The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
For those of us working in the world of political ideas, Matthew B. Crawford can be a somewhat intimidating writer to engage with. That’s because Crawford once inhabited our world only to consciously reject it as corrupt, since which time he has run a motorcycle repair shop and, on the side, written two thought-provoking philosophical books, the best-selling Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009) and The World Beyond Your Head (2015).
Both works argue for the value of working with things, of going out into the world and manipulating matter in the quest of making something worthy. While the work lives of white-collar workers (and those in the ideas business most of all) are awash in meaningless words, the world of things possesses a solid honesty Crawford says we all yearn for: either you have made the motorcycle run again, or you haven’t. Verbal acrobatics won’t get the job done where real mastery of a craft is instead required. Acquiring that takes practice, and, Crawford argues in his most recent book, the discipline to submit to a master whose skill is greater than your own.
Crawford isn’t shy about mixing it up with the giants of Western political theory; in The World Beyond Your Head, he picks fights with Hobbes and Kant, among others. But he styles the book as lying outside of contemporary political debates. Many pages are given over to the finer points of video poker game design, motorcycle-riding technique, and pipe organ making, each cross-pollinated with philosophical discussion—to mixed, but mostly good, effect. Still, it is worth trying to connect some of Crawford’s discussions to our contemporary political scene.
When Crawford looks over modern Western societies, the dominant trends he detects are atomization, “flattening” homogenization, and a desire to eradicate the particular from all things in favor of universal and nominally equality-promoting knowledge. A paradigmatic example he offers is the “Muzak” piped into public spaces by the directive of unseen corporate overlords, which seeks to fill space with a bland inoffensiveness rather than allow some present person’s choices to risk offending others’ tastes. Institutions pursuing universality thus end up propagating a certain kind of inhumanity.
This kind of worry resonates deeply with the work of conservative theorists like Roger Scruton (or, in an earlier generation, James Burnham). Whereas Crawford’s focus is mostly on work and home life, Scruton’s work draws attention to the potential for universalist rhetoric to dissolve the ties that bind politically. Contemporary liberal elites are so preoccupied by the dangers of xenophobia that they come to indulge in the opposite irrational fear, oikophobia, the reflexive repudiation of one’s home and inheritance. In doing so, they make it impossible to ground politics in any real lived experience; it must be all grand philosophy, all the time.
In both cases, what modernity has missed is the importance of face-to-face contact as a transmission mechanism; one is even tempted to say the “laying on of hands.” Whether it is how-to knowledge of a craft, or the kind of in-this-thing-together trust on which politics must run, Crawford and Scruton both insist on the importance of real encounters between people. They cringe at the idea that our civilization can sustain itself through book learning alone, and see our lives as becoming perilously over-mediated through formulaic and impersonal means.
Crawford and Scruton are both decidedly of the Right, but it is worth noting that analogous concerns have also grown up on the Left. Even as we have accumulated material goods, thick ties have eroded and been replaced with superficial electronic ones. The place of the skilled worker (and his genuine representative, the old-fashioned union boss) has shrunk, while the manipulators of words and symbols are ascendant. And so the tech industry is seen as a depersonalizing, job-killing monster, and we get endless online angst about the financialization of everything, or the rise of windbag management consultants who don’t really know anything.
The emphasis on face-to-face contact casts an interesting light onto the two groups that have best managed to retain trust in our suspicious age: hard scientists and the military. Crawford thinks the natural sciences have surreptitiously avoided the very universalization that the official scientific method seems to prescribe. Following Karl Polanyi, he is impressed with the way that the real practice of science is shot through with personal trust and the authority of creative masters, rather than any antiseptic obedience to a formula for generating knowledge. That leaves him contemptuous of the idea that “To be rational is to think for oneself.” That is a nice democratic ideal, Crawford recognizes, but in practice it blinds us to the ways that authority is central to real accomplishment, and the ways that the real practice of science continues to honor this truth.
The military, meanwhile, relies on relations of strict authority more than any other modern institution. Every participant, up and down the chain of command, is put in a face-to-face relationship with someone unambiguously designated as their superior. Although the military has fallen in love with PowerPoints just as much as management consultants have, the nature of its work and its organizational structure nevertheless ground it in reality.
The question that this raises—one that Crawford only hints at obliquely—is how far this kind of thinking can take us if we think about reforming the structure of the modern world. On an interpersonal level, might we really see a mass rejection of intermediation-by-Facebook in favor of direct interpersonal reaction? It would take a kind of modern cultural temperance movement, but stranger things have happened. Politically, the question is what kind of face-to-face relations we might cultivate in order to make people feel more trusting in and less alienated from their own governments. Ironically, advocates of increased political participation today tend to be deeply infatuated with social media employed on behalf of government; if there is one political implication to be drawn from The World Beyond Your Head, it is that these are not the stuff that real trust or real accomplishment are made of.
But figuring out what political mediation ought to look like with this lesson in mind remains a riddle. Who, exactly, could work as connectors? Many elites seem to wish to sidestep the question by simply empowering technocrats, thereby drawing on trust where it still exists—but in practice they end up assuming far more trust over a far wider range of issues than is actually present. The 19th century had its answers, which fit into its social structure: urban political machines, close-knit communities of legal elites (in England, the Inns of Court). It’s hard to see how those answers could be transplantable to the present. Emulating the military’s strict lines of hierarchy likewise seems clearly impossible to harmonize with our egalitarian instincts.
Crawford’s book offers genuinely fresh ways to think about these problems. If he comes up with any convincing answers, let’s hope he whole-heartedly reembraces the world of political ideas.