My Craft Universe

James Krenov

Many of us want to know not only what is being done here and there, but also how it relates to certain aesthetics and sensitivity, what some regard as fixed points in our craft universe [emphasis mine]. There are, and should be, measures by which we can honestly get our bearings. Some of us who write about crafts are not pausing to include these points of orientation along with our reportage, human interest stories, and awed attention to the eccentric aspect of woodworking. We are not doing enough for those who would excel anonymously or merely within a small circle. We don’t seem to know where these people are and what they need in the way of help and encouragement. Ordinary professional and craft information is only part of what they need. The rest is as yet rather vague but it consists of aesthetics, the integrity of material weighed against various methods— judged not with hair-splitting exactness, but in relationship to skill, intuition, and reverence for the life that is in the wood.

There is too little constructive evaluation. After the artiness has been aired, the exposition of clearcut rights and wrongs terminated, we should still have a lot to talk about, and share. (11)

James Krenov, The Impractical Cabinetmaker (1979)

I’ve been making photographs for about 35 years now, and when I first encountered Aristotle’s classification of rhetoric as a techné (about ten years ago or so) I immediately started drawing parallels between the two. It’s hard not to overlay what you feel like you know over the top of what you would like to know. Rhetoric, in the Aristotelian sense of being able to “see” the available means of persuasion in any situation is more than metaphorically connected with “art” — it is “art” in a quite specific sense. Although techné is usually translated as “art”, it is closer to craft. Casting aside the tiresome question whether photography is an “art,” the craft of photography (chemical or digital) is undeniable.

Woodworking is certainly one of the ur-crafts (arché technai). It is a new world for me to consider. Therefore, I cannot stop overlaying Krenov’s pedagogical imperatives on both rhetorical and photographic education. Many writing teachers stress correctness above all else, marking with enthusiasm the most trivial of grammatical or syntactical errors. I always thought of myself as a rhetoric teacher, not a writing teacher: historically, grammar is a completely different subject and it annoys me that “writing” tends to conflate the two. Writing education that starves out rhetoric for the sake of cold correctness serves nothing but the inflation of the teachers’ ego. Similarly, in arts education there can be a sort of smug emphasis on learning to identify “art” and its characteristics as a product separate from its procedures: a rating game akin to dick-measuring. As Chuck Close says (loosely paraphrased), once you’ve seen some art it’s pretty easy to go about making something that looks like art. Similarly, students of rhetoric have a tendency to compose documents that look like rhetoric, filled with specious arguments and flourishes that cloud arguments like dandelion fluff.

Krenov’s suggestion that once basic correctness and “artiness” are addressed the “relationship to skill, intuition, and reverence for the life that is in the wood” leaves an ample realm for discussion that seems deceptively metaphysic. I prefer to look at it in a more literal, physical sense. There are resonances of craft of woodworking that can be easily overlaid to other technai. There are also shared problems. As Krenov suggests, beyond “professional and craft information” the territory is vague; it would be easy to argue that “human interest stories” have no relevance to woodworking, photography, or rhetoric when they are conceived as craft (as opposed to art).

In assigning rhetoric the craft of “seeing” the available means of persuasion in a given situation rather than the ability to persuade itself, Aristotle makes all alternatives in a given situation proper material for consideration. This might be misconstrued as constituting rhetoric from/about everything, so it seems fitting that the first book of Aristotle’s Rhetoric contains a long discussion regarding “speaking outside the subject.”1 The “matter” of rhetoric is situational. Photography, at least in the variant that I have myself practiced, is similarly dependent on what is given by the world in a specific place and time. Any “craft universe” is necessarily a subset of the actual universe, limited to experiences with some degree of presence to the practitioner and their subjective concerns. By definition, these are matters of human interest— not as warm and fuzzy subjectivities, but rather (following Krenov) as “fixed points” whereby the craftsman can locate themselves.

The first problem in mapping the subject (either photography, rhetoric, or woodworking) is finding acceptable definitions demarcating the universe they occupy/participate in. Proclamations that “photography is dead”, for example, only ring true if you class photography within a single technology circumscribed within a narrow historical moment. For example, despite its resurrections, the daguerreotype is for most purposes dead. Silver prints are clearly an endangered species as well. However, these (in my mind) are forms of photography, not photography itself. Patrick Maynard sidesteps this problem by labeling photography as a group of technologies for marking surfaces— rather than the end products or abilities engendered by those technologies.2 Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric takes a different path. Rhetoric is not a technology of persuasion, but rather an ability to see the means of persuasion.

Definitions are slippery, and careful choice of terms is imperative. To step back for a moment to the definition of techné as a general field, it is helpful to note some points of evolution. My easiest and most precise recourse regarding exposition of Aristotle’s conception of techné is simply to quote Joseph Dunne:

In E.N. 6, techne is defined as a hexis meta logou poiētikē, a “reasoned state of capacity to make.” It is thus quite straightforwardly linked to making (poiesis), i.e., the generation of things whose source (archē) is in the producer and not in the product.” (Such things [poiēta], then, are different from natural things [phusika], which have the source of their generation in themselves, and from necessary things—the objects of sophia—which are ungenerated.) This efficent causality of the maker is an element in a process in which other factors are causally at play: the material (hulē), which gives the maker something to work on and gives the product the solidarity and durability to exist as an artefact in the world; the form (eidos), which is realized in the material and gives the finished product its specific character; and the end (telos) of the making which may be looked on either as the realized form itself or, beyond that, as the use it serves in people’s lives.

