Richard Sennett on Making

Richard Sennett on Making

Richard Sennett, whose book The Craftsman garnered a great deal of attention on its publication last year, will be the keynote speaker at the American Craft Council’s October conference in Minneapolis.

Sennett is a sociologist and social analyst who teaches at New York University and the London School of Economics. After an injury put an end to his hopes of a musical career, he studied at the University of Chicago and Harvard, earning a Ph.D. in 1969. In the 70s he founded, with Susan Sontag and Joseph Brodsky, the New York Institute for the Humanities at nyu. In the 80s he served as president of the American Council on Work, and in the 90s he began to address the question of how changes in capitalism are affecting workers.

He spoke by telephone with Suzanne Ramljak about some of the issues that underlie his scholarly work.

Suzanne Ramljak: Your most recent book, The Craftsman, is the first in a trilogy devoted to what you call “techniques for conducting a particular way of life.” Can you elaborate on the larger project behind these three volumes?
This is a project about material culture in the broadest sense. The Craftsman was about making things well; the second volume, The Workshop, focuses on developing social skills and cooperation; and the third, The Foreigner, will be about environmental design and crafting cities. The question that ties them all together is, how do we develop skills in the course of making things, whether they are physical objects, social relations or environments? Underlying this study is a theory that I call “situated cognition,” which is the way human beings develop their capacities through craftwork. This is at the heart of the entire exploration.

One of the key issues you’ve identified is “how paying attention is organized.” Does this concern tie in with situated cognition?
Attention is something that gets organized by others, as well as by ourselves. When we focus on making a physical object, or on playing a musical instrument, our concentration level is mainly self-directed. In a social context, focusing on the concrete and particular is shaped by our interactions with other people. They situate us. That is why cooperation and collaboration are so important. Our social relations can help us pay attention to what we are doing without arousing anxiety or defensiveness, or they can interfere with our ability to attend to the concrete world. That is what this whole idea of situated cognition is all about.

Your own definition of craftsmanship is the “desire to do a job well for its own sake.” You posit this desire as a basic human impulse to do good work. So your theory rests on the assumption of an innate human drive?
The premise is very simple. Human beings are form makers, and as such seek a sense of closure, or what others would call wholeness. Craftwork, in developmental terms, enacts that impulse with physical objects, satisfying a psychological desire for closure and tangible results. There is no real full human development without this process. That is partly what I mean when I say “there is a craftsman in everyone.” I don’t think the quest for good work only applies to [the maker of] a Stradivarius. I think it is a capacity that exists in most human beings.

For a long time we have known that this is how people develop language and cognitive powers, but we haven’t appreciated that this same developmental path occurs in our dealings with the physical environment. The lack of research on the mental activity involved in making physical things has important social repercussions. People who are competent in verbal symbols are thought to be more gifted than those whose development occurs through physical or manual experience. There is a terrible blindness in modern society to people who work with their hands, and this leads to class differentiation and even contempt for manual work.

You tie craftsmanship to a number of other behaviors, principles and values including commitment, pride, discipline and upholding objective standards. Pride seems to be an especially potent reward of craftwork.
I don’t use the term pride in the sense of trumpeting oneself. It is more a sense of self-respect. We usually get incomplete rewards from other people, particularly if one is low in the social pecking order. So we have to look for other available sources of self-worth. Enacting this process of completion, of making something that is separate from us and stands on its own like an object, is a way of saying, “I made this. I exist.”

We could twist Descartes’ well-known phrase from “I think therefore I am” to “I make therefore I am.”
Absolutely. And there is a great emotional reward in such physical production. It gives you a sense of place in the world and that it matters that you’re here.

Another reward of the craft experience that you identify is the anchoring in tangible reality. Today, more than ever, we need such tangible anchors.
Our modern economy privileges pure profit, momentary transactions and rapid fluidity. Part of craft’s anchoring role is that it helps to objectify experience and also to slow down labor. It is not about quick transactions or easy victories. That slow tempo of craftwork, of taking the time you need to do something well, is profoundly stabilizing to individuals. When people are forced to do things quickly it becomes a type of triage. In the process of working very fast, we don’t have the time for reflection and being self-critical. We tend to go into autopilot and mistakes increase. This is founded on a basic principle of cognition, which is the inverse relationship between speed and quality. Self-critical faculties decrease with speed, and the brain does a better job of processing when it goes slowly than rapidly. The way the capitalist economy is designed sacrifices the logic of craft, which results in poorly made objects and a degraded physical environment. This capitalist model of productivity then feeds back into the schools, so the very training of people becomes industrialized. The craft model of education—slow, concentrated, repetitive—is seen as something dysfunctional and irrelevant in the modern world.

