Silent Objects

I can’t remember a time that I went this long without writing. I’ve become quite disenchanted with all sorts of symbolic activities, and become pretty much object-oriented. I have no idea what that means philosophically, what I really mean is that I have become far more interested in things instead of words/images/representations of things.

The unnarrated life goes on. I’ve been working with wood, and reading the loose canon of books associated with woodworking. Yesterday, it dawned on me what my problem with most of these works is: the fit between symbolic ideologies and the pragmatic realities of applying tools to objects is rough at best, non-existent at worst. The latest example is the summoning of anarchy to support a skeptical approach to big business (while promoting boutique, petit-bourgeois capitalism) in the name of working wood. Huh?

The Anarchist’s Toolchest contains a lot of interesting information but is ultimately a hypocritical buyer’s guide. If the ideological component (which is pretty much biographical rather than theoretic) were removed, the book would not suffer in the slightest. The cult of personality looms large in woodworking, though, and ideologies as a component of this are always fair game and fodder for the machinery surrounding them. I like Schwarz’s writing style, and will no doubt continue to read most of what he generates although most of what he creates could be classed as heat with little light. It reads like it is written by a tool reviewer, not a woodworker. I suppose, due to the title, I was looking for more philosophy and less consumerism. 

There are lots of historical precedents for this sort of capitalism cloaked in radical ideology. The grandaddy of it all in the U.S.A. is of course Gustav Stickley, who I had never even heard of until I moved into his stomping ground. Following William Morris, Stickley seems to mash-up guilded age capitalism with golden age feudalism. The Arts and Crafts philosophy just doesn’t quite gel with the wonderful objects that it produces, and its socialist/utopian underpinnings come off about as useless as anarchist capitalism (or, perhaps more accurately, libertarianism). Just what has any of this to do with furniture or working wood? While it is true that theory generally informs practice, it does not survive it. Theory pretty much comes up short every time. It is without doubt a trace component rather than the main event of material practices.

David Pye suggested that the failure of the Arts and Crafts Movement ™ was due to the lack of a coherent theory of workmanship. It was based more in connoisseurship rather craft (techné). The modern neotraditionalist woodworkers, as far as I can see, victims of exactly the same “theory” of production. For example, the worst possible move for a new woodworker would be to buy inexpensive planes sourced from India. It would be much better to troll flea markets for pre-WWII tools and nurse them back to health, or by expensive boutique tools. Huh? A quick google search will uncover rant after rant against cheap tools, especially Indian ones. Scratch the surface of any collection of woodworkers and you’ll uncover a lot of eagles, American flags, veterans, and survivalists. Of course you’ll also find a lot of vegan nature hippies, punk-rock DIY enthusiasts, etc.— in short, radical ideologies of every stripe The curious thing is that they all build tables, boxes, bookcases, etc. It would be impossible to recover the trace components of their ideologies from their works. Often, I think they delude themselves into thinking so, but it all seems like so much symbolic masturbation to me.

I think what has obsessed me most these past two months is that there is a truth in materials, particularly wood, and I’m anxious to learn it. There is something about a nicely made useful object that brings joy to people. The truth, I think, isn’t in the tools or “listening” to them as Schwartz argues. In his universe, wood is just “stuff” and the tools bring the glory. Other writers like James Krenov or Nakashima go to the opposite extreme, arguing for example that kiln-dried wood is dead compared to green or air dried wood, creating a connoisseurship of wood. Neither wood nor tools speak to me. Nicely made objects, however, do impart feelings that I would not have without them.

I’m pretty sure that the answers are more closely tied to the work itself rather than the mountains of secondary literature. I keep working, and occasionally reading, but I don’t think I have much to contribute to the pile— at least not any ideologies— I’m rather sick of them.

2 thoughts on “Silent Objects”

  1. I was just wondering what you’ve been making. This kind of post makes me want a workshop.
    During a college summer, I answered a help wanted ad for this crazy old guy who worked with metal. He was also independently wealthy through some smart investing, and some investment program was on television all day. Total hoot of a guy, but he loved welding and building metal things. It was during this experience that I realized that I appreciated wood more, but what really stuck was that the way this guy _thought_ with metal was exactly how I wanted to be able to think with wood. It was the work that impressed me, the relationship, not the material, and definitely not this particular guy’s racist views. I wonder if the obsession (and the ideological flair) is natural once you find the medium where your work makes sense.

  2. I’ve got a variety of things in the works, Greg. Mostly I’m stuck with learning to operate various tools right now.

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