IF THE DEFINITION of a craftsman, according to the social philosopher Richard Sennett, is someone who is “dedicated to good work for its own sake”, then in my own family I have known (or known of) at least two craftsmen of note (one of which, to be precise, is a craftswoman).
My namesake and grandfather, Pat Kane, who died before I was born, was a second-generation-Irish blacksmith, living and working in Coatbridge. I remember the Popeye-style tales of Mr. Kane unbending lampposts with his bare forearms: but I also remember accounts of his ability to turn out iron railings, kitchen implements, endless numbers of horseshoes. And we still have his beautifully-smoothed cobblers last, which steadied the shoe as the segs went into the heel. With the craft came social status: Pat was the first Catholic president of the local bowling club, and a relentless driver of his children onto, and up, the white-collar ladder. He was also, by all accounts, a holy terror when it came to dissent from his hammered-out template of family respectability and aspiration.
The second ‘crafter’ (yes, an ugly de-gen-dering of the word, which I won’t use again: but is the patriarchy of the standard usage any prettier?) is my mother. If anyone could be defined in her very being by her commitment to her chosen profession, it is Mary Kane: a community midwife for forty-odd years, now a mostly beatific but occasionally carnaptious 74 year-old. Another of Sennett’s definitions – that “craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself… [and] an aspiration for quality in what is done” – expresses her commitment to midwifery completely.
The Craftsman is, quite startlingly and almost convincingly, a book about the dignity of labour – or about the dignity that self-chosen labour might be able to recover, in an age which angsts about the purpose of work. But before we go on to explore its thesis, I have to specify one further link in my family chain – someone whose failure to find a craft identity immediately troubles Sennett’s hope that we can all find the craftsman within us.
My father, John Kane, hated his work, and loved his leisure. He hated the mountains of overtime he had to climb as a wages clerk in British Rail; but he loved the crooning he did at parties and weddings, the football he first played and then spectated, the pantheon of
American and Italian stars he consumed (and imitated) from movies and TV. Nothing could have convinced my Dad that his administrative churn of pay packets, sick notes and labyrinthine worksheets had any ‘dignity’ in it whatsoever. Indeed, when a computer landed on his desk to assist his calculations, he delightedly took the opportunity to be beached by a not-that-towering tidal wave of technology, and accepted early retirement at fifty-eight.
But I can hardly report that he was now a contented man; even in his leisurely days, his anger was often opaque, uncomfortable with the expressive egoism of his arty sons. I think I understood his frustrations. Though clearly talented as a singer and a footballer, and someone who practiced his crooning ‘hobby’ at every opportunity, John Kane’s environment – one of social conformism and family respectability – hardly encouraged him to transform his creative talents into an applied, steadily developed ‘craft’. Indeed, as I read The Craftsman’s paeans to the workshop and workplace as (at least potentially) the foundation for solid and uncorroded ‘character’, I felt angry on my Dad’s behalf. What he needed in his life was less talk about the virtues of ‘good work well done’, and a little more raggedy bohemianism and loose living, thank you very much. Maybe his true voice would then have been heard, at least once.
It may seem a liberty, perhaps even narcissistic, to bring one’s own psychodrama to bear on a work of social theory from a Professor of Sociology at the Lon-don School of Economics. But it’s a liberty that Sen-nett has always extended to himself, and to his prose’s benefit. Brought up in Chicago’s Cabrini projects in the forties by a bohemian social-worker mother, Sen-nett’s childhood was marked by a combination of radical politics and high-culture. He was a child prodigy as a cellist, whose career was cut short by a botched operation on a wrist (recently repaired). His turn to academia – drifting into Harvard to see if anything took his fancy – was as much therapeutic as it was vocational. When he first realised he could write easily on an electric typewriter, a recent Guardian interview tells, he could “still recall the joy of being able to do something expressive that wasn’t physically painful”.
Hold that biographical moment in your mind, and the titles of his long series of books – The Hidden Injuries Of Class, The Uses Of Disorder, The Fall Of Public Man, Flesh And Stone, The Conscience Of The Eye, The Corrosion Of Character, Respect – easily invite their own psycho-social explanation. This is a mind somewhat obsessed with the tension between the individualistic pursuit of a talent, and the social factors which either enable or disable that pursuit. Indeed one of his early books, The Fall Of Public Man, was a counter-blast against the counter-culture of the Sixties: its disrespect for scholarship, its unstructured politics, its narcissism and egoism. Sennett is an old-fashioned socialist in many ways, in the sense that he puts a higher value on the social, collective dimension of our lives together, and wants to claim that this dimension is where our nature and potentials will best flourish. But to me, there is always the ‘hidden injury’ of his own thwarted potential, vibrating away in the often beautiful and elegant layerings of his prose.
The Craftsman, a more theoretical sequel to his influential book Respect (which was badly misread by the prissy Blairites who took up its title) is his most rigorously composed probing of this injury to date. At one point, he talks about the craftsman embodying “the modern, perhaps unresolvable conflict between autonomy and authority”: the need to be a free, self-determined creator, and the equal need for that creativity to be measured against collectively-agreed standards of excellence. Sennett is happiest when he can identify scenes and moments in history where this conflict is held in perfect poise.
