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I don’t like machines. I find them dirty, confusing and, even worse, boring. I also don’t much enjoy working with my hands. I like reading books and telling people, in text or speech, what they should think about them. These qualities make me, I’m pleased to think, reasonably well-suited to academic life. But I don’t know if they make me a good choice to respond to this book, which is, after all, about the dignity and virtue of the trades.

What follows from these disclaimers is that I’m going to leave to one side Matt’s phenomenology of motorcycle repair. He says he finds it challenging, thought provoking, and rewarding—and I’m prepared to believe him. My questions focus on the sociological and philosophical framework in which those reflections are embedded. While I found much of Matt’s account convincing, a few points struck me as underdeveloped.

First, I wonder how widespread the suspicion of manual work that Matt describes actually is. Without much evidence beyond my own experience, I suspect it’s peculiarly American, and reflects the passion for self-betterment so well described by Tocqueville. Americans do not only tend to think that their lives should be characterized by constant improvement. They also believe that their children should live better than they did themselves. Of course, it’s hard to say what “better” means. But that may be why educational and occupational markers are so appealing. It’s easy to grasp improvement—and equally important, to express to others—when it can be tracked by clear criteria. Status distinctions between blue-collar and white-collar, college and high-school degrees, shop and office help us do that.

It’s true that these distinctions are not always economically justified: a plumber may earn a lot more than someone who answers phones at a call-center. But the income of a plumber probably can’t rise above a certain level, while the rewards of non-manual work are in principle limitless. To enter the world of knowledge work, even in a relatively menial capacity, means access to the possibilities that manual work is thought, probably reasonably, to foreclose. This may be why Americans love stories of the clerk or secretary who becomes the big boss.

I don’t think you find the same anxieties in countries less obsessed with upward mobility. There, manual work tends to be valued, partly for itself, but also for its stability. When I lived in Germany, I often saw teenagers working as helpers on building sites. They weren’t earning extra money to buy more and better things—they were on the vocational education track, which in Germany is much more integrated in the real economy than American shop classes. Yet approval for that system is linked to a kind of class-consciousness that makes us nervous. So, what extent is the problem here a feature of the American mind, and to what extent is it inherent to capitalism?

Second, the distinction between knowledge work and manual work seems to me overdrawn. Matt’s beef, I think, isn’t with the authentic knowledge work of the physician, the lawyer, the computer programmer, or the accountant, all of whom have to deal with objective, if not wholly tangible standards of achievement. It’s with the pseudo-knowledge work he did summarizing articles for library indexes. But I can’t think of anyone except Richard Florida, who defends the latter as an end in itself. More likely, people regard such work as choice-worthy because they think it’s a step toward a something that is, in fact, more rewarding. They may be deluded about their prospects, especially as more and more of the tasks that belonged to the traditional professions are transferred to electronic sweatshops. But I don’t think their basic intuitions are very different from those that animate the book.

The exception is our national cult of Wall Street, and its idol MRKT. An extraordinary number of otherwise reasonable people were, until recently, convinced that they wanted to play computer games with dollars all day. But surely you don’t have to be a sociologist to understand their motive. As Willie Sutton was supposed to have said (but probably didn’t), that’s where the money was.

Third, I want to ask Matt to elaborate on a theme that appears only fleetingly in the book. That’s the element of what fancy people call “gendering”—I mean the basically male perspective from which the argument is articulated. One the things Matt likes about the crew or shop is that they are settings where men can be men, as opposed to the passive-aggressive “culture” of the modern office. Despite my effete distaste for handwork, I’m inclined to agree with him. Where does this leave women? Is there some equivalent but separate space for them to enjoy the virtues of manual work? Or is this a call for the embrace of female gearheads—and not just of the ornamental kind you may remember from such films as the Fast and the Furious and Transformers II?

Of course, there’s no reason that a practico-philosophical argument must be gender-neutral. Since Matt draws explicitly on Heidegger, its worth noting the that sage of Freiburg criticized his initial account of Dasein on the grounds that ignored sex. But Matt also seems to refer, without quoting, to Harvey Mansfield. So I’d like to hear something more on the perennial problem of manliness.

