Shopcraft as Polemic

Breaking back into serious reading after the travails of the summer came in the form of a popular polemic, Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. I saw the author, Matthew B. Crawford, on the Leno show one evening and talked to Krista about it. She mistakenly thought that I wanted to read his book so she ordered it. [She also informs me that a friend had read the book and said it was awesome and wanted to read it herself.] I read it, and its sloppiness motivated me to pick up the habit of reading again and look for something good. Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own was the next book I read, and it made me get over just how shallow Crawford was in comparison. It’s not that the Crawford book was that bad, it’s just that the logic underpinning it seems hopelessly flawed. Hopefully, I’ll return to talk about Pollan’s book later, because it genuinely excited me—but for now I want to record some notes about Shop Class as Soulcraft.

Crawford was made for Leno, because both of them are motorcycle fanatics. There is a long tradition of biker-philosophers tracing back to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I hoped that this new book might extend/develop that line of thought, but it deliberately avoids the mysticism associated with most of the “craftsman” literature. He wants to deal with the more prosaic side of working in the trades.

Declaring in the introduction that “manual competence” is separable from “craftsmanship,” Crawford tries to carve an new niche for himself, failing in my estimation due to his insistence on treating the book as “a cultural polemic.” His critique of modern society is mostly hollow and poorly thought out, though he raises interesting distinctions about the nature of work. Following Marx without citing him, Crawford declares that “Work is meaningful because it is genuinely useful” (6). This formulation is not controversial, but when he extends it declaring that productive work is the foundation of all prosperity, while meta-work that traffics in “the surplus skimmed from other people’s work” he conveniently ignores thousands of years of human history. Shipping, not manufacturing, is the backbone of the global economy.

I can wholeheartedly agree with Crawford’s formulation that the territories of “meaningful work” and “self-reliance” are tied to a struggle for individual agency (emphasis his) at the center of modern life. What I cannot abide by, though, is his constant conflation of economic models and cultural norms. “Work,” for me at least, is not reducible to wages, compensation, or skimming. His disdain for “knowledge work” is palpable, and his first chapter is dedicated to the rise (and eclipse) of shop class, formulated as its competition.

Crawford’s move here is an interesting one—to explore pedagogical history as proper ground for seismic shifts in the culture. He offers a brief overview of the “Arts and Crafts” tradition and its mixed messages, as well as his own training (mostly outside school) as a mechanic and tradesman. He shines when offering personal reflections, but the historical reflection is shallow. Primarily, he builds from recent criticism several planks for his platform: manual trades require a substantial level of cognitive ability and offer “psychic rewards.”

The second chapter takes on the assembly line and recent declarations of the “creative class,” equating the low wages of the supposedly “creative” as damnation. He offers a staid and long discarded formulation: “creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice” (51). Not many people would agree with that—the wedge driven between creativity and skill in the last hundred years will take more work to dismantle. The systematic deskilling of arts education is legendary. But Crawford draws an interesting connection between “submission” (loss of freedom) and true creativity compared with the absolute freedom of consumption. The pattern repeats throughout the book—a poor level of scholarship (common in popular literature) followed by sweeping unsupported generalities and within them, a grain of useful observation. I do not have the time to fisk the book entirely, but it was maddening.

The real take away for me was the distinction he offered between repair work and the activity of making. To design/build something is not the same thing as repairing and maintaining it. To repair other people’s systems requires a different sort of understanding—a different sort of cognitive work that is rapidly disappearing. This sort of work is based on submission to the object/function at hand. I wanted more careful distinctions, and fewer ill-informed rants on history and contemporary culture. Craftsman literature generally offers more useful material per inch than cultural polemics. This book did prompt me to return to the literature of craft.