Craftsman, by Richard Sennett

Book Review

the-craftsmanTitle:                     The Craftsman

Author:                 Richard Sennett

Publisher:           New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008

Reviewer:   Josh Sweeden, Ph.D. student in Practical Theology

Primarily through a historical lens—though never neglecting philosophy, theology, economics, and politics—Richard Sennett explores the implications of craftsmanship, “an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake” (9). Sennett finds this to be an Enlightenment belief, “that everyone possesses the ability to do good work of some kind” and “that there is an intelligent craftsman in most of us” (11). He states his two main theses in the prologue, both of which, I believe, are quite convincing by the end of the book. First, he argues that “all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices; second, that technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination” (10).

A major argument of Sennett’s is the role of social order in the development of craft.  Sennett states that an ancient ideal of craftsmanship is “joined skill in community” (51).  Medieval Workshops, in particular, provided a communal atmosphere and social structure that guided the development of skill through “authority in the flesh” as opposed to knowledge “set down on paper” (54).  There is an implicit authority in the workshop, a social order that values the “quality of skill” over “occupation of a place of honor” (61).  The workshop binds people together as if forms a community of masters and apprentices.  Quality and ethical codes of work are transmitted through such communities (and the guilds in which they participate) ensuring continuity while also allowing for creative developments through partnerships and communal participation.  The medieval workshop began its demise with the Renaissance separation of art and craft.  This separation emphasized the individual and her/his creation of “art” over communal development.  The workshop became an inferior social space reserved for a lower class of society.

Next, Sennett explores the implications of machines (replicants and robots) for craftwork.  He ultimately shows how machines quickly were created for large-scale production, “gradually threatening the standing of the most skilled laborers and increased the number of semi- or unskilled workers.”  Sennett affirms machinery for the sake of eliminating “unskilled, noisome tasks,” but claims that it is problematic when it “replace[s] high-cost skilled labor” (106).  Instead of workshops, the new working community was steel mills and factories, and as such a new social structure was adopted, carrying different assumptions of appropriate work conditions as well as knowledge and authority.  Sennett does find hope in new developments of high technology.  He cites the Linux Corporation which developed a sense of cooperation and collaboration among workers addressing problems.  Instead of a framework of competition which establishes “clear standards of competition and closure…needed to measure performance and to dole out rewards,” Linux succeeded through “technological craftsmanship, the intimate, fluid join between problem solving and problem finding” (33).  Linux revives a social space for craft similar to that of medieval workshops.  It is attractive for people who aspire to be good craftsmen, who are “depressed, ignored, or misunderstood by [other] social institutions” (145).

In the second part of the text Sennett establishes the importance of “the physical” as he joins the long standing debate “about whether touch furnishes the brain a differed kind of sensate information than the eye” (152).  For Sennett, the hand, which participates in habituated forms of coordination and develops heightened sensitivity through craft, is closely connected to the eye.  Together there is an “extended rhythm” between the two that allows the craftsman to develop specific skills and rituals—duties preformed again and again.   Sennett makes clear, however, that these repetitious performances are not boring, instead, “we are alert rather than bored because we have developed the skill of anticipation.”  Like a ritual, the repetitions of craftwork are “persuasive,” not “stale;” the craftsman, like the celebrant, “anticipates each time that something important is about to happen” (177).

Sennett further notes the inadequacies of written language to “depict physical action” (179).  Laboratories and workshops become the exemplar, places where “the spoken word seems more effective than written instructions” (179).    Sennett also illustrates this point by examining the how-to instructions of various chefs.  Ultimately, the instructions that show, rather than tell, provide the best experience and results for the novice cooks.  In these cases, however, showing was not done by physical presence per se, but through narratives and metaphors which “give each physical action [of the recipe] heavy symbolic weight” (193).

