By Richard Sennett
Yale University Press
Carpenter, lab technician, cook, software designer, glassblower, poet, the maker of musical instruments, the conductor of the orchestra that plays them, and the composer of the music they play—sociologist Richard Sennett calls them all craftsmen (be they female or male), and by this description, the category includes a decent chunk of the working population.
In fact, as Sennett describes and analyzes the history and qualities of craft, it becomes clear that they can apply in one way or another to everything from architecture to working behind the counter at a cafe. But that doesn’t make this book meaningless—quite the opposite. This is a discursive, intellectually stimulating and often fascinating discussion that at times seems like an engaged, elevating conversation.
As the author of The Hidden Injuries of Class, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity & City Life and other books, Sennett has written credibly about people who work. This time he writes about the work itself. What seems to distinguish craft in his view is a combination of method skillfully applied, and intuitive improvisation with not just the task but the whole in mind. It is problem-solving creativity; pragmatic artfulness for a purpose.
The problems of craft in the age of machines is a theme of several chapters, but Sennett’s premise is that craftsmanship survives in an industrial age. “Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”
One element in common is working with materials, often with tools, and with some relationship of the hand and eye. But Sennett sees these in designing Linux code as well as weaving. Craft may mean working with limitations, resistance and ambiguity. He illuminates issues through real world examples: the problem of obsession in the design and building of two houses, or the role of frustration in digging tunnels under rivers. Even in the age of computer-assisted design (CAD), craftsmen can solve problems the computer can’t anticipate.
Craft requires attention, a fact that doesn’t get much attention in this attention-deficit age. A common touchstone in various endeavors for how long it takes to become an expert is ten thousand hours, he writes. That translates into three hours of practice a day for ten years. Repetition is therefore important, but isn’t it boring? Sennett writes that even expert craftsmen derive pleasure in it: “the emotional payoff is one’s experience of doing it again. There’s nothing strange about this experience. We all know it: it is rhythm.”
Speaking of rhythm, craft can also involve working with what others do, as in the craft of playing in a jazz ensemble, but also in building a house, “in which the relentless desire to get things right became a dialogue with circumstances beyond his control and the labor of others.” Craft can be a calling, which often begins with play.
Sennett involves history, aesthetics, psychology, physiology and philosophy in this book, which is replete with stories that are fascinating in themselves. Plato, Gregory Bateson, Mary Shelley, Chekhov and Julia Child figure in one way or another. Though he doesn’t deal with it much, Sennett acknowledges that writing is a craft. His own writing supports several of his contentions: it is structurally sound, but idiosyncratic and flexible according to its purpose. For some it may be too rigorous, for others too decorative, but it’s a Sennett all the way.