Tag Archives: philosophy of craft

A Craftsman Reads “Craeft”

The idiosyncratic spelling of “Craft” is intended to reference the earlier Anglo-Saxon conception of craft. The 2018 American edition is titled “Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts” The 2017 English edition is titled “Craeft: How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making” Does the publisher think Americans like the “true meaning” of crafts? And the English assume craft is just about making stuff?

Book Review. Alexander Langlands, Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018.

People working in craft often have philosophic inclinations. We work outside of mainstream society. We make objects that are not strictly necessary anymore. Combine this with long hours working alone, extremely repetitive hand work which affects the rhythm of our thoughts, getting lost in archaic techniques, and it only seems natural existential questions arise. What am I doing?  Why am I doing this? (and the annoying corollary, why am I doing this for so little money) Does it matter? Is craft in the 21st century anything more than a marketing term for a new cider? As partial compensation, I habitually buy most new books on the philosophy of craft, which means I must be looking for some new insight or different perspective.

With a few significant exceptions, the history of craft is recorded by writers and artists who described the actions of a craftsmen, but were not experts in the fields they described. Alexander Langland continues in this tradition. “I’m no craftsman” he announces near the end of his book. (297)  He does consider himself a “jack-of-all trades, master of none”, though. There is an almost universal prohibition against attempting to learn too many trades in most languages and cultures on earth. But why? Most people I know who are good with their hands are adept at a number of crafts. Is mastering a craft a different category altogether?

Langlands writes with a poetic sensitivity detailing the activity of handwork which renders the fact he is not a professional craftsman irrelevant. I became completely absorbed in his descriptions of hand work. David Esterly’s Lost Carvings (my review here) may have been the model for this style of craft writing: you feel you are inside a craftsman’s head, thinking what he is thinking while he moves his hands and tools. Esterly is a master craftsman writing about his own long years of carving. Langlands admits he is good at talking about it. (297)

Over a dozen crafts are described in Langlands book. Descriptions of performing a craft can sometimes go on for pages, and could have easily become inconsequential and dull. With Langlands firm narrative, however, they are engaging and even exciting. For example, the chapter on making a thatch roof is almost pornographic in detail; from sharpening the scythe, selecting the stubble thatch, twisting the thatch, augering the rafter peg holes, pegging it with a square greenwood trenail, driving the spars, and more. After reading, I felt exhausted and relieved to get off the roof and have the day’s work finished.

Each chapter has a similar recipe. He starts by placing a particular craft in a historical context, mixes in a bit of etymology, describes the importance of the materials, then narrates his own experimental recreation. His background as an archaeologist and British television personality (The Victorian Farm, The Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm) serve him well in presenting the information in an engaging and readable manor. The chapter on weaving and hurtle fence making, for example, is exemplary: he unites these two disparate appearing crafts through a fundamental commonality of warp and weft. All the while he emphasizes the respect he has for the abilities of earlier craftsmen.

Though the book is filled with interesting factoids — who knew that the tines of traditional wooden French pitchforks are made out of trained branches! — the real value is in Langlands’ underlying conception of craft, “… a vehicle through which we can think, through when we can contemplate, and through which we can be.” (343)  He continues a philosophy of craft born in the arts and crafts movement, then overlaid with a bit of Richard Sennett (The Craftsman, my review here), David Pye (Nature and Art of Workmanship), and Howard Risatti (Theory of Craft). Another great strength of this book is the explication what he feels is the “craeft” way of knowing: evaluating and sourcing raw materials, working within constraints of cost and time, using your hands, and working towards a specific means. Craft, to Langlands, is not just a final product, but the sum total of the involvement in the process by the craftsman with the environment. Is this just a slight variation of farm-to-table cooking applied to objects?

For all of practical and engaging description, and his extensive experimentation, he has a romanticized view of craft, likely because he is an amateur.  “Perhaps harshly, I would not consider a topiarist who uses electric hedge trimmers a true craftsman on the simple grounds that the tool mutes their level of engagement with the material properties of the entity they are working.” (36) Attitudes toward work — even for a real craftsman —  change quite a bit when doing something day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. Pecuniary pressures can also negatively impact a craftsman’s enjoyment of work. David Pye would also take issue with this statement, though on the grounds that an electric hedge trimmer takes a great deal of hand skill to operate, and the source of the power is irrelevant.

Langlands pays little attention paid to how craft skills are passed on or inherited. For all of his emphasis on craft as a integrated system and way of thinking, this is a significant omission. When discussing a Viking longship, he theorizes “It’s a craft that relies on building something relative to the materials employed… allowing the materials to speak for themselves, to answer back, to tell you what the natural shape must be…” (333) This sounds more something you would hear from an exercise guru or in a Monty Python skit, not the way a craftsman would think about constructing a ship in the ninth century. “Thor, let the keel timber be what it wants to be!”

There are several chapters where he describes the actions of a skilled craftsman, but he does not investigate the transmission of knowledge. Re-enactment, etymological history, and the study of extant artifacts are his primary methods of inquiry. But this was is not how craft was taught and transmitted for most of human history.

At the risk of coming across as a mystic, but I do believe Craft (with a capital “C”) resides outside of objects. Craft objects are the result of Craft. Learning or experiencing this way of thinking is traditionally taught through close contact with skilled practitioners. But I also think you can get there on your own, it just takes a lot more time. Before the nineteenth century this took place in apprenticeships; now it is more commonly acquired during internships. The transmission of craft knowledge is an important part of the entire craft ecosystem.

