The Craftsman

‘The Craftsman’ by Richard Sennett; Allen Lane, 2008. 304pp

Reviewed by Martin Earnshaw |  April 2008

The roots of The Craftsman, the first book in a forthcoming three volume work, go deep into the belly of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Richard Sennett recalls a conversation he had with his old teacher Hannah Arendt about the relationship between material innovation and politics. The relevance of such a conversation at the time was obvious, as the development of nuclear weapons had opened up a Pandora’s Box of possibilities for destruction whose dangers seemed very real. Arendt felt the makers of things were not necessarily aware of the consequences of their actions, since it was up to the domain of politics, which lay outside the world of work, to decide how the fruits of labour were used. It was ultimately up to the public to decide how to handle the problem of nuclear weapons.

Sennett thinks this separation between the narrowly concerned worker and the engaged citizen is a false one. Like Arendt, he is concerned with the problem of Pandora’s Box, of the possibilities for destruction that come with technological development. But he finds it unsatisfactory simply to confront the public with the fact of problematic technologies after they have been created. For Sennett, ethical issues have to be addressed at the creative stage, not just at the point of use.

To some degree Sennett is articulating the anxieties of the present day. Although during the Cold War nuclear weapons may, in a technological sense, have been a genie out of a bottle; their use was still a matter for politics. Today, the problems associated with technology, such as global warming coming from industrial development, seem incidental to human purposes, and even beyond our control. Sennett is aware, however, that fear of Pandora can be paralysing, recasting technology as ‘the enemy rather than simply a risk’.

He argues that part of our uncertainty over technology comes from our estrangement from material culture. We tend to see material things as obscure ‘because most of us use things like computers and automobiles that we did not make and do not understand’. But to overcome our fear of technology, we must reinvent our relationship with it rather than retreat altogether. While it has long been argued that since the Greeks there has been a separation between the material and the more important non-material in Western culture, Sennett proposes our attitude towards the material realm itself is more complicated. As well as the alluring Pandora, the other Greek god of the material was Hephaestus: the clubfooted blacksmith of the gods, plodding and dependable.

Hephaestus represents ambiguity about the material as much as Pandora. He may be indispensable, but the fact the Greeks decided to give him a clubfoot attests to the lower status of craftsmen in Greek eyes. Today, there is a similar tendency to consider a craftsman to be an unthinking labourer with fudgy fingers. Craft is devalued when compared to art. Sennett argues this is a somewhat hackneyed view, since craftsmanship can encompass the computer programmer, the lab scientist and the musician. What defines craft is the hands-on skill acquired over time to practice a task to perfection.

Sennett is keen to challenge the idea that craft is something done with one’s hands while thinking is done with the brain. Instead, long hours of practice create a fusion between the hand and the brain in the form of ‘tacit knowledge’. This is not communicated in books but is an essential part of any kind of craftsmanship. Further, long hours of devotion to a particular task does not mean craftsmanship is asocial: unlike the common understanding of art, which primarily emphasises the individuality of the artist, craft knowledge is a form of social capital passed on to others. This found perfect expression in medieval craft guilds with their close relationships between masters and apprentices.

These types of relationships were idealised by romantics like John Ruskin, who saw mechanisation as a mortal threat to craftsmanship and who proposed turning our backs on modernity. Ruskin epitomises the common view of the old world craftsman doomed by the onward march of progress, but as Sennet notes in The Craftsman, during the Enlightenment radical thinkers had too confronted the problem of the machine, but had seen its potential to improve skilled labour. By the 19th century, however, the industrial system had become sufficiently mechanised to make this seemingly impossible.

Sennett, however, believes that ‘working with machines rather than fighting’ remains ‘the radical emancipatory challenge’ today. Craftsmanship still exists, though is challenged by contemporary technical and managerial practices. The technical threat to craftsmanship does not lie in machines straightforwardly replacing men, but in more subtle domains. For example, Computer Aided Design (CAD) is a useful tool for architects, but for all its applications, cannot replace an architect personally surveying, drawing a site and getting a feel for what he or she is designing. The danger here is becoming dependent on the machine, a problem that may afflict students who grow up using this software. However, it is not a dependence that is absolutely necessary, Sennett cites a MIT lecturer who berates his students who rely on their computers to supply the answers.

The Craftsman also deals with a tension within contemporary capitalism between doing a job well in measurable way, and really doing a job well. The common measure, of course, is time. Capitalism requires time efficiency, whereas doing a craft job takes a long as it takes. But it takes other forms too. The quantitative managerial ethos of Britain’s NHS, for example, tends to devalue the tacit knowledge of doctors and nurses. The value of a doctor’s skill lies in their accumulated experience, which means a good doctor should be able to read a patient’s condition beyond what they were taught. Targets and league performance tables simply cannot capture this measure of quality and are indeed at odds with it.

Sennett does see the ethic of craftsmanship flourishing in certain sectors of the economy, however. He compares Open Source software systems such as Linux to medieval craft guilds. Anybody can contribute to open source, and unlike commercial organisations, contributors are passionate about doing a job for its own sake. In open software, there is often a relationship between problem sharing and problem finding, as one problem is solved another is posed, facilitating creativeness.

Despite this admiration for the creative nature of craftsmanship, Sennett is suspicious of a society like ours which so often pays lip-service to creativity. He notes that though organisations strive to be creative, the cut-throat nature of modern capitalism means employees horde knowledge and so communication is stalled. He dislikes the contemporary focus on ‘talent’, noting that in craft ability only comes through practice. Indeed, Sennett’s championing of craftsmanship is also in part a critique of the alienation engendered by contemporary capitalism, though he is vague on the details of how craftsmanship presents a meaningful challenge. In some quarters, such as Open Source software, there maybe potential for the craftman’s ethos to flourish, but to assume this is a straightforward solution makes the commonplace mistake of looking to the IT sector to solve society’s problems.

Sennett is certainly right to defend expertise: health, education as well as architecture are subject to debilitating external interference. And in his critique of Arendt, he notes that an ethic of craftsmanship would allow problems to be addressed before they presented themselves to the public domain. Since this is a three volume work, he doesn’t discuss ethics very much at this stage, but on the face of it, this is a problematic proposition.

Sennett’s most convincing defence of craftsmanship is in the way it facilitates creativity. Undoubtedly, scientists and technicians do consider ethical issues when working, but ‘ethics’ today is more likely to be a code for stifling creativity. In architecture, for example, thinking ethically means answering the demand to be ‘sustainable’, that is to lower one’s horizons to a checklist of extraneous concerns.

While Arendt’s dismissal of the bench in favour of the public realm may seem narrow, it did express a faith that the public can deal with problematic technologies like the atom bomb, and it allows the specialist to get on with their job without outside interference. Sennett does impress on us that he is not a Luddite, and tries to repudiate paralysing fears. His implied solution is for the craftsman to be smarter at his/her craft. The trouble is that ethics cannot be separated from the fearful climate of our times. Some ethical scientist might come up with a clean fuel to solve our energy problems, but it is more likely to mean the importation of a myriad of worries about nanotechnology and stem cells, and that cannot be good for a scientist’s craft.

Buy Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman here


Author: AlastairDonald

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