives has become more and more present in our technology.  Crawford's example is something that has also long frustrated and baffled me: automatic faucets.  "Consider the angry feeling that bubbles up in [a] person when, in a public bathroom, he finds himself waving his hands under the faucet, trying to elicit a few seconds of water from it in a futile rain dance of guessed-at mudras.  This man would like to know: Why should there not be a handle?  Instead he is asked to supplicate invisible powers.  It's true, some people fail to turn off a manual faucet.  With its blanket presumption of irresponsibility, the infrared faucet doesn't merely respond to this fact, it installs it . . . There is a kind of infantilization at work, and it offends the spirited personality." (p 56.)  

Dozens of other examples exists -- the smooth plastic covers over the engines of modern cars, foiling even the simplest of repairs; jumping up and down in front of the erratic automatic doors at the supermarket, trying to get them open; the self-checkout machine chastising you in a loud voice, please place items in the bagging area; the glitchy phone, sending duplicates of every text message, charging for every one.  Lest I veer too far into cranky old man-dom, let me, of course, confess that I am an active and avid user of all sorts of modern technologies.  However, should these sorts of meaningless abstractions of everyday tasks run unchecked, we will become mere passive observers of our own lives, enmeshed in a series of support systems that prevent us from actively participating in the world, atrophying mind and body.

Our future.
The first generation of the Wall-E hoverchair, recently invented by Honda.  Now, you never have to get up.
Towards the end of the book, Crawford gets a little loopy, drunk on the beauty of leaning into a deep curve on the Blue Ridge Parkway, throttle full out on a vintage bike.  The prose turns purple, but I knew the spirit of what he was saying.  The debates hashed out in the book -- should there be more vocational training in schools; are craftsman afforded enough respect in our society; what jobs are most frequently outsourced; how can we find agency in this world -- are all resolved for me by the material satisfaction that manifests in my hands, my work, and my life.  We make things, we fix things, we work with our hands in the hope of putting our imprint on the world, however fleeting.  It is the hope that someone else can touch our work, and, by extension, we can touch them.