Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Whole Hog

This week, Front Porch Republic is hosting a symposium with posts devoted to reflections on Matthew Crawford's new book, Shop Class as Soul Craft. My introduction to the symposium is here.

Below are my own reflections on the book, also appearing today on FPR.


Alexandria, VA They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can sometimes tell how the book’s designers wanted the book to be judged at first glance. Shop Class as Soul Craft shows an antique BMW motorcycle casually parked in front of an old shed. On the back cover we see Matt Crawford with one hand casually holding the throttle of the motorcycle – which has been moved inside what can only be assumed to be the same building, housing what appears to be a motorcycle workshop – while, in the other hand, he holds a wrench. So now we know – this was a book written by someone who works with tools, who loves classy motorcycles, and who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

We should contrast this author’s photograph with the typical photo that will often grace the back cover of books by Ph.Ds in philosophy.

Many, if not most, of these photographs picture a learned scholar in front of a wall of books. Sometimes, instead of casually holding a wrench, they hold a book open to an important passage. These photographs are testimony of sorts – a visual cue that we are in the presence of a learned person. The photos that grace the front and back covers of Shop Class as Soul Craft provide a different sort of testimony: we are about to join the company of someone who can do things, and – just as importantly – can do things with motorcycles. And the emotional and cultural associations that accompany motorcycles are powerful: freedom, autonomy, sex, counter-culture, and so-on.

These two elements are important: one doubts the visual cues would have been as compelling if the book pictured Matt with a plunger standing next to an old toilet, or a conduit pipe next to a mess of wires. It's also to be doubted whether the cover would have been as compelling had the book pictured Matt Crawford in front of his wall of books (surely he has a few bookshelves). It’s the fact that we know a few things about Matt Crawford’s life and career (literally, path or course) that informs how we, the readers, are to approach this book. And, I think, it explains in part a great deal of the amazing, widespread, and deserved attention that this book is receiving.

This is to say that the book derives a good deal of its persuasive force and power because of the personal biography of Matt Crawford – scholar, electrician, disgruntled office worker, motorcycle repair man. It’s a book that would have barely drawn the attention of the likes of NPR, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Stephen Colbert had it been written by someone like me – a certified egghead who can’t fix his own motorcycle. Matt gets a pass on the first and generally successful “conversation-stopping” critique of books that praise handwork and craftsmanship – the charge of hypocrisy, that you aren’t living up the ideal that you claim is worth living. Moreover, he gets past some of the yawns that any such book would have produced if written by a plumber or electrician. Toilets are mundane; motorcycles are sexy.

We should notice something about the media outlets that have been drawn to the book – they are the redoubts of eggheaded intellectuals, more often than not liberal progressives. While I may have missed some other reviews and discussions, I don’t think the book has been as widely covered in magazines like Iron Horse or Workbench Magazine. While some, such as Kelefa Sanneh have tried to throw cold water on the modern romanticism for simpler times and especially the work of hands that informs the fascination with Matt’s book (or the works of Wendell Berry, another certified non-hypocrite), most of these outlets have demonstrated remarkable admiration for Matt’s argument (including the likes of Francis Fukuyama, who recalls with fondness the bygone days when he, too, worked with his hands). Clearly the response to this book says something about us, especially the “intellectual classes” who generally not only do not work with our hands, but are largely incapable of doing so.

It’s easy to make fun of this neo-romantic longing for simpler times and work of hands (even as one might, at the same time, feel a degree of self-indictment of the helplessness that comes from not being able to do things for oneself – and the guilty pleasure that comes with any such self-indictment). Our own Susan McWilliams noted with some bemusement the sometimes laughable efforts of young neo-agrarians who attempt to work farm implements in one hand while holding a Starbucks latte in the other. While it’s appealing to call to mind the virtue of working in the crafts, it’s also easy to dismiss these longings as an archaic and outdated, and one suspects that many of our best and brightest will still be drawn to apply to the best schools, will strive to get the right internships, and – if they are lucky – will be sufficiently successful to afford a “farmette” in the country that will assuage some of their white-collar, elitist guilt.

It’s because this book has been packaged and sold as a defense of crafts and handwork that accounts at once for its immediate appeal but, I think, constitutes a serious obstacle to discerning its more expansive and structural argument. Matt – understanding the needs of book marketers and, doubtlessly, the compelling nature of his personal biography – highlights his personal authority as a motorcycle repairman (most people will be impressed by, but not really understand, his discussions of rebuilding motorcycle engines), even as he strives to move it to the larger issues of which a life in crafts is a part. One fears, however, that – a bit like Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind – many “readers” will come away impressed most of all with the personal narrative (just as they focused in on Bloom’s discussion of the sex and music preferences of college students) while neglecting its more challenging and deeper foundations.