Finally, to insert a reflection on our amicable (yet bone-crunching) FPR vs. PoMoCo smackdown, this book seems to me to imply a valuable defense of, or at least reconciliation with the, the fluidity of democratic capitalism. Despite his long experience of manual work, Matt wasn’t born to a family of mechanics—his father was a physics professor. Although he’s lived for a while in Richmond, he’s not from there. He chose it as his home after years in California and Chicago. And, as all reviews note, he’s not just a mechanic with a word-processor. He’s a Committee on Social Thought certified Deep Thinker.

Does this make him a soulless cosmopolite? Surely not. What it suggests is that traditionalist criteria of continuity and authenticity are not very useful guides for living a decent life. We are, as Peter is found saying, stuck with virtue. But we are also stuck with choices that can only be resolved through the assertion of individual will and judgement, which is the central feature of the modern project. To what extent can these imperatives be synthesized, or at least balanced? That’s the question we’re trying to answer, and in a way that might be of use to those of us who grew up without a front porch (or whose porch faced the opposite house rather than Pappy’s farm). I think Matt provides an illuminating, but distinctly “postmodern” response.

As I said at the outset, these aren’t so much criticisms as requests for elaboration. I was impressed by the book when Matt described it to me a few years ago in the barroom of Hotel Boulderado. I’m more now. But Matt, now that you’re on TV and, I hope, can get a healthy advance for your next project, what’s going to happen to the shop? It’s when one has the opportunity to really live from one’s own thoughts, rather than providing the best arguments money can buy, that the choice between manual and knowledge work gets difficult.

Samuel Goldman is a Ph.D candidate in the Department  of Government at Harvard University. He is working a dissertation on German Idealism and the theologico-political problem.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Sam,

    Since you brought it up, “Where does this leave women? Is there some equivalent but separate space for them to enjoy the virtues of manual work?” Oh, I dunno, maybe we can try the kitchen, where the sounds of our honey’s bangin’ those pots and pans signals the possibilities of domestic tranquility while participating in and “enjoying” the Lawlerian “virtues of manual work.” After all there is an erotic component to a feminine exhibition of sweat and strain.

  2. Bob’s cheeky response aside (“cheeky”?!? oh, hey, I made a funny!), Goldman has a point in calling attention to some of Crawford’s language and thinking. As he says, it’s only fleetingly noticeable in the book, but it is definitely there, and I find myself wondering along with Goldman, “where does this leave women?” Perhaps, being such minor theme in the book, it’s not worth comment; or perhaps it’s something to be applauded, a bravely un-PC embrace of the rough, masculine, arguably natural, borderline sexist exclusivity of the motorcycle repairshop, the same as likely exists on any construction site or any place where you find men working on projects that directly engage them with material things, not other (potentially female or gay or hyper-sensitive) people. But I also wonder if one ought to at least acknowledge a balancing awareness here, the fact that our collective (though also only ever partial) retreat from such masucline enclaves has been a contributing factor in women being allowed to pursue lines of education and work fulfillment that they were socially and often legally denied in the past. (Crawford does touch on this in one footnote, but he could have said more about it.)

  3. “Where does this leave women?” A dynamite question there – and one that makes me glad my wife does not read FPR or my comments. I suspect the mass entry of women into the work force since the 60s contributed significantly to the ongoing degradation of work as a vocation or otherwise something that makes an important contribution to the spiritual and moral life of a person. Natural, informal order and customs in the workplace were smashed in order to stretch work to fit ideological categories in ascendance, and the idea that men and women are completely interchangeable may have contributed to the reduction of the human person to something else that’s interchangeable (and expendable) – a cog in a machine. Stripping away those human features that are barriers to full sex integration in the workplace may have had a lot more unintended consequences that we realize. This is a good, thorny topic to meditate upon.

  4. Russell,

    “But I also wonder if one ought to at least acknowledge a balancing awareness here, the fact that our collective (though also only ever partial) retreat from such masculine enclaves has been a contributing factor in women being allowed to pursue lines of education and work fulfillment that they were socially and often legally denied in the past.”

    But at what other cost? Every social change, like the adoption of every technology, also has costs in addition to benefits, was it worth it in the end? I am very conflicted on this, as to women in higher education I think is a blessing but other places I’ve worked in my life I have questioned this, specifically the military (I was in the Army in all-male units and mixed sex units and there is no question in my mind the former are greatly superior and with vastly fewer problems, despite the occasional good female officer or soldier I’ve known, on balance sex integration has not served the Army well).