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.

The Craftsman: A Book Review

 

“Craftsmanship… the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”  

-Richard Sennett


Beginning with this disarmingly simple premise, Richard Sennett proceeds to explore the largely undeveloped, complex world of craft.  This is the first of three  planned volumes, the next dealing with the crafting of rituals that manage aggression and zeal, to be followed by an examination of the skills used in designing and developing sustainable environments. He intends technique to be the theme that unifies these volumes.  Although there have been numerous attempts over the years to examine craft, often from  the viewpoint of anthropology, sociology, personal experience, labor history, technology or phenomenology (see note A), craft  is somewhat resistant to scholarly explication.  Sennett, with one foot in praxis as a trained musician and the other in theory as a professor of sociology at New York University, seems well poised for the task.

This book is divided into three sections–Craftsmen, Craft and Craftsmanship. In the course of 296 engagingly and coherently written pages, the book references a myriad of philosophers and writers. (see note B) Perhaps it is the holistic nature of craft that demands a multidisciplinary approach?  Or is it over-reliance on research assistants?   The first section compares craftsmen and artisans, examines the workshop as the locus of learning and communication, then reviews how craftsmen have dealt with industrialization.  The second looks at craft as a learned and transmitted skill, with emphasis on the hand, hand skills and tools.  The third places craftmanship in the Pragmatic philosophic tradition (the authors orientation as well) and considers the three basic aspects of ability..”to localize, to question and to open up” (277).

This book was written for a general audience, and it is the best single volume that I know of that begins to explain and define what craft is. It investigates the types of knowledge and working methods that craftsmen engage in and presents craft as “a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.” (9)  It encourages non-craftsmen (eg. architect, lab technician, doctor) to adopt some craft methodologies to their fields.  And for the student of craft, there are more than enough nuggets of insightful observations and lucid overviews to commend this book.

Two sections were of particular interest, and could each become complete books.  The first, “The Enlightened Craftsman: Diderot’s Encyclopedia,” reviews some of the philosophy behind presenting manual and mental labor on equal footing then explores the difficulty craftsmen often have in talking about their work. “Among a thousand one will be lucky to find a dozen who are capable of explaining the tools or machinery they use” Diderot writes. (94)  Sennett then examines some of the difficulties in linguistically explaining craft procedures, “…it taxes the powers of the most professional writer to describe precisely how to tie a slipknot.” (95) then points to the limits of language as the cause of this, rather than blame the inarticulate craftsman, as is often the case.  This is the reason for the large number of plates in the Encyclopedia. “The images, in other words, illuminate by clarifying and simplifying movement into a series of clear pictures of the sort the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called ‘decisive moments.'” (95)

Chapter six, titled “Expressive Instructions”  is very provocative. By comparing four styles of written recipes on how to bone a chicken (Richard Olney’s precise how-to, Julia Child’s comforting guide approach combined with close-ups, Elizabeth David’s narrative approach and Madame Benshaw’s instruction through metaphors) Sennett queries how language can be used to transmit hand skills and craft information.   Interpreting and comparing how instructional manuals function is an useful and highly informative approach in determining how craft knowledge is preserved, transmitted and learned.

The book ends by discussing the subject of pride in one’s work, which Sennett feels is the reward  for the skill and commitment necessary to gain craft knowledge, and happens when the work transcends the maker. Whatever flaws this book possesses may well be inherent limitations of language, and thankfully this book avoids a common pitfall in writing on craft– the wheel spinning reiteration about “being in the moment” while crafting. The major problem with this book is it’s lack of distinction between craft and technology, which may be crucial to an accurate conceptualization of craft.  And should the subsequent volumes be realized, this might prove a fatal error, since they are currently  organized around the theme of technique.  However, this book  is a major step forward towards developing a coherent philosophy of craft, and how Homo faber interacts with his hands, tools, objects and the world.  I look forward to volumes two and three in this series.

 

Sennett, Richard.  The Craftsman. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008.  Pb.  $18.00

NOTES:

A.  Kenneth Oakley, Man the Tool-Maker;    David Kingery, Learning from Things;    Edward Luci-Smith, The Story of Craft;    Soetsu Yanage, The Unknown Craftsman;    Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays;    David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship;    Don Idhe, Technology and the Lifeworld, from Garden to Earth;    Carla Needleman, The Work of Craft;    Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers;    Annie Wilcox, A Degree of Mastery;    John Staudenmaier, Technology’s Storytellers;    Frank R. Wilson, The Hand; How Its Use Shapes Brain, Language, and Human Culture;   Carl Bridenbaugh, The Colonial Craftsman;    Reinhard Bendis, Work and Authority in Industry;    Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind;    Edward Mattil, Meaning in Crafts;    W. J. Rorabaugh, The Craft Apprentice;    James Krenov, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook;    Mary Helms, Craft and the Kingly Ideal;    Thorstein Veblen, The Instinct of Workmanship, ...

B.  Aristotle, Arendt, Heidegger, Marx, Cellini, Diderot, Kant, Hegel, Ruskin, Plato, Darwin, Merleau-Ponty, Burke, Mumford, Dewey, Bacon, Weber, Wittgenstein, Greetz, Csikszentmihalyi, Simmel, Homer and many, many more.