This trickle-down effect into education is crucial and connects to the question of organizing attention and the ability to focus.
That is a very important issue. Pedagogically, we teach people that the moment they learn to do something, they can move on to something else rather than continue to dwell on that lesson. When musicians practice something over and over again, they get deeper into the music, expanding it from within, exploring problems, and so forth. Our pedagogy doesn’t tend to that. We go by the notion that once you’ve solved something, the actual experience of doing it is secondary. And that whittles down attention. This is a terrible problem in the teaching of music in schools, where the length of time that children can practice becomes reduced. We disable the actual experience of repetition, and that eventually cuts down on our capacity to concentrate.

In the beginning, when someone is learning a manual skill like playing the piano, teachers try hard to entice students because they think they’ll get bored. But after a while students come to concentrate on the process of learning through doing a thing again and again. They become interested in the actual skill development.
The real pedagogical challenge is getting people to that point where they’ll do it without having the carrot of outside motivation.

I found it interesting that The Craftsman ends on a down note, with your suggesting that a craftsman’s life is often marked by “bitterness and regret.” Is that because our culture has scant regard for craft values and practice?
Hopefully, people who do good work and take pride in the thing itself can sustain hardships, even though they aren’t given much social or economic recognition. Some can, and others still want that external reward. We tend to think that self-respect within our work is a garnish on top of economic reward. Although that notion doesn’t agree with much social science, it is ingrained within American culture, which holds that first and foremost people believe the most important thing about work is making as much money as possible.

Which is capitalism. And this leads to the clash between a craftsperson’s values and capitalist values. In your book The Culture of the New Capitalism (2005) you claim that craftsmanship represents the most radical challenge to the new capitalism. So is capitalism’s strongest opponent craft?
Nobody believes in revolution anymore, and nobody wants to go back to the guilds. So this is not a brief for returning to the old-fashioned guild system. However, I think the most radical thing that could happen in the modern workplace is for workers to say, “Let us do a better job. This is not good enough, we could do better.” This would be profoundly destabilizing to the way most work is organized. So, in that sense, it is a very powerful proposal. We are beginning to see this in companies that are committed to employee enrichment and developing the craft powers of their employees, like Toyota and bmw. This is a real challenge for the future—how can we produce a nation of craftsmen?

In some ways we’re beginning to see an increase of the craft ethos throughout culture. We are in an age that is inventing new crafts all the time. A lot of craftspeople I meet are focused on the traditional craft media and don’t realize how what they do is related to advances in technology, medicine and politics. The principles of making physical objects and the skill sets involved have expanded to all sorts of other domains. I’d like to see people in the craft world get rid of their neurosis about justifying whether they’re artists or not. Instead, they should be looking at their practice as something that is really important. So it doesn’t matter whether Damien Hirst thinks they are artists or not. What matters is that the surgeon or the computer programmer sees that they are all engaged in the same kind of activity.

You’ve offered a complex diagnosis of our culture, but I’m curious about your prescriptions. If you could pass legislation that would help make people more engaged and competent citizens, what would it be?
I’d ban all multiple-choice questions in tests, which encourage people to get the quickest answer possible rather than to dwell on the problem. This may sound frivolous, but it is quite serious. On a more practical matter, I think that craftsmanship flourishes in small-scale business and I’d like to see our government, like the British government, invest more in small-production businesses. That’s an absolute necessity. To support craftsmanship you have to support enterprise on the small-scale level.

Also, in the United States we don’t put enough money into mentoring and have very poor mentor programs. We don’t pay master craftsmen to take on and train young craftsmen. We don’t see that as a social good. This is the single policy we could do in the u.s. to get people engaged in the transfer of physical knowledge from master to apprentice. So they can learn skills directly from those actually practicing their craft. I would really like to see this happen.

When you speak about building a nation of craftspeople, do you have an ideal cultural model or movement in mind, either historical or contemporary?
There are lots of small examples, but nothing that represents a huge alternative. In the beginning of The Craftsman I describe the community of Linux programmers and their chat rooms, which involve highly focused work on a concrete project. It is very interactive and very cooperative. Another small example in the u.k. is the organic farm movement, which is also quite cooperative, and where people are always discussing the skills of actually growing food. Now that isn’t going to shake the powers of the supermarket, but it is a strong movement. So there are lots of small initiatives like this. And in traditional crafts the same sort of thing is going on, with the return of people doing skilled physical work like weaving, knitting and sewing, for example. Parts of those economic sectors are coming back to life and they are much more collaborative. The idea of this is twofold: one is small-scale and face-to-face, and the other is web-based. I think the web is a fantastic medium for craftsmen. It is a means for mutual support, skill sharing and problem solving. There is something inherently workshop-like that dwells on the web; it is a great technology for craft.

Suzanne Ramljak, a writer, curator and art historian, is currently editor of Metalsmith magazine.

Richard Sennett’s major publications in sociology and cultural studies include:

The Craftsman, 2008
The Culture of the New Capitalism, 2005
Respect, In an Age of Inequality, 2003
The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, 1998
Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, 1994
The Fall of Public Man, 1977

He is also the author of three novels.