  5. With respect to the question of whether “manual labor” is thought less of compared to “knowledge labor” (your excellent criticism of the neat division notwithstanding) outside of the U.S., I think the status distinction obtains in East and Southeast Asian societies that have seen the material benefits of modernization.

    Of course, few would ever be so rude as to say so in public.

    We are, as Peter is found saying, stuck with virtue. But we are also stuck with choices that can only be resolved through the assertion of individual will and judgement, which is the central feature of the modern project.

    I have a minor quibble with this. In my view, the central feature of the modern project is not so much that choices can only be resolved through the assertion of individual will and judgment, which is only partly true both in modern and pre-modern times, as modern societies resolve and limit many individual choices via the State while pre-modern societies did the same via the Church, families, State, etc. The central feature of the modern project with respect to the individual will is better understood as the elimination of all natural limits to the individual will on the road to the ideally sovereign self.

    It is not the existence or exercise of choice that marks modernity, but the refusal to acknowledge limits to the sovereign self grounded in a natural order. The modern self rejects the idea of a natural order (embodied in authoritative communities, human nature, etc.) which constrains and judges his will and instead declares that he can create himself and the world without limits. Those who reject the modern project seek instead to make their choices in submission to a reality they can’t completely control/recreate and a moral order they ought to conform to, an order which finds expression in shared, non-autonomous life.

    To the extent that Crawford’s choice of working with his hands is in recognition of and submission to the natural, good condition of being embodied and finding fulfillment in using his body, he recognizes that there is a natural order to which a well-lived life conforms and rejects the Gnostic tendency to see the human body with its limitations as bad/not as good as the spiritual/intellectual life. To this extent, he is not a modern.

    To the extent that Crawford is simply living an “alternative lifestyle” that is good only in so far as it is merely a product of his individual desire and volition apart from a natural order, his choice is modern and he’s simply lucked out that his desires conform to the natural order. But I think he thinks there’s more to this than mere personal preference, though I could be wrong.

  6. Steven,

    But at what other cost? Every social change, like the adoption of every technology, also has costs in addition to benefits, was it worth it in the end?

    I don’t have any answers either. I suspect, though, that we don’t don’t help ourselves or anyone else interested in this question by framing it in terms of an end-point justification. We can’t know if it was “worth it in the end,” because we aren’t at the end, and never will be, because before anything ends something else starts up again. The best we can do, I think, is to make the questions as specific as possible–speaking, for example, of not “sex integration in the workplace,” but sex integration in this occupation–firefighting, surgery, aircraft control, teaching, soldiering, automobile repair, etc.–at this particular time, and so forth. Of course, to allow for such specificity is to invite disciminations, some of which the Supreme Court (for reasons good or bad) will find to be invidious. It was good to throw the racist “separate but equal” out the window, and yet, in losing that locution as a constitutionally allowable form of distinction-making, we’ve almost made it much harder to allow that different social positions and occupations have enormously different practical and ethical grounds to them, with the result that some such positions and occupations probably can or should be more equitable than others.

  7. On the Woman Question, from page 5 of Shop Class as Soul Craft:

    “My examples are drawn mostly from the mechanical repair and building trades because that is what I am familiar with (I used to work as an electrician), but I believe the arguments I offer can illuminate other kinds of work as well. It so happens that most of the characters who appear in this book are men, but I am sure that women, no less than men, will recognize the appeal of tangible work that is straightforwardly useful.”

  8. It is always interesting to me when it is asserted either directly or implied that the triumph of the Modern Project is that the Will and Individual Want has found its greatest freedoms and expression within Modernism and its servant Democratic Capitalism. Looking at this current depauperate culture, I see primarily conventional boosterism, nonchalant acceptance of large consumptive institutions, a surrender of skepticism to group-think and a suspension of any well developed individual identity ….such as that possessed by a mechanic repairing a machine…in favor of the vaunted , and now flummoxed Service Sector Employment and its so-called “knowledge worker” . Escapism and fantasy are everywhere. The standard bearer of so called modernism, the U.S.A. is the apogee of spectator culture and a steadily accumulating ennui is the pay-out. Narcotics are everywhere, both electronic and pharmacological. Easy answers are the preferred answer. Knee-jerk pride is everywhere. Workin for the weekend is a national anthem. Sports as “masculine endeavor” has castrated the male in many ways, juvenilizing them in but another fantasy spectator mindset of disappointed personal achievement salved by rooting for the winning team.

