Yale University Press, 2008, 336 pp., $27.50
Richard Sennett is one of the most eminent and prolific sociologists in the Western world, sharing time these days between the London School of Economics, MIT and New York University. After spending some decades focusing mainly on social life in modern cities (and writing a dozen books on the subject), Sennett has turned his attention to an unexpected topic: the omnipresence of craftsmanship in human society. As he observes, it is everywhere, from east to west, and it always has been, from ancient times until our so-called postmodern era. Here, Sennett tells us, is an oft-overlooked universal trait of mankind, and so he bids us to look. Those who do are led gradually and effortlessly into a special world, only to find themselves enthralled by an author who stimulates and fascinates at every turn.
Craftsmanship, Sennett tells us, is “the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” Physiologically, it is “the intimate connection between hand and head.” Sociologically, it requires skills and techniques that can and must be transferred from generation to generation within particular types of labor organization. But craftsmanship also reflects a rich context of culture and civilization, so that its creative force is bounded by the power of a living tradition. By defining the subject broadly, The Craftsman makes good use of the cumulative wisdom of philosophy, psychology, anthropology and, of course, sociology as well.
Having once been a student of Hannah Arendt, Sennett could not possibly have overlooked her low estimation of labor in the face of the creative arts and politics. Indeed, he uses Arendt as a foil to launch what is in essence a counter-thesis. Her sense of the human condition is not necessarily his for, having been trained as a musician, Sennett knows that practice, in the true sense of the word, is not a simple process of repetition. Rather, it includes something new and creative every time an exercise is repeated. What goes for music also goes for cooking, and here too, Sennett’s use of his own experience to get at the inner logic of craftsmanship is vivid and persuasive.
Sennett does not make use only of the personal. As my good fortune would have it, he employs many examples from the Japanese: how the Toyota company conceives its products, how a sushi bar in New York City works, what the Suzuki method of teaching violin to young children really is, what Zen has to do with the craft of archery, and more besides. He does not push the meaning of his non-Western examples as far as he might, however.
Western society has been ambivalent at best in its estimation of labor, perhaps because the Bible depicts work as a punishment meted out by God to Adam and Eve as they were expelled from the Garden of Eden—“by the sweat of thy brow shall thou eat bread”, says the book of Genesis. Contrarily, Japanese gods are depicted as hard-working weavers and farmers in their Upper Land in the Kojiki, the oldest written record in Japan. The Japanese people have always loved to work, and have developed their own sense of craftsmanship with none of the ambivalence that attaches to Western ideas of labor.
The contrast between cultural contexts of craftsmanship in the East and the West can be developed further. In the pre-modern West, as Arendt noted, craftsmanship was intertwined with slavery and indentured servitude. Making things was an activity of the lower rungs of society, consuming them an activity of the privileged, so the status of craftsmanship suffered. Craftsmanship was also associated with monastic life, but by definition monastic life in the Middle Ages was separate from the rest of society. And some elements of Western society, again influenced by religious ideas, rejected the idea of excellence in craft for its own sake, taking instead an unadorned utilitarian attitude toward material things. Thus did Max Weber accurately describe the work ethic of the Puritans as a “worldly asceticism”, which Sennett goes so far as to call an “obsession.” It was this asceticism that molded and embedded itself into the changes in attitude that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and, in turn, the capitalist economy.
But asceticism did not kill craftsmanship in the West, as Sennett shows. The division of labor and the decomposition of skilled work in the process of industrialization predicted by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others were but partial. The succession of tacit knowledge developed in workshops in Renaissance times survived as craftsmanship in modern workplaces. According to Sennett, even the Linux kernal, used in computing systems, is an example of collective craftsmanship.
In contrast with Christian Europe and its offshoots, Zen Buddhists in the Far East exalt in work. Unlike the samgha guild of Buddhist priests in India who forbade themselves all productive activities, including agriculture, Zen sects in China made productive labor standard Buddhist practice. Similar to Christian monasteries in that they regarded discipline and training as religious values, some of these Zen sects attracted followers in Japan. Over time, farmers, artisans and samurai warriors in Japan gradually began to consider their worldly activities as tantamount to religious duties. Labor is Buddhist practice, and Buddhist practice is labor.
