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The Craftsman (part 7)

September 14, 2009

In part two, Sennett lays out the means by which we learn craftsmanship.  Whether you’re throwing a pot, designing a teapot or devising a plot, you’re using your hands – to shape, to draw, to type.  Our language reflects the centrality of our hands, when we say we need to “get a grip” on a problem, or talk about the “Hand of Fate” influencing outcomes, or “lend a hand” to solve a problem.  Tool-using animals (save for instance crows, who use their beaks in all kinds of clever ways) use a grip involving one or more limbs, be they squirrels cracking nuts or men wielding fire. 

What sets Man apart from the animals in this department is not just opposable thumbs, but “how to let go.”  The sculptor, the pianist, needs to not only strike just so, but also to “bounce” off the object struck; the batter needs to stop himself from going around on a ball outside the zone – the brute force required to crack a nut isn’t enough to get more sophisticated jobs done.  Moreover, we can alter our hands through practice, the dexterity required for surgery or stringed instruments can be “forced” into our bodies; a pianist with small hands can stretch them to overcome natural limits.  Sennett cites a surprising example:

The calluses developed by people who use their hands professionally constitute a particular case of localized touch.  In principle the thickened layer of skin should deaden touch:  in practice, the reverse occurs.  By protecting the nerve endings in the hand, the callus makes the act of probing less hesitant.  Although the physiology of this process is not yet well understood, the result is: the callus both sensitizes the hand to minute physical spaces and stimulates the sensation at the fingertips. We could imagine the callus doing the same thing for the hand as the zoom lens does for the camera.

“Prehension” occurs when “the body anticipates and acts in advance of sense data.”  The orchestra conductor moves just ahead of the beat, the batter just ahead of the ball (why Sennett uses a cricket reference instead of a baseball reference is unclear).  He also uses pilot Beryl Markham as an example: “In the days when pilots lacked much guidance from instruments, she flew through the African night by imagining that she had already made the lift or turn she was about to make.” 

I’m not sure these examples are quite right – each depends on the input received from other senses before the hand can act.  The conductor is playing the score in his head, the batter is watching the ball, the pilot is feeling the temperature and listening to the wind and watching the skies.  I’m blind in my right eye, and when I’m reading a book on the couch, I reach with my right hand for my glass of water without looking because, from thousands of experiences, I can rely on my hand to move to exactly where the glass is – but that’s because the glass is static, unlike a ball or a plane it’s not moving in a way I have to meet. 

Using the violin as an example (and the Suzuki Method as a poor learning method as it deemphasizes touch), Sennett says:

Technique develops, then, by a dialectic between the correct way to do something and the willingness to experiment through error.

Given the colored tapes on the Suzuki violin (or the colored buttons on a Guitar Hero controller), the hand has no room to learn through error – Push Here, the buttons say, whereas on a real guitar, no uniform error squeak is returned, but rather a different sound with each mistake, mistakes that can be interesting in and of themselves. 

At one time a few years ago, I was trying to learn the guitar with a few friends, and one in our group of four (not directly a friend of mine, nor would he become one) had been formally trained in music, and he couldn’t stand our self-taught ways.  “NO!” he would shout, as no doubt his teachers shouted at him.  “Play A.  A!!!” Well, I didn’t know the A string from my ass, because I hadn’t taken the Orderly March through the beginner’s repertoire book.  I’d started learning from tablature, which allows the budding musician to skip the entire “learn to read music” curriculum and just start playing, because “tabs” visually match dots on the page to the string on the guitar.  The rest of us were willing to experiment, to get the opening of “Come as You Are” right through trial and error, but this guy would stop playing a song any time he made a single error and start over, from the beginning.  (He had other irritating habits as well.  Before he’d play, he’d announce the song as if he was on a stool in a Greenwich Village cafe.  “This is a song by David Gray.  It’s called ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.’”  “Uh, _____, that’s a Soft Cell song.”  “No.  It is not.  Ahem.  This is a song by David Gray.")

Developing technique also depends on overcoming the brain’s tendency to favor one hand over the other.  “Hand coordination works poorly,” Sennett says, if we use an industrial model of learning: “proceeding from the part to the whole, perfecting the work of each part separately, then putting the parts together…Rather than the combined result of discrete, separate, individualized activities, coordination works much better if the two hands work together from the start.”


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