    This is the great bait and switch of the Modern Experiment. Seduce the participant by notions of unchecked want satisfied by limitless technological invention to provide continued exhilaration but instead, the participant is shanghaied into a relentless regime of unrequited want, continuous disappointment, deracination, spectatorism, rootless wandering, and a host of other identity -erasing cultural givens that are camouflaged by the debt-financed consumer cornucopia. Meanwhile, the prevailing notion that one can “get something for nothing” …food drops fully formed into market shelves, government can take care of every whim or want, disease shall be eliminated, world peace shall be insured by world institution…etc etc, becomes automatically assumed to an extent that a Bell weather State with the 8th largest economy in the world can resort to IOU scrip without much more than a passing interest by the larger society. Dirty work is for others and the great goal is to remain spotless within some technological capsule that can “protect” us. No, despite the tawdry explosion in tame personal expressions, individual Will and Identity have been roundly subverted by the Modern Project and this erosion of Will and Identity runs concurrently with an erosion in spiritual mankind as well. A richly spiritual being does not exist without either Will or Identity.

    Nothing so gratifies a person than the successful completion of a task that required both physical effort and prolonged reasoning aimed at the production of either a repair or creation of something new of worth…whether it be practical or beautiful…or, both. Covered in grime, looking at the produce of one’s hands and brains, working with others toward a shared concrete goal and sharing in the experience as both producer and consumer, one simply cannot fail to understand cause and effect or truly appreciate one’s value and identity within the larger existence. Craftsmanship is an obvious expression of a deep spiritual being.

    This Triumph of the Will espoused by so many of the adepts of the Modern Project is really nothing so much as institutionalized amnesia and indolence.

    Dirt is one of the more antiseptic things left to us in our germophobic existence of mutual assured destruction.

    As to feminism and its discontents, it remains one of the more specious efforts in our long history of self-delusion. Having abjured the second wage of a working mother, the Concept and I consider it the best investment we ever made in both our marriage and its output: three gainfully occupied and independently thinking children who have a strong sense of fairness and commitment to both themselves and their fellow. The Concept, an instinctually better business person than I…she might have indeed been a far better bread winner with her Teaching Degree for a good portion of our working lives, and in particular our retirement years and she remains plagued by all manner of haunting ideas that she did not create a worthwhile life for herself…in a fiduciary sense…but the fact remains that we invested in making three citizens and that investment is beginning to pay off handsomely. The notion that motherhood is some form second class citizenry or an abridgment of possibilities in this age is one of the larger disreputable hoaxes we continue to embrace. It, like motorcycle repair, is a venerable craft of dirty hands and measurable ends. This does not mean that the workplace should bar woman in any endeavor, for both their unique insights and different analytical propensities, it is simply an assertion that a home-maker should never feel a sense of loss when comparing themselves against a Corporate Executive or First Lieutenant or Electrician who might have outsourced their mothering to another.

    Again, this mad dash into the unisex life is another abnegation of individual identity and will.

    Lastly, one of the central premises of the book is that mechanical work is intellectually vigorous. This , again, speaks to the stated notion of boredom allied to cleanliness and caused the reviewer to open their review of the book with a disclaimer that their role within the Intellectual-worker world makes them ill-suited to the task at hand. Another victim of the get something for nothing edifice: the reviewer has been denied the opportunity to understand the intellectual vigor of an internal combustion engine, plumbing, electrical wiring, building anything in complex terrain or a well-constructed chair but is happily cleaner as a result. I don’t think , with the qualifications offered that the reviewer either believes this or is professing it but it seems implied.

    With the culture relentlessly descending into a self-dug pit of functional illiteracy, they will be unable to create a ladder to climb out even if somebody drops the hammers, nails, saw and lumber for the job directly to them. Given the trajectory, they will most likely attempt to catch the hammer with their mouth.

