Talking Shop

9780813931210You won’t find Talking Shop on many woodworker’s “must read” lists. I started it a while ago and put it aside, once I got the gist of it’s thesis. I was enjoying it, but it just didn’t seem relevant to the other craft reading I was doing until now. I thought of it soon after I finished Tarule’s book, because like another book I’ve read recently, it sort of degenerated into a sort of idolatry and presumption rather than making significant observations about craft.

It was a bit odd to think of Talking Shop while contemplating craft, because it’s really more about rhetoric than craft. But then it was the rhetoric of The Artisan of Ipswich that galled me more than real information about craft. From Talking Shop‘s jacket blurb:

“By arguing that what matters culturally, finally, is the representation of craft, the idea of craft, rather than the objects, Betjemann takes the whole subject of craft and stands it on its head. In doing so, he makes a substantial contribution to the cultural history of the United States, changing our way of thinking about craft by broadening its meaning considerably.”—Miles Orvell, Temple University, author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940

I’m quite familiar with Orvell from my studies in New Deal photography. He always irritated me too, because his primary focus was representation rather than documentary; to read most of the postmodern documentary critics the fact that people were suffering and well meaning people were trying to alleviate it was secondary to the oppressive nature of representing anything at all. This is uniquely unhelpful, and I suppose I was afraid that Betejemann’s book would be unhelpful as well. But it was really interesting to me at first, because it began with a long interrogation of Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography.

Cellini’s autobiography was on my nightstand for years, when I was photographing in nightclubs. I would come home and read it to unwind before I slept, I thought it was a real hoot. Betjemann’s use of it as a sort of 19th century lightning rod for descriptions of craft is apt. Cellini boasts endlessly about what a great craftsman he is, but he never really gets around to describing much about it. Instead, he’s too busy swashbuckling about having adventures and claiming that everyone else’s methods are inferior to his. What his method is, is of course ambiguous. Not many of his artistic works have survived, but instead his autobiography looms large as a sort of paradigm for the life of an artist.

Which is precisely Betjemann’s point. Craft remains outside, constructing a sort of platonic ideal which simply can’t be represented in the text except as a shadow doppelganger of a life fully lived. It’s the paradigm for modern DIY as well– grow your own tomato, make your own bacon, mill your own flour, bake the bread and make the condiments to produce your own BLT and only then will you be the consummate craftsman. The craftsman is involved, if not proficient, in everything.

I suppose Tarule’s book, as well as many others, follow a sort of Cellini model in resurrecting long dead craftsman. In a sense, the internet has created armies of Cellinis. Woodworking forums are filled with tool talk vs. object talk at the ratio of at least 100:1, not to mention digressions into cooking and other crafts at a fairly steady pace. Not much need to talk about the craft itself, because after all you just have to do it rather than represent it. To his credit, Tarule does talk about a single specific object and the construction of it— it is nothing if not object oriented and in that sense deviates from the Cellini model. It’s discussions of tools are only present when they have a direct impact on the object at hand. But hanging over it like a spectre is a sort of idolatry that is all too common. It was just the tone of certainty, built into a narrative of the consummate craftsman at work.

I’m really feeling chafed by this just now. I can’t agree with Orvell that removing the discourse from its context of the objects of craft is a great breakthrough. I think it’s useful in order to see how these discussions are so often derailed in various ways, and for that reason I’m now reading Talking Shop. The objects, and their places in our lives will always be more important than the things we say about them, just as documentary is more useful as a window rather than simply a fiction constructed about people outside our immediate sphere for political reasons.

Of course the window of documentary distorts, just as the narrative we construct about objects distorts.

There is much more to say, of course. But I wanted to get this off my chest. My primary concern isn’t really to classify things as good books or bad books, but rather to cross-connect some significant ideas.

I suppose it goes back to discovering David Pye’s Nature and Art of Workmanship. Pye takes Ruskin to task for idolizing “handwork” without developing a coherent theory of what handwork was. Betjemann’s book begins by examining the spread of Cellini’s “hand” as an object of admiration, and as such feeds into the Arts and Crafts movement. There are some important connections here, but with major differences in emphasis.

Betjemann’s task was to examine language, while Pye was examining workmanship. It really bothers me that the discussion started by Pye seems to have just been derailed and stagnated, buried by the weight of language. Contemporary writers on craft haven’t made much headway into theories of work and workmanship. More worrisome is that they really don’t appear interested in that at all, and would rather perpetuate a pantheon of artistic swashbuckling heroes.

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