An appreciation of physical craft ranges from surgery to flower-arrangement. But it doesn't untangle the way most of us actually workby Tanya Harrod / November 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
We worry about work a lot: lack of work, furloughed work, unstable work on zero-hour contracts. And then there’s new forms of work, guided entirely by an algorithm, stripping out any sense of agency or job satisfaction. These fears go back a long way, in step with the gradual spread of the industrial revolution from the late 18th century onwards. By the turn of the 20th century there was, as the historian José Harris puts it, “a lurking grief at the memory of a lost domain,” a sense that where work was concerned, “change was inevitable, and in many respects desirable, but that its gains were purchased at a terrible price.”
In Marx’s Capital, the passages on the division of labour and the perfection of complex machinery are written with the vivid energy of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Some 80 years later, Walter Benjamin laments the passing of “the atmosphere of craftsmanship” in a world where time is constantly being abbreviated. Robert Linhart’s 1978 classic The Assembly Line records the time-and-motion experts at a Citroën factory in Choisy ignoring the craft skills of their workforce. Anxious writing specifically about the industrial workplace might now seem less relevant in a world of computer-inputting and robotic machinery. But the problems of where and how things are produced and how individuals achieve satisfaction in their work have not gone away; indeed they have intensified.
There has been a particular bout of soul-searching since the financial crisis: a number of thinkers have anxiously examined modern work, and offered some striking solutions to reconnect us with a lost world of physical craft. Sociologist Richard Sennett has argued that a post-industrial world dominated by “flexible” employment practices, here-and-now organisation and short-term contracts damages people’s idea of self, making it harder to construct life stories with a sense of cumulative achievement. His panacea is “doing something well for its own sake,” arguing that it is only “the craftsman” who “can sustain his or her self-respect in an unequal world.” For the young Sennett, who grew up in a deprived part of post-war Chicago, being a craftsman had involved mastering the cello, until an injury cut that journey short. In his now classic The Craftsman (2008), he put tacit knowledge and long practice at the heart of meaningful endeavour,…