  9. Sure, I remember the passage. But that’s more of a flag that he’s not going to engage the issue than an argument. The question is, what counts as “tangible work that is straightforwardly useful”? And do men and women tend to perceive it the same way? Dreher talks about cooking in his post. Does that count? What about doing laundry?

    I hope it’s evident from my post that I don’t ask because I’m trying to catch Matt out in sexism or other venal sins. Rather, I think it’s a genuinely interesting question, both in itself and as a part of the attempt to rescue the experience of the real human individual from value-neutral, gender-neutral, place-neutral abstraction.

    Albert, thank you for your refinement of my argument. I agree that there’s more at stake than choice-it’s a question of whether choice is seen as a decision between given alternatives, or a condition of indeterminacy to be pursued for itself. Crawford certainly doesn’t endorse the latter-that’s what’s at stake is his distinction between agency and autonomy. My perhaps snide (but friendly!) remark at the end was meant to suggest that there’s a lot of “lifestyle” in his own example. And that that’s probably unavoidable when few of us are born “situated” in way that would have been considered inescapably natural until the last century or so.

  10. We have somehow managed to develop a caste system very similar to that of the traditional Hindu with the knowledge worker at the top, the Brahman. Or, as the saying goes, “A rich truck driver is still a truck driver.” Those who work with their heads are qualitatively better than those who work with their hands and the hand workers are defined as expendable, which is why no one gets really bothered when a foundry goes out of business.

    After all, who wants blue collar workers for neighbors? They just get drunk and make noise.

    It is an interesting cultural development and no doubt historians are going to have a great deal of fun trying to figure it out, especially in a culture that will not publicly acknowledge any class differences. But it is great fun watching people from other countries trying to navigate the American caste system and not quite figuring out how to do it.

  11. Is there a feminine equivalent to motorcycle maintenance?

    Speaking as a young wife… yes. They used to call it Home Economics, including such subjects as cooking, sewing, and other useful crafts. Everybody likes to eat and have all their buttons attached, and doing these things skillfully is definitely good for the soul.

  12. “I don’t think you find the same anxieties in countries less obsessed with upward mobility.”

    We’ve really become a resume filler society. If you haven’t done all the right stuff, and in the right order, you’re out of the upward mobility game. That’s why you see goofy things like new lawyers and law students with 100k debts working for free in the “right” jobs. It is simply unacceptable that they might have done anything they could, like digging ditches (don’t knock it, it’s better than document review) in the interim, much less for life.

    Also, I have a sense that much of the anxiety comes from the kind of labor that “upward mobility” exacts, which makes you exhausted at the end of the day, but not that good kind of exhaustion that makes you want to plop down on the bed and pass out. 12 hours of manual labor, makes you tired, but it feels good, you want to go home, eat, and go to sleep. And sleep you do. 12 hours in the office, that makes you hungry and tired, but sleeping is much less likely.

  13. Am I the only one who thinks writing article summaries for a library index sounds like an interesting job? (I’m completely serious.)

    Anyway, I think Mr. Goldman is wrong about the era of Toqueville. (I can’t remember what Tocqueville himself had to say about the matter, though.) A major development of the post-Revolutionary era is that those who had achieved financial success nonetheless took pride in their humble origins in way that they had not before, when traces of the aristocratic belief that manual labor was degrading (although always less strong in Britain and her colonies than on the Continent) had lingered. This is part of the reason why property qualifications for voting were abolished, for example.

  14. James, I think Crawford also found it interesting for a while, until he discovered that most of the articles required background knowledge he could not hope to attain in order to do a good job summarizing the articles. With the quota required to justify his job, he ended up having to bs his way through until he couldn’t take it anymore. I think the story is in his 2006 New Atlantis article “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”

    Samuel, yes, the distinction between agency and autonomy seems to be getting at the human condition of embeddedness within a preexisting natural order I’m thinking about. How much of Crawford’s example is a matter of “lifestyle” autonomy in that sense is unknown to me, since being a mechanic can look the same whether it’s a choice stemming from autonomy or agency.

    Nevertheless, we all start (situated) from somewhere, and I’m less interested in the inevitable shortcomings as I am in the trajectory of our lives.

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