Countering machinery, Sennett discusses the role of tools and repair for craftwork.  A tool, unlike a machine, is unable to produce any ‘thing’ without the willful and deliberate act of the craftsman.  Often used for repairs, tools developed over time and took on increasingly specialized functions.  Their functions, however, are not ‘ends’ in themselves, instead they participate in the process of creating and exploration.  Repair serves a similar function.  Sennett finds repair to be a “neglected, poorly understood, but all important aspect of technical craftsmanship” (199).  Lost in the modern world is the knowledge that comes by fixing things.  Like using tools, repairs (taking things apart and understanding how they work) helps people rethink how to do things, providing new insight and discovering “an unknown reality latent with possibility” (213).  Concluding the second part of his text, Sennett emphasizes that the progress of craft is not linear.  “Skill builds by moving irregularly, and sometimes by taking detours.”  This is the role of resistance and ambiguity for Sennett.  Whether it is the knowledge built by the sensitivities of the hand, or the exploration of a repair, progress—“a word that needs no apology” because “in craftwork people can and do improve”—comes through a matrix of ‘physical’ experiences.

In the final section of the text, Sennett returns again to the social conditions that shape craftsmanship as the desire to do ‘good work.’  Exploring “obsessional energy,” Sennett notes the importance of obsession—when harnessed appropriately—for doing good work.   Dangerous, however, is when “obsessing about quality is a way of subjecting the work itself to relentless generic pressure” (245).  Sennett uses Wittgenstein’s perfectionism to illustrate this point.  The young philosopher designed and constructed a house for his sister, a building which was to be, “the foundation of all possible buildings” (255).  As astounding as Wittgenstein’s completed project was, he was never satisfied.  “In his own judgment, Wittgenstein’s striving for an ideal perfection rendered the object lifeless…he became his own severest critic.”  Sennett’s point, through this illustration, is that work itself is valuable.  The good of work is not a ‘finished end,’ but the participation in craft itself.  When work is subjected to generic pressures, false ends are instituted removing the joy and ability for a particular structure to evolve.  In craftwork, “some issues are left unresolved” (263).  This keeps the work alive.  Stories and narratives become the best channels for socialization into ‘good work.’  Unclosed and ecstatic, stories are able to evolve as craftsmen improve.  Sennett employs the word vocation appropriately here.  Vocation notes the unending, unfinished nature of work as calling; vocation is a form of “work story” (263).

A final feature of note in Sennett’s text is his development of work and play.  Sennett talks about two kinds of play.  The first being competitive games “where rules are set before the player begins to act,” and a “more open space of play” by which he means playing around with something, “like when a child fingers a piece of felt cloth.”  In latter case, a dialogue happens with the material object; the child is experimenting, stimulating senses and testing its strength and limits (269).  While both types of play are important, Sennett shows the importance of this second type of play (often present in boredom).  “Craftsmanship draws on what children learn in play’s dialogue with physical materials.”  As such, craftsmanship is possible for all people—“play is universal.” Modernity wants to section off craft, making it specialized and possible only for a few (273).  Sennett argues, however, that there are only three basic abilities that are fundamental to craftsmanship: the ability to localize, to question, and to open up (277).  Sennett’s craftsman, therefore, is far more inclusive than its modern connotation.  Craftwork is essentially the ability to do good work, something we all possess, and something that is innate to humans and commonly practiced so long as relationship, community, and working together remains possible.

I fear my summary does little justice to Sennett’s profound development of the role of work, community, formation, and story.  Sennett’s exploration of craft reminds me of John Inge’s similar work on place theory in A Christian Theology of Place.  Like Inge, Sennett avoids nostalgia of a time past and develops a multi-faceted description of the subject using philosophy, theology, economics, sociology, and history.  Sennett’s thesis remains subtle, though its implications spur the imagination and cause discernment with regard to everything from small personal practices to institutional structures.  Sennett has much to offer theology in this text, and many questions worth considering.  How is the task of theology itself ‘good work?’  What if the church and the academy understood themselves as workshops?  With regard to theology of work, does a theological rendering of work properly allow for ambiguity, imagination, and play?  Do Christians determine the ‘ends’ of work prematurely?  Can Christian vocation be appropriately open-ended and if we fail to see our story as in ‘progress’ and evolving?  Ultimately, I find The Craftsman to be a compelling argument for the dynamic matrix-like development of knowledge, character, and community.  All three of these, Sennett argues and I agree, are severely damaged when work is not understood as craft.