Together with the influence of Zen Buddhism, the Shinto tradition in Japan also has affected everyday life. In accordance with Shinto customs, gods are enshrined in the workplace. Typical Japanese live their lives in communication with gods, as do people in other societies that never experienced a hard break between the religious and secular realms. Japanese Buddhism created a unique theory a thousand years ago that gods in Japan are transformed figures of Buddhas from India. Buddhas and gods were believed to be identical in their essence. As a result, all kinds of labor in each community that enshrines gods are regarded as holy activities. “The tranquil spirit” in archery that Sennett refers to is shared by samurai warriors with a Zen Buddhist mind. Everyday activities in secular society have simultaneous religious meanings. So do forms of entertainment. Zeami, a 16th-century master of Noh performance, said in his Kadensho (a secret book of flowers) that there could still be a “flower” in the performances of the aged, because long experience and the ceaseless elaborations of skills and techniques kept them young. This famous concept symbolizes the ideal of craftsmanship in Japan and, since Noh performance is also influenced by Zen Buddhism, it again shows that craftsmanship has a religious significance.
The Craftsman is open to the broad interplay of culture and technique, for its analysis takes the intercultural and intercivilizational perspective seriously into account. Sennett takes a layered approach to the subject. The lowest, pre-cultural layer consists of the fact that humans behave with hand and head in coordination. This is first observed in the earliest developing stage of a baby and later in playing and games. The second layer appears when culture, which is particular to each society, formats and channels the behaviors of its members. Some behaviors are encouraged and others are suppressed, for whatever else culture is, it is a filtering device. The third layer comes with the establishment of institutions, ideologies and other forms of high culture, which formulates an explicit code of behavior that conforms to conceptions about the course of history or some other abstraction.
Sennett illustrates the flow of these three levels from lowest to highest using mainly Western examples. Nevertheless, even non-Western readers can benefit from the interpretive structure he has created. More than that, Sennett’s approach is consistent with that of others whose work he is perhaps unaware of. About two years ago a Japanese journalist named Susumu Nomura published a book entitled Sennen Hataraite Kimashita: Shinise Kigyo Taikoku Nippon (“Working hard for a thousand years: Businesses of old standing in Japan”). Nomura studied centuries-old shops and businesses throughout Japan, visiting and interviewing many scores of sake brewers, shrine carpenters, chefs, artists and others. He argues that Japan is exceptional in having so many businesses of such longstanding, even more so than European countries and China, and he believes he has found the secret that explains this. When an old business found itself in trouble on account of financial difficulties or a lack of successors, people in the community would provide the necessary support to enable it to survive. A major reason for this, he argues, was the people’s respect for craftsmanship, a unique form of which is believed to inhere in every shop of longstanding.
Sennett’s subtle analysis of how craftsmanship and culture intertwine leads the reader to hope for a conclusion in which the meaning, status and function of craftsmanship in contemporary society is revealed. But Craftsmanship provides only an ambiguous answer, really little more than a hint of a conclusion. There is a good reason for the ambiguity: Sennett’s sense is that the future might be so radically discontinuous from the past that we cannot possibly know much about it. The relationship between advanced technologies and craftsmanship is more complicated than Sennett’s basic historical framework can account for, and he knows it.
On the one hand, skilled as well as unskilled workers are now being replaced by computer-assisted labor-sharing devices, as was more or less predicted by Adam Smith and Karl Marx. This causes unstable employment or unemployment among white-collar workers and managers. It also presupposes failure to transmit craft from one generation to the next. On the other hand, even though many forms of craft are threatened, new types of craftsmanship are arising around these high technologies, such as programming, hacking, hand-eye coordination in video games, and so on. The human propensity for craft is a constant; the forms it takes are not. The continuous destruction and reconstruction of craftsmanship is the dynamic we need to begin with if we are to understand how craftsmanship functions in contemporary industry. Sennett recognizes this ambiguous duality of craftsmanship for what it is, and his chapters alternate intricately between destructive and reconstructive aspects of the process.
Furthermore, he postulates that we may be witnessing an essential change in craftsmanship thanks to computerization. “The intimate connection between hand and head”, the prototype of craftsmanship with a binary relationship, has been gradually transformed into a triangular relationship of hand, head and computer. Sennett argues that “computer-assisted design might serve as an emblem of a large challenge faced by modern society: how to think like craftsman in making good use of technology.”
However, while people are trying to think like craftsmen, computers may learn to think like craftsmen too. Computers can simulate human sensory systems, cognition and decision-making techniques, though they are currently in a primitive stage. As things stand now, computers assist humans, but in the future it may be possible to say that humans assist computers. If that turns out to be the case, classic concepts such as labor, work, technique, craftsmanship and more will all dissolve into one another, with an outcome that is at present simply unknowable. When the last page of The Craftsman has been read, the reader realizes that, through a long and winding path, he has been left at the front gate to a wonderland, a new world of redefined craftsmanship. What we learn, ultimately, is that just as it is human nature to craft, it is also human nature to change.