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The Craftsman (part 5)

July 24, 2009

Next up, Sennett tackles the industrialization of craft, as mass production took the place of individual pieces and the knowledge formerly passed down from master to apprentice became codified, “a movement from hands-on knowledge to the dominant authority of explicit knowledge.” 

Sennett coins the phrase “mirror-tool” to describe “an implement that invites us to think about ourselves,” though “demands” might also be applicable.  As philosophical categories, the machines that mimic human labor are divided into “replicants” and “robots,” with a tip of the hat to Blade Runner.  A replicant can be a copy of a human or human part (Pris from Blade Runner, a Stepford Wife, a pacemaker), recognizably human even if not, whereas a robot is “ourselves enlarged,” a machine that “is stronger, works faster, and never tires.”  (Which could be said of the film’s replicants, but they do die, and so resemble us more than the giant disembodied arms in auto factories which replaced human labor.)  Replicants are non-threatening because they can’t replace us – the actions and achievements of Vaucanson’s 18th century mechanical flute player “could be measured by the standards of human music making,” whereas the same inventor’s weaving machine so far outstripped human hands in speed and quality that it displaced an entire class of craftsmen. 

He gives a good deal of attention to Diderot’s Encyclopedia, which might be called the first piece of technical writing.  The Encyclopedia simultaneously aided mechanization by codifying the methods by which things were done, launched the romance of the handmade and defied aristocratic concepts of “nobility” which depended on one’s maintaining a magnificently gentlemanly inertia.  Said Diderot:

We addressed ourselves to the most skilled workers in Paris and the kingdom.  We took the trouble to visit their workshops, to interrogate them, to write under dictation from them, to follow out their ideas, to define, to identify the terms peculiar to their profession.

Diderot’s challenge was that of any technical writer, to convert the tacit knowledge of craftsmen into the explicit knowledge that could be shared with any interested party.  “Among a thousand,” Diderot said, “one will be lucky to find a dozen who are capable of explaining the tools or machinery they use, and the things they produce with any clarity.”  Where words failed, the Encyclopedia made copious use of illustrations to show how the hands move in the labor, how things were turned and shaped and placed.  Moreover, the illustrations showed

[P]eople engaged sometimes in dull, sometimes in dangerous, sometimes in complicated labor; the expressions on all the faces tends to the same serenity.  About these plates, the historian Adriano Tilgher remarks on the “sense of peace and calm which flows from all well-regulated, disciplined work done with a quiet and contented mind.”  These illustrations appeal to the reader to enter into a realm in which contentment with ordinary things made well reigns.

Surprisingly, Sennett doesn’t reference Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work or his book Flow, which is the classic book on the satisfactions of good work. 

“’Enlightenment’ dawns as error decreases,” and Diderot made plenty of errors as he plunged into the work he described, since “there are machines so hard to describe and skills so elusive that…it has often been necessary to get hold of such machines, set them in operation, and lend one’s hand to the work.”  Diderot “dared to fail,” a concept that has become anathema to the Orderly Marchers of today, for whom any failure must be swept under the resume, lest a C in Macroeconomics doom them forever to the second tier of their profession, who when asked in interviews to name a personal flaw always crank out some bullshit like “I work too hard” or “I’m too dedicated” or some other hoo-hah.  Says Sennett,

Daring to fail evinces a certain strength; one is willing to test why things don’t or do work out, reckon limits on skill one can do nothing about.  In this light, learning by doing, so comforting a nostrum in progressive education, may in fact be a recipe for cruelty.  The craftsman’s workshop is indeed a cruel school if it activates our sense of inadequacy…The desire to do something well is a personal litmus test; inadequate personal performance hurts in a different way than inequalities of inherited social position or the externals of wealth:  it is about you.  Agency is all to the good, but actively pursuing good work and finding you can’t do it corrodes one’s sense of self.

The Orderly March discourages taking such risks, since the Treadmill of Accomplishment leaves a mark on your permanent record of every failure as well as every success, resulting in a “glitch in your transcript” that might as well be a Scarlet “A” in the eyes of the Transcriptarians. 

“Perfection” can be achieved by machines in a way men can’t imitate, and yet that need not make us throw up our hands and give up.  Sennett gives the example of the glassmakers of Venice and France, whose work could never duplicate the “perfectly flat pane” which a machine could roll out.  “The machine sets the terms of quality, raising the game to a standard the human hand and eye cannot achieve.”  But rather than surrendering to the machines (or smashing them), Sennett offers a third way:

The model embodied by a perfect machine suggests that the work can indeed be done flawlessly; if the glass roller is more “talented” than the human eye, then the career of window making ought, in all justice, to be the exclusive preserve of the machine.  But this line of thinking mistakes the purpose of a model. A model is a proposal rather than a command.  Its excellence can stimulate us, not to imitate, but to innovate.

For Sennett, the goal is “not to compete against the machine” but to have it “serve as a foil for another sort of labor that aims at a different kind of result,” one more individual and idiosyncratic.  We can never look like Brad Pitt, but that doesn’t stop us from going to the gym. 

But this seems to me a static state, in which the machine’s perfection is an abstraction in the face of which we can only whittle and polish our simple efforts.  But “the machine,” after all, is just a tool – it does what we tell it to, and no more.  The ideal is that, freed of the grind which retards intellectual progress, we can take the time and energy saved to move forward, to improve the craft, to build better machines, which in turn free more energy for craft.  No doubt you could dig up any number of bow-tied old literary cranks who would tell you how much “finer” The Work was when you had to peck it out on a manual typewriter, meditating on every comma, but the fact of the matter is that the manual typewriter wasted huge amounts of time and energy which we now have available to spend on the act of creation rather than on the endless labor of backspacing, X’ing out, whiting out, and then eventually retyping a “clean” final copy.  I started with a manual typewriter as a kid and have moved through every word processing system from mag card typewriter to DisplayWriter to WordStar and WordPerfect and Word, and I can guarantee you there is no profit to the world in terms of better thinking to be gained from turning back to the sticky clacking of metal type. 

I think Sennett misses this point, that the machine doesn’t replace craft so much as redefines it – the machine’s “perfect” result is the result of man’s perfect design and execution, the keyboard replaces the quill but the end result is still the action of man, not machine.  The system fails when it simply replaces craftsmen with machines, the wheels of commerce well-oiled by the blood of those simply crushed beneath them.  Throughout history, it’s been more cost-effective to toss people out than to retrain them, to give them over to the consolations of poverty, from gin to meth, and then punish them for it.  Retraining and re-educating is more expensive in the short run, and education undermines authority, giving people self-efficacy and a desire for autonomy, which is why those who depend on a massive class of stupids to keep them in power always cut the education budget first.  But as a general rule, give people who have already acquired a work ethic a new line of work, though some may “fail,” most will thrive.

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