A theme that runs through the book, but which may be easy to miss with all the praise of the manual trades, is that of alienation. Early in the book Matt discusses the development of scientific management by its greatest theorist, Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor – the originator of “Taylorism,” an approach often criticized on the Left – sought to streamline various forms of industrial and even white-collar work into processes in which each worker was to concentrate on one portion or part of the process, often wholly unaware of what relevance or connection that work had with the overarching aim or outcome of the process. Following the logic elucidated by Adam Smith centuries earlier, Taylor laid out the practical blueprint for extreme subdivision of labor, in which those engaged in discrete jobs – whether “brain” or “manual” work – were increasingly to concentrate on narrow and discrete tasks, and thereby increase efficiency and profit, while also minimizing labor costs by making each cog effectively replaceable. Taylorism renders each worker increasingly ignorant, not only in the discrete job being done, but in regard to the purpose and meaning of the work as a whole. Henry Ford – one of Taylor’s greatest disciples – discovered that instituting industrial process following the tenets of Taylorism was not, at the outset, without its challenges: according to a biographer cited by Crawford, “every time the [Ford] company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963” (42). The new system, according to Matt, induced “natural revulsion.” It took a good deal of winnowing and transformation of the economy and society to arrive at a point at which people no longer minded an active inculcation of ignorance about their work.

No fan of Taylorism, Matt recalls the work of Harry Braverman, a Marxist critic of much of modern economics, whether capitalist or Marxist, and a particularly fierce critic of Taylorism. According to Matt, “Braverman gives a richly descriptive account of the degradation of many different kinds of work. In doing so, he offers nothing less than an explanation of why we are getting more stupid with every passing year – which is to say, the degradation of work is ultimately a cognitive matter, rooted in the separation of thinking from doing” (38; emphasis mine). What Matt here notes in a central argument of his book is that the degradation of Taylorism applies to “many different kinds of work.” The argument about our growing more stupid applies equally to blue collar industrial production line workers as it does to white collar office workers who effectively work under a Taylorian form of scientific management. While it’s easy to understand Matt’s argument to be a defense of the nobility of the manual trades, more importantly and fundamental to his argument is that we are generally becoming more ignorant because we don’t know why or for what purpose we are doing things. The separation of doing from thinking applies equally to people in offices as on assembly lines, inasmuch as all these forms of work increasingly require or encourage no thought to the implications or reasons of what one is doing. More and more forms of work require the wearing of blinders, a narrowing focus upon discrete jobs that are fundamentally disconnected from any broader understanding of how that work relates to, fits into, contributes to, or derives meaning from a concrete community of fellow human beings.

This central theme again becomes explicit toward the end of the book, when Matt discusses the way so much of modern work is degraded because of a loss of connection to a concrete community, and thereby the attenuation of responsibility, memory, gratitude and fidelity. He offers the example of banking as an exemplary case in which doing is separated from broader forms of thinking. Noting that in the 19th-century there was a prohibition on banks from opening branches in communities outside those where they originally operated, Matt calls attention to an ethic in which interpersonal knowledge of what we do requires a special form of thought that induces reflection on what we are doing, and for what reasons. He quotes Thomas Lamont, head of J.P. Morgan, who in 1923 told his colleagues “the community as a whole demands of the banker that he shall be an honest observer of conditions about him, that he shall make constant and careful study of those conditions, financial, economic, social and political, and that he shall have a wide vision over them all” (190).

We can contrast a time when a combination of social mores and political laws fostered a form of work – in this case, banking – in which that work was undertaken with an aim and purpose not only of money-making, but of contributing to the good of a concrete community, to our very recent past when the activities of banking became separated from the places of their origination, when loans and debts were packaged as abstract “investments” for people who would trade and re-trade the parcels of debt from everywhere and nowhere. Lenders had no responsibility for the loans they made; brokerage houses packaged good and bad loan together for sale to anonymous “investors” upstream; and, meanwhile, “homeowners” were flipping houses and talking about their “equity” as if their homes were the equivalent of a hot stock tip. Across the spectrum, the separation of “thinking” from “doing” in a much broader sense – that is, a situation in which we no longer gave any thought to the implications of our actions, so long as an immediate reward was expected by sundered individuals – was the underlying cause of our current financial crisis. The crisis was not cause by faulty regulation or Barney Frank’s legislative blunders or greedy Wall Street bankers: it was caused, above all, by a systemic sundering of thinking from doing, of having a concrete understanding of one’s work and its contribution to the good of an actual community of fellow people.