When the maker is able to bring these causal forces together under his rational direction he may be said to possess the relevant techne.—e.g., to building in the relation to making houses or of cobbling in relation to the making of shoes. Techne is not itself a useful thing but rather a generative source (archē) of useful things, a habitual ability (dunamis) of the maker through which he can reliably produce and reproduce them. (248)

Back to the Rough Ground (1993)

Tiptoeing gingerly around the issues of formal cause (eidios), efficient cause (hothen) and final cause (telos), what strikes me most is Krenov’s insistence on “reverence for the life that is in the wood,” the material cause (hulê) of woodworking. “Hulê” literally means timber or wood. In the most delicious convergence, Aristotle’s terminological choice for discussions of “material cause” is lifted straight from woodworking. Aristotelean material causality doesn’t refer to cause as in cause and effect but more fundamentally and arcanely: “what is it made of”?  What this provokes for me is a seemingly innocent question: What would the “wood” [matter] of rhetoric or photography be?

An elegant solution springs to mind in the case of photography: photography is “made of” light. Whether pixels on a screen or dye or silver on paper, light is the hulê (material cause) of photographic images. Light resides in its name, just as “wood” is the first particle in the compound “woodworking.” This makes for an interesting distinction between the two: the material of woodworking is (or arguably was) alive; light, obviously, is not.

I remember vividly a student wandering through the gallery at Bakersfield College where I was hanging an exhibition of my infrared bar photographs (Invisible Light) complaining “I just don’t hear the music.” I was puzzled; music is always alive but I never claimed that my photographs were alive. It seemed to me to be a category mistake: Alive? That’s impossible! I just don’t think it is productive to look for “life” in a photograph. Photographs may observed in life, but they are not of it. To speak of the “life in a photograph” is speaking outside of the subject. It’s been decades since that happened, and thinking through the material of photography clarifies the distinction considerably.

I do not mean to imply that photographs can not be evocative; far from it. It’s simply that what photographs can evoke are experiences of durable form residing in reproductions of space or texture. Form, and the spirit contained within it, are more complex. “Life” (as a proposition) is a missing element that must be supplied by the viewer; one cannot fault the photographer (or sculptor) for not animating the inanimate. Even if this were possible, the creation would be a soulless golem.

In rhetorical terms, photographs can be enthymatic, offering propositions of form and space illuminated by light. Only a viewer can supply any proposition of life. As Krenov asserts, wood is different. It grows and shrinks and warps and checks as the cells of its durable form surrender to entropy. Wood is alive, and does not require the intervention of an interpreter to supply life. Intuition, however, comes into play in determining the relationship between material and form and their suitability to purpose. In this, I think there is some parallel to photographic work— understanding the relationship of light to form is a hard won skill.

As this consideration should make clear, knowing the hulê (material cause) of something is necessary but not sufficient to defining the thing itself. Things with a durable physical presence are fairly easy to classify by hulê, but difficulty is encountered when the forms of a technai are compound or complex. In searching for the hulê of rhetoric, Alan Gross proposes that hulê can be classified as being composed of sensible matter, states of sensible matter, or intelligible matter.3 This excessively complicates determining the hulê of rhetoric— which Gross postulates without argument as a compound of intelligible matter, “thoughts and ideas” and sensible matter created by the vocalic apparatus and received by an aural apparatus (32). This conflates the efficient cause (hothen), which seems to me to be the thoughts and ideas of the speaker, with the formal cause (eidios) of their expression in speech to define their hulê.4

With much reflection in the past four days that I’ve been writing this, I believe that the most fitting hulê for rhetoric is breath. As such, it is indeed a manifestation of life. Without life, there is no persuasion or situation in need of it. As such, it seems natural to me to apply Krenov’s dictum and assert that it is desirable to discuss the life that comes from the breath of rhetoric.

These reflection on materials leads me deeper into these three crafts I love. The most exciting development in my thinking is discovering that both rhetoric and photography survive through ventriloquism because both are designed for reproduction. Reproduction is not a necessary state for woodworking, it is purely optional. While some forms of photography are not reproducible (monoprints and daguerreotypes), most are by design. For rhetoric, from rhapsodes to printing it has been by defined by its reproductions.

The light in which we view photographs as objects or on screens is not the same light which fell on the original scene, and the breath which reanimates a book from years or centuries past, or a recorded speech, is not the same breath that left the body of the speaker. But both can offer intimations of life, completed only in the reception of their products. 

In these examples though, only wood contains life.

1see Arthur E. Walzer, “Aristotle on Speaking ‘Outside the Subject’: The Special Topics and Rhetorical Forums” in Rereading Aristotle’s Rhetoric (2000)
Patrick Mayard, Thinking through Photography: The Engine of Visualization (1997)
3Alan Gross, “What Aristotle Meant by Rhetoric in Rereading Aristotle’s Rhetoric (2000)
4At some point, this all becomes mind-numbingly complex for a non-classical scholar like me. Gross defines the hothen (efficient cause) of rhetoric as a dunamis and hexis (an ability and habit); he also claims that dunamis and hexis are the psychological processes necessary to understanding a techné, making the definitions invoked essentially circular— it is defined by what it is? Uh, yeah. I fall back on my limited understanding of efficient cause as cause in the cause and effect sense. Having thoughts and ideas causes their expression in rhetoric, which generally takes the form of speech.