Working Metaphors

Michael Crawford wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft as a way to make sense of his work history:

This book grows out of an attempt to get a critical handle on my own work history; to understand the human possibilities latent in what I was doing when the work seemed good, and when it was bad to identify the features of the work that systematically preempted or damaged those same possibilities. In sorting things out, we have had occasion to think about the nature of rationality, the conditions for individual agency, the moral aspect of perception, and the elusive ideal of community. (198)

One of Crawford’s conclusions is that when a job is “scaled up, depersonalized, and made to answer to forces remote from the scene of work” that the results are disastrous. The formulation is not a new one. Karl Marx came to this conclusion in the mid-nineteenth century. I remember vividly getting tossed out of a high school government class because I agreed with Marx’s theory of the alienation of the worker, based on watching the slow gnawing despair in my dad as he coped with his job. The textbook (and my teacher) insisted that capitalism was perfect and that this “theory” was fatally flawed. She would not allow me to endorse such a “communist” thought in the classroom and she ejected me as a troublemaker.

I never can seem to think of “work” in the same way as other people. It comes from my upbringing. My father went to a job he hated every day. Increasingly, automation and MBA’s were running the oil fields from the central office and he felt as if he was not taken seriously. Dad seldom talked about this “work” but he constantly had work to do that he did discuss with me. Mostly, what he was interested in doing (and sometimes talking about) was the work at home—building fences, raising animals and crops, sawing firewood, shingling the roof. None of these activities resulted in any monetary benefit (other than spending less at the supermarket, I suppose). Work and the earning of money were completely separate activities.

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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.

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