While Matt’s book has every appearance of being a paean to the work of hands, in fact it is, above all, a defense of the integration of work and place, a call to expand the temporal expanse of our work – to see our actions as part of larger history, with a past and a future – and a summons to reconnect whatever it is we do with a more concrete and evident capacity to think and understand why and for what reason we work. Writing in defense of a life well-lived – in which our working lives are not radically divorced from our lives as parents, children, worshipers, friends, neighbors, and citizens – he concludes with a call for a more “humane economy:
When the conception of work is removed from the scene of its execution, we are divided against one another, and each against himself…. A humane economy would be one in which the possibility of achieving such satisfaction is not foreclosed ahead of time for most people. It would require a sense of scale. We in the West have arranged our institutions to prevent the concentration of political power...; but we have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or to take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible (208-9)

What such concentration - and corresponding massiveness - tends to foster is ever-more pervasive forms of abstraction. Jobs are sliced up as neatly as the mortgages that were bundled into abstract financial instruments, and - wholly losing any sense of grounded commitment to place and people, every job becomes simply a way of making as much money in as little time and cutting as many corners as possible. An economy based upon such structural abstraction is ruinous - as we have seen - most of all, in its degradation of the humans who perform increasing numbers of tasks without knowledge or understanding of their meaning. I would include in this category - a vast one, to say the least - much of the work being done today on college campuses, in which faculty concentrate on ever-narrower slices of knowledge but persist in a state of radical ignorance about the actual object of their endeavors - the education of students. College professors may appear to be dominantly Marxist, but the truth is, for the most part we're oblivious cogs in a Taylorist machine.

Also at the end of the book Matt notes that he would probably make more money as an electrician than a motorcycle repairman – but he chooses to repair bikes. Doubtless this is because he finds that work more satisfying. But, also in evidence throughout the book is a charming community of motorcycle enthusiasts, a stand-in for the more robust community of place and memory. What Matt’s admission suggests is that even the manual trades – absent such integration in the life of an existing, palpable community – can be degrading. An electrician who covers an expansive area, never meeting a client twice, would likely regard such work as job one does for the cash – nothing more. And then there is the example of the bad motorcycle repairmen related by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – people who couldn’t care enough about their work to do the job well and proudly. It is only when we care about the people with and, in great part, for whom we work, that we are likely to do good work. This book is, above all, an argument for doing good work – whether with one’s hands or with one’s mind - but, regardless of its form, undertaking work in which doing and thinking have been reconciled within the context of a human and humane community.


Rubashov said...

Patrick, I enjoyed the post and I really think I'll have to read the book myself. Your final comments about academics struck me, though.

The tendency towards research specialization does invite comparison to Taylor-esque cogs, but remember for most of us academics in this country, research is not the be all and end all of our job. In fact, as I was reading, I was thinking that being a professor is still one of the non-Taylored jobs left. Consider all we do:
1) think about the big picture of what people should learn--in our own classes, in our departmental requirements, in the university gen ed classes.
2) think about how students learn--active learning? Lectures? online? How should we prepare ourselves to maximize learning?
3) think about who we are and what sort of person will make our university a better place when we serve on hiring committees.
4) depending on the school, we learn to make all of these decisions while thinking about our financial constraints.
5) think about our discipline as a whole--how does our research fit in, where is it going.

And that's just our core duties
6) think about the variety of ways many faculty members engage in community service, or bridge the gap between industry and the academy.
7) One of my job's greatest joys is coaching my school's ultimate frisbee team, interacting with the kids in a totally non-academic context.
8) Or the whole process of advising, that can be just a specialized "take these courses to check things off" or a wide ranging discussion of the student, where they are going, and how we can or can't help them.

In fact, I would argue that one pleasure of our job is that we are not Taylorized--we have the chance (and sometimes the burden) to be involved in the whole process of turning high school students into (mostly) adults. Maybe places like Harvard or Georgetown let faculty retreat into Taylorized specialties, but not most places.

Jaz said...

I can fix a toilet and build computers. My PhD is in Engineering. I could design the motorcycle (or at least an expensive chrome add-on). Studly, aren't I!