I make it a point to visit historical sites whenever possible. Being in a place, for me at least, often gives a feeling for others that have been there before me. Few places have felt as right to me as Hancock Shaker Village.
The place feels happy somehow, in contrast to other utopian sites like Oneida Community Mansion House. It’s not that Oneida feels bad, it simply feels strange in comparison. It’s hard to talk about without resorting to terms like “spirit” or “essence”. It’s as if the objects, commissioned or made by previous inhabitants, hold something of the character of their creators long after the possessor has turned to history.
It’s a common sentiment. Tool collectors are particularly prone to it; the concept of heirloom tools is based on the idea that these useful objects are more than simple artifacts, they somehow retain a connection with the users and objects that they have interacted with. The worst fate for an old handsaw is to get painted and hung on a wall as a mere decoration.
Reconstructions of old objects, though they don’t have the same aura, still provide a sort of genetic connection to previous modes of thought and being. The feeling of there being something else there, often hazy and receding into the distance even when you’re holding the object in your hand, persists at a guttural level even when to connection is only conceptual. Artifacts, at the root level, are concepts that have been made into facts.
The idea that Shaker objects feel right is hardly unique to me. When you’re working at a lathe or using a spokeshave to shape a curve on a Shaker reconstruction, you just know when the curve is right or wrong. There’s a correctness to the object when done right, as if there’s an essence you’re aiming at.
What deserves consideration is the origin of this feeling: does it strike a chord in the craftsperson or consumer, or is it the communication of some sort of deep historical feeling? I suspect it’s both. There is a paragraph in Marx’s notes on Mill that I quoted earlier that bears revisiting:
Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt.
As a craftsperson, making an object objectifies individuality in that there is a specific character to the choices and selections that I have made which reflect my tastes and appetites, not to mention my level of skill and attention to detail. There’s an imperfection to human work, but that isn’t the center, really. It’s a question of what imperfections are tolerated or embraced— a matter of taste. That a craft object reflects a “power beyond all doubt” takes on layers of meaning when it is considered that craft is always embedded in tradition, reflecting not only individuality but tacit social agreements about what is desirable in an object.
Traditional objects reflect power as a social phenomenon, as Arendt has proposed, rather than simply a reflection of personal expression. What is clear here is that it isn’t about individual strength through expression, but rather participation in a social exchange, a participation in “another man’s essential nature” which typifies true power.
2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature.
Craftwork, i.e. the production of objects, can affirm common needs making them visible in the form products we surround ourselves with. Recognition of these needs is central, and Marx places the craftsperson in the role of mediator between individual and species.
3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognized and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love.
The basic thrust of this form of direct exchange (as opposed to exchanges mediated by money or the complexities of other intermediaries) is a solidly grounded polis. “Production as human beings” as contrasted with “production as productive instruments” has the character of a gift rather than a social transaction. Bondareff’s argument for the necessary character of individual bread labor was also married to a social commitment to provide bread for others who were unable to produce their own, as a gift commanded by Christian charity. Charity should also be factored into craft labor.
4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realized my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.
Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature. (Marx)
Certain objects seem to feel right, I think, because we see not only ourselves but rather a plausible way of life in them. It is a form of sociality that is tied to participants that are no longer present, except perhaps in spirit. But spirit is too weak a word for the sort of genetic connection that is possible within craft traditions.
These are objects I can use to feel a part of something larger than myself. These are artifacts that will shape me into the sort of person I want to be, simply by association. The material circumstances of my environment are not chance— they are a choice— driven by a desire to belong.
The acceptance of traditional artifacts is subject to the properties of memory. We hold the objects close, overcoming their uniqueness, using them as tokens where the face of the craftsman has long since worn away. We cannot know the true source, conflated from so many identities, lost with the distance of time.
Artifacts collect scars, they fade, they are repaired and repurposed. Only pedants insist on “authenticity” in artifacts. Most interpolate data as best they can, integrating the personal with artifacts as they become living material history.