Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Peering into the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a while. I give him a wave. With one of his hands on the throttle and the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back. But I can hear his salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP!” of a crisp throttle, gratuitously revved. That sound pleases me, as I know it does him. It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is “Yeah!”
After five months at the think tank, I’d saved enough money to buy some tools I needed, and I quit and went into business fixing bikes. . . . The business goes up and down; when it is down I have supplemented it with writing. The work is sometimes frustrating, but it is never irrational.
And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.
As in any learned profession, you just have to know a lot. If the motorcycle is 30 years old, from an obscure maker that went out of business 20 years ago, its tendencies are known mostly through lore. It would probably be impossible to do such work in isolation, without access to a collective historical memory; you have to be embedded in a community of mechanic-antiquarians.
Mine is a family of craftsmen—woodworkers, to be specific. My grandfather was a cabinetmaker, my father was a cabinetmaker, I have done woodworking, my sons work in wood. I have always resented the many ways in which those who work with their hands are demeaned. R. G. Collingwood’s aesthetic theory is shaped by his contrast between “mere craft,” as he calls it, and true art; the attitude expressed is typical.
I spent thirty years of my life teaching philosophy at Calvin College and fifteen teaching philosophy at Yale University. At both institutions there was a pecking order (these institutions are typical in this regard, not unique), more evident to those at the bottom of the order than to those at the top. If you use your hands or teach those who use their hands—“hands” being used both literally and metaphorically here—you are inferior to those who use only their heads: practicing musicians are inferior to musicologists, painters are inferior to art historians, teachers of business are inferior to economists, teachers of preaching are inferior to theologians. The basic attitude was stated crisply by Aristotle at the opening of his Metaphysics: “We think the master-workers in each craft are more honourable and know in a truer sense and are wiser than the manual workers.”
It’s a strange attitude for Christians to hold, since Jesus was the son of a carpenter and since God is presented in the opening pages of Scripture as a maker, not a thinker. Sennett observes, correctly, that “early Christianity had from its origins embraced the dignity of the craftsman.” That dignity was vigorously reaffirmed by the early Protestant reformers.
A craftsman, for Sennett, is someone who is dedicated to doing good work for its own sake. This good work will normally have desirable consequences; if things go well, the craftsman will get paid for what he does or makes, for example. But the craftsman is not content to aim at those external consequences; if consequences become his preoccupation, he will think in terms of getting by rather than getting it right, in terms of good enough rather than good. The craftsman’s “primordial mark of identity” is that he or she is focused on achieving quality, on doing good work. Craftsmanship is quality-driven work.
Sennett holds that in thinking about craftsmanship it helps to begin by looking closely at those crafts in which one uses one’s hands to make something. But if craftsmanship is doing good work for its own sake, then craftsmanship obviously extends far beyond manual crafts. It extends to the craft of writing book reviews. It extends to the craft of governing well that I mentioned at the beginning.
[T]here is a whole ideology of choice and freedom and autonomy, and . . . if one pays due attention, these ideals start to seem less like a bubbling up of the unfettered Self and more like something that is urged upon us. This becomes most clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old.
The tenets of scientific management were given their first and frankest articulation by Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose Principles of Scientific Management was hugely influential in the early decades of the twentieth century. . . . Taylor writes, “The managers assume . . . the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae.” Scattered craft knowledge is concentrated in the hands of the employer, then doled out again to workers in the form of minute instructions needed to perform some part of what is now a work process. This process replaces what was previously an integral activity, rooted in craft tradition and experience, animated by the worker’s own mental image of, and intention toward, the finished product. Thus, according to Taylor, “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or laying-out department. . . .” Once the cognitive aspects of the job are located in a separate management class, or better yet in a process that, once designed, requires no ongoing judgment or deliberation, skilled workers can be replaced with unskilled workers at a lower rate of pay. Taylor writes that the “full possibilities” of his system “will not have been realized until almost all of the machines in the shop are run by men who are of smaller caliber and attainments, and who are therefore cheaper than those required under the old system.”
The poem, titled “Upon Reading Canada,” was an epistolary one-pager. No rhyme, meter, rhythm, or purposeful cadence worth mentioning—“free verse” would be what they aptly call it. It shared with Mr. Collins’s poetry only its general typographic shape. The rest was a haphazard cocksure motif of Billy Collins himself, cast as the heavy weight champion of the world. You see, boxing rings have lines in the form of boundary ropes, which you must grapple within. This is metaphorically similar to writing, which also incorporates lines—this time, of words.
You can see that the Muses had clearly favored me with a friend request.
JU: Now there are certainly many people who will feel that these methods they get paid to practice are proprietary knowledge they wouldn’t want to reveal. My argument is that in a lot of cases, by demonstrating expertise you’ll attract more work than you lose, and that it’ll often be more interesting and rewarding work. What’s your experience?
JL: Both of those ideas do play strongly in the building trades. It’s a real tradition to keep secrets. Going back hundreds and hundreds of years, with the guild systems, there were ways to control the sharing of that kind of knowledge. And it’s still the case. Not every plasterer who can do those decorative Ionic capitals wants everybody to know exactly how they do it. But they do want everybody to know that it can be done.
You’re right, this is how artisans can do good marketing — by letting people know what is involved, by showing some of these methods, and they don’t have to give up all their secrets in order to do that. But you can help people to understand that it’s not just a machine spitting out product, it’s people making stuff with their minds and their hands and their hearts.