Kafka on Craft

“Intellectual labor tears a man out of human society. A craft, on the other hand, leads him towards men.”

-Franz Kafka

I want to believe this appealing quote.  I want to believe that the thousands of hours spent learning, practicing, preparing and performing craft — usually alone — lead back to humanity at some point.  I want to believe that the products of craft will also somehow connect with other people. If thinking separates us from society, do reading rooms in libraries and gathering together in coffee shops somehow compensate by letting us be physically together? But Kafka’s conception of  intellectual labor in opposition to craft is troubling. Isn’t he separating the hand from the head? Most craftsmen I respect have a tremendously wide curiosity and intellect, encompassing history, technique, tools, materials and many other seemingly unrelated things. Craft is not about just having made something, or even being able to make something.  It is consciously participating in the tradition of making something.  Is this how it might lead us to others?


Gustav Janouch, Conservations with Kafka, trans. Goronwy Rees. 2nd rev. and enlarged ed. (London: Andre Deutsch, 1971) p. 15 in Paul Virilio, Ground Zero (London and New York:Verso, 2002.) p. 7.

5 Replies to “Kafka on Craft”

  1. this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about too, and having someone else’s thoughts written down on this in wonderful.

    (I regret that we didn’t get to meet up with you in NYC! the heatwave made us stay in our hostel a large part of the time, unfortunately…)

    I wonder how strongly the history of craft as a tradition and a relation to other people is related to the more radical politics of anti-industrialization around the industrial revolution; that at some point, the idea values of hand labor, community, and warmth as opposed to mechanization and singularity became inherent to the craft tradition, and so, no matter how much we practice it alone, we do it in the spirit of connecting with humanity and not machines.

    as far as the split between mental or hand labor — I also don’t understand the divide.
    I think that the art of something is now largely more about the idea, while craft is about the way things are made–but why these, as the head and the hand, are posited as opposite ends of the same scale I’ll never understand; they seem two separate values that are both necessary to the creation of anything.

  2. I see craft as about life and its experiences. Craft ideas are about how an artist interprets those. The interpretation is first of all intellectual and then conceptual, part of the continuum in craft practice. Most craft practice derives from the cultural or ethnic environment, political environment or the personal experience as a story telling base. I believe that the intellectual development is there even if it is not uppermost in the craft workers mind. It is part of the person, it comes out of the person in a way that even the artist may not fully understand. Franz Kafka identifies the warmth of craft, but misses the essentially human source of the intellectual work in craft and the human source of all intellectual work. It is not possible to separate bookbinding from human cultual development based on political power, industry and technology. I think of the Copts, who worked politically and advaned technolopgy and so on. Ours is a continuing act of history, perpetuating its lessons. revering its achievments. I love this topic, thank you for sharing it.

    Anne Eagar

  3. But Kafka was the son of a businessman, trained as a lawyer, worked as an insurance adjuster. There was nothing in his experience to show him how a skilled craftsman would relate to others, though he must have seen plenty of the physical wrecks that had been industrial mass-production drones. I cannot take his statement as representing any particular insight.

    For myself, it seems to me that different crafts differ in how much they drive the craftsman into the company of others, and how much they separate them; and different periods and arrangements of work also differ. It is hard to imagine a completely solitary papermaker; it is hard also to imagine a calligrapher whose work forces human contact. Today hand bookbinders are usually isolated from others of their kind, one reason that we will travel thousands of miles to spend a few days with our peers. In a big 19th century bindery like Fazakerly or Riviere, things would have been quite different. I think this topic is one where looking for universal statements gets in the way of perceiving the truth.

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