For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

The Craftsman

by Sennett, Richard (2008)


Why do people work hard, and take pride in what they do? This book, a philosophically-minded enquiry into practical activity of many different kinds past and present, is about what happens when people try to do a good job. It asks us to think about the true meaning of skill in the 'skills society' and argues that pure competition is a poor way to achieve quality work. Sennett suggests, instead, that there is a craftsman in every human being, which can sometimes be enormously motivating and inspiring - and can also in other circumstances make individuals obsessive and frustrated. The Craftsman shows how history has drawn fault-lines between craftsman and artist, maker and user, technique and expression, practice and theory, and that individuals' pride in their work,

Key Passage

In  learning  to  make  a  Barolo  goblet  O’Connor  passed  through stages that resemble those we’ve explored among musicians and cooks. She had to ‘‘untape’’ habits she’d learnt in blowing simpler pieces in order to explore why she was failing, discovering, for instance, that the easy way that had become her habit meant that she scooped too little molten glass at the tip. She had to develop a better awareness of her body in relation to the viscous liquid, as though there were continuity between flesh and glass. This sounds poetic, though poetry was per-haps dispelled by the shouted comments of her mentor, ‘‘Slow it down there, cowgirl, keep it steady!’’ O’Connor happens to be small and demure; wisely, she took no offense. Her coordination thereby increased. Now  she  was  better  positioned  to  make  use  of  the  triad  of  the ‘‘intelligent hand’’—coordination of hand, eye, and brain. Her coach urged, ‘‘Don’t take your eyes off the glass! It [the molten gob at the blow-tip] is starting to hang!’’ This had the effect of her loosening her grip on the tube. Holding it more lightly, as a cleaver chef would his knife,  she  increased  her  control.  But  she  still  had  to  learn  how  to lengthen her concentration. This stretch-out occurred in two phases. First, she lost awareness of her body making contact with the hot glass and became all-absorbed in  the  physical  material  as  the  end  in  itself:  ‘‘My  awareness  of  the blowpipe’s weight in my palm receded and in its stead advanced the sensation of the ledge’s edge at the blowpipe’s mid-point followed by the weight of the gathering glass on the blowpipe’s tip, and finally the gather towards a goblet.’’ The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes what she experienced as ‘‘being as a thing.’’ The philosopher Michael Polanyi calls it ‘‘focal awareness’’ and recurs to the act of hammering a nail: ‘‘When we bring down the hammer we do not feel that its handle has struck our palm but that its head has struck the nail. . . . I have a subsidiary awareness of the feeling in the palm of my hand which is merged into my focal awareness of my driving in the nail.’’≥∂  If  I  may  put  this  yet  another  way,  we  are  now  absorbed  in something, no longer self-aware, even of our bodily self. We have be-come the thing on which we are working. This  absorbed  concentration  now  had  to  be  stretched  out.  The challenge O’Connor met was the result of a further failure. Though her well-positioned, relaxed, absorbed self had succeeded in gathering the glass  into  a  bubble  and  forming  it  into  the  desired  Barolo-friendly shape, the glass, when left to cool, turned out ‘‘lopsided and stout,’’ a thing now dubbed by the master craftsman a ‘‘globlet.’’The problem, she came to understand, lay in dwelling in that moment of ‘‘being as a thing.’’ To work better, she discovered, she needed to anticipate what the material should become in its next, as-yet non-existent, stage of evolution. (p.173)


Craft, Craftsmanship, Skill, Art, Pride, Technique, Heidegger, Work Quality, Meaningful Work, Artist



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