So alongside considerations of open-source computer programmers, Stradivari’s workshop and Wittgenstein’s Vienna house, we have two classical gods wrestling through the text, from beginning to end. One is the “evil beauty” Pandora, whose box of technical tricks seduces and unravels all who open it: the other is Hephaesteus, who built the palaces of the gods and invented the chariot, yet is marked by his club-foot. Sennett’s major intellectual claim is that these paired gods – both artificers (or ‘makars’ as we might say here), yet both deeply flawed as ideal types – indicate just how deep and enduring is our anxiety about the “man-made material objects” in our lives. The craftsmen who made these objects, Sennett believes, have suffered in status because we can’t decide if they’re Pandora or Hephaestus, producing dangerous beauty, or ugly utility. We may highly value the mercurial artist or the bold leader, but the craftsman’s practice represents a steady, incremental move towards wisdom and achievement. Craftsmanship is as useful a way to know the world – as good an epistemology, to use an old Scots world – as any other. Sennett does a lot of reading around the mind sciences, and convincingly shows that our very thought processes are rooted in the co-ordinations of hand and eye (for example, the way we ‘examine’ or ‘seize’ a problem).
In a very welcome chapter for this writer, he even explores how the playful natures we all share – our love of tactile exploring, the games and simulations we invent to make those objects come alive – is the very “thread of craft”. Rather than only a few having the ability to do “really good work”, the universality of play proves that many more of us might be able to seize that chance, given the right conditions. If Sennett is still feeding ideas into New Labour, then that might explain why Presbyter Brown’s government – in which work, any work, saves the soul – has put hundreds of millions of pounds into encouraging child’s play in parks and schools.
The heart of this book is its meticulous description of craft practice, which Sennett freely admits can’t really get near their subject in mere words. And when he draws the continuities – between Linux programmers self-directing their construction of a vast edifice of well-functioning code, and brick-makers steadily improving and aestheticizing their object over literally thousands of years, and musicians or scientists struggling with the limitations of their tools until they yield great beauty or efficacy – he points us to an important issue. For all the politicians’ invocations of “unleashing the talents”, do we really respect the child’s desire to build structures and objects in the world as much as we should?
Sennett invokes that long-standing favourite of modern Scottish educational practice, Howard Gardner, and his idea that multiple intelligences – including physical, musical and social intelligence – should be part of how we assess the potentials of a child. But it doesn’t strike me that for all the talk about ‘modern apprenticeships’ that we really have re-established a parity of status between the academic and the practical life-path – and this very division between head and hand, Sennett would say, is the core problem itself. In Scotland, we’re far from the “engineers’ republic” that Christopher Harvie (from his German experience) often imagines in his writings.
Sennett also has a general beef with modern capitalism: it unravels our character and consistency, by asking us to be flexible and endlessly ‘reskillable’ according to the fluctuations of the global marketplace. I wonder whether the dogged determination of the craftsman that he celebrates is a viable riposte to that world, or a sheltered retreat from it. (Though certainly any single, cringeworthy episode of The Apprentice – how ironically named that must be for Professor Sennett! – instantly justifies his scepticism about the worker that’s “ready for anything”).
It’s worth keeping an ear out for the teller as well as his tale. Sennett begins the book by recalling an encounter with his old teacher Hannah Arendt on the streets of New York in 1962, right in the middle of the Cuban Missile crisis. There on the sidewalk, Arendt informed him that the horrors of the bomb proved that you couldn’t trust engineers and scientists when left to their own devices: politics had to intervene with, indeed supervene over, those who crafted our technologies.
This book, Sennett claims, is a riposte to Arendt’s belief that mechanical, disciplined labour is itself without ethical content. Yet at the end of the book, he barely contests her point. The exultation of the majority of engineers in the Manhattan project (in Oppenheimer’s words, making a bomb was a “sweet” problem) overrode the objections of one of their number, Joseph Rotblat. Rotblat asked what the “minimum strength” of the nuclear device might be: he was accused of disruption, even disloyalty for his efforts.
Sennett adduces this as the kind of “craft ethics” we should be alert to; one that raises objections in the course of making. But is this the best that a craft ethic could do, in the face of its ultimate Pandora moment? Argue for somewhat less destruction, somewhat fewer thousand deaths, rather than – as Arendt would say – a political questioning of the entire lethal premise of the enterprise? In an age where military tech-gurus led us to believe that an Iraq war could be a forensic, computer-guided affair, a few weeks of laser-guided ‘shock-and-awe’, I reserve my right to put the craftsmen (or at least the scientists) in their place.
And as for patriarchal blacksmiths and incontrovertible midwifes, I stand with my dear departed father, and join him in his shameful ambiguity when facing the dignity of labour. The indignity of creativity was probably his preference. It’s certainly mine.
Richard Sennett Allen Lane, £25
pp304 ISBN 0713998733