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The Craftsman (part 6)

September 4, 2009

Sennett uses Victorian writer John Ruskin to highlight the first stirrings of what we might call the “Industrial Counterrevolution” – coming of age as a child of privilege in the 1850s and 60s, Ruskin saw the dark side of mass production, “the uniform perfection of machined goods issuing no sympathetic invitation, no personal response.”  Ruskin’s impractical solution was to attempt to turn the clock back, romanticizing the labor-intensive Gothic cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts.  Only an aesthete with little sense of the value to civilization of certain forms of mass production could declaim as Ruskin did, “I want to explode printing; and gunpowder – the two great curses of the age – I begin to think that abominable art of printing is the roof of all mischief – it makes people used to have everything of the same shape.”  Ruskin helped found a Working Man’s College, but it’s hard to imagine how well such colleges would have thrived with all its students sharing a single sheepskin text.  Ruskin did practice what he preached, initiating the line of scions of wealth and entitlement, from himself through Wittgenstein to the neo-hippies of today, who forsook comfortably lazy indoor lives to get their hands dirty in quarries or farms or other forms of manual labor.

All the same, Ruskin’s call to remember the value of the handmade irregular over the machined and regular holds up.  Moreover, the creator of the irregular is always finding and solving problems, forced each time to consider new ways of doing things, whereas the assembly line establishes a way of doing things that becomes, through institutional politics, economics, and the weight of inertia increasingly hard to change.

Sennett also places in this time frame a transition in musical performance, with the “virtuoso” becoming the machine that replaces the ordinary performer, “sheer finger dexterity” and precision becoming the hallmark of art as much as it had become in commerce.  (Today’s blistering guitar solo is the modern equivalent, though with the odd single exception of Linux, Sennett seems content to place all his examples in the realms of the past.)  In contemporary terms, I’d think of pianists Glenn Gould and Alfred Brendel as artists in line with Sennett’s/Ruskin’s credo of craftsmanship, the little hums and murmurs in their recordings, the fuzzy pre-digital sound, small prices to pay for the unique beauty of their interpretations.

In the last chapter of part 1, Sennett addresses “Material Consciousness,” which Sennett summarizes as, “We become particularly interested in the things we can change.”  This consciousness breaks out into three parts – metamorphosis, or the process by which we convert one thing to another (a stick into an arrow, a stone into a sculpture); “presence,” or the signature, visible or not, a maker leaves on his work; and anthropomorphosis, the assignment of qualities to things such as “she’s a beauty” to a car or, in Sennett’s odd analogy, “using words like modest or sympathetic to describe finishing details on a cabinet.”  Which, I suppose, is along the lines of calling a wine “unpretentious,” a rather pretentious statement in itself.

Metamorphosis occurs both in the materials being formed and the methods used to form them, as in Sennett’s description of evolutions in pottery technique.  It’s impossible for us to deduce how or why the first potter to use a wheel came up with the idea, or how much or little resistance the other potters put up before converting, but from what we know about humans and fear of change in general we can imagine it took a while.  I wish I could recall enough of the exact words to search for the quote, but I remember someone once saying that the person who first brought Man fire was probably burned at the stake with it, or some such.  Change, in ancient times, was bad – before engineering, people thought differently about the nature of it:

Unlike the modern science of evolution, in which the arrow of change moves toward ever-increasing complexity, for these ancients, all natural processes seem to move toward entropy; the decay of form back into its simplest four elements, water to water, clay to clay, from which primal state new combinations, new metamorphoses would occur.

Plato created the idea of “forms” to defy this decay – the concepts that composed the perfect vase endured forever even though the vase did not.  But the idea is to create things that are “built to last,” and only through the failures inevitable in decay can we re-engineer our techniques to postpone that decay a little longer in each successive iteration of the creation.  What Sennett calls “domain shifts” are the building blocks of technical evolution, as it slowly dawns on that first someone that the use of a technique in one purpose can be transferred to another – the warp and woof of cloth brings about the mortise-and-tenon joint in shipbuilding which brings about the concept of laying out streets in grids.  (Or, you could just think of the ape in 2001 who realizes, thanks to the Monolith, that bones are good for killing other critters.)  Barring alien intervention, however, the early adopter often has traditionally had a long slog ahead of him before the others catch on to the idea.

“Presence” is the literal mark of craftsmanship, whether as clear as a maker’s mark stamped on a brick or the unique style which itself identifies the maker (such as a Tiffany lamp).  In his discussion of the slaves who built the legacy of Rome, we see how the divide grew between those who made things, and those who commanded the making thereof – the roots of the aristocratic contempt for labor reaching back to the days when labor was what slaves did, which made it inherently demeaning. 

The “anthropomorphosis” occurs when we ascribe our own feelings to the source of the prompts of those feelings, the “honest brickwork” of cozy English houses, covered in vines, being set in opposition to the “dignified” but false stucco used by the rich to cover up the brick and imitate marble so the “dignified” occupants (themselves probably not more than a generation removed from “commerce” or other disdainfully hands-on activities) could pretend to be Noble Romans.  But of course there is as much craftsmanship in creating trompe l’oleil marble, “wild” English gardens, and grottos chockablock with decaying “ruins” as there is in the unadorned but well-built structures.

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