Matt Crawford is a good friend of mine, and I read and commented on early drafts of Shop Class as Soulcraft, and so I don’t have much in the way of critical distance on the book. So I won’t offer anything like the standard roundtable critique of it but rather air some of the many thoughts the book has generated in my own head. Maybe some of these thoughts will suggest a roundtable critique of something else.
When the initial New Atlantis article came out, the thing that I found so thrilling, as someone with a background in continental political theory, was that here was a real work of phenomenology. The thing about Hegel’s Phenomenology, what makes it less readable than Crawford’s, is that it seeks to narrate the concrete emergence of forms of consciousness in history, but with exclusive recourse to abstract archetypes. You can see the contradiction here. Crawford, on other hand, recurs to the literal nuts and bolts. And the story he tells offers a corrective of sorts to the Hegelian story, which I’ll get to.
Like Hegel, Crawford argues that concrete labor on physical things generates a sort of higher knowledge, a deep acquaintance with the universal rules of cause and effect. Hegel means this to entail a sort of anti-Kantian irony, that the abstract categories of understanding that Kant devotes such grueling deductive labor to justifying are, in real history, generated by lowly slave types and in labor that might charitably be called inductive. Crawford preserves this irony and directs it at the ideologists of knowledge work.
And like Hegel, Crawford continues upward in this progression from concrete experience to abstract understanding to comprehend, at the next level, the kinds of social relations, the ethical communities, that grow from this pragmatic foundation. Labor is communal. People interact to get things done, but these interactions evolve over time to take in much beyond mere work. At the same time, the fact that these interactions are grounded in the more fundamental realities of labor conditions their character. “Shop Class” contains a striking passage in which the “crew” of carpenters working on a construction site is contrasted with a “team” working in an office on some much less concrete task. The former community is much more stable, communication is much more direct, and the members are much less anxious about their standing than in the case of the team in the office, where the actual objects of work and the measures of success and failure are much more ambiguous. The concrete pragmatic underpinnings offer a solid epistemic foundation, which, in turn, grounds a more a stable (and paradoxically liberated) ethical lifeworld.
It’s at the next level that Crawford parts ways with Hegel. Hegel’s account in not just the Phenomenology but also the Philosophy of Right is conditioned by his initial analysis of the master and slave – the master, whose nature is to choose recognition or honor over survival, the slave, who chooses survival over honor. Hegel conceives of the master’s quest for recognition in opposition to the slave’s devotion to the lower matter of his own survival and his subsequent preoccupation with the lower matter of his master’s physical sustenance. This sets up a series of conceptual oppositions – abstract versus concrete, universal versus particular, etc. – that become increasingly intertwined throughout Hegel’s account of European history but whose final resolution only Hegel has been really satisfied with.
The philosophical legacy of the master-slave dialectic is an extremely fruitful one, but it also contains a bias for highly aestheticized, anti-pragmatic conception of political action that many in contemporary political theory have taken up. From Nietzsche to Arendt to the many theorists of a postmodern politics of recognition, there is a tendency to view the quest for recognition as a higher sort of disposition that borrows from Hegel’s (and Aristotle’s) old opposition between the (abstract, supra-pragmatic) pursuits of the master and the lowly (though fruitful-in-the-long-run) pragmatic orientation of the slave. The quest for recognition, in these accounts, requires freeing oneself from the ballast of material survival, the entwinements of pragmatically ordered life, and/or the constraints of earnest, scientifically arid public discourse, that is to say the canons of rational thought. Depending on the postmodern theorist, one’s gambit for recognition ought to be artistic, ecstatic, poetic, deliberately nonsensical, pugnacious, communicatively recondite. The radicalism of postmodern democratic theory consists, often, in displacing the old normative and pragmatic measures of validity in public policy with aesthetic or otherwise non-teleological inspiration for political action. (A stock example I remember from my grad school days was the assorted public stunts of ACT-Up, which in their ecstatic or poetic nature had the effect, it was said, of unsettling complacent ways of public discourse that systematically ignored the existential claims of gay people.)
Crawford’s account makes a lot of Hegelian sense to me, but it also deviates strikingly from the Hegelian legacy I speak of. Crawford finds patterns of recognition he calls “aristocratic.” In this usage he is within the general tradition that links Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Arendt. But Crawford’s craftsmen are aristocratic because they work with their hands, because they have mastered the concrete knowledge of cause and effect that Hegel links to the slave’s vocation. This might be provocative to someone whose experience of these matters is limited to reading Judith Butler, but anyone who – upon the existential grounds represented by a broken automobile – has ever felt inferior to an experienced mechanic should find in it a powerful ring of truth.
I undertake this admittedly knotty digression because it gets to some political questions that might have a heightened valence at the moment. Arguments about recognition are arguments about freedom. Shop Class as Soulcraft offers a description of a kind of working life that offers a kind of freedom, and in doing so it raises the uncomfortable topic of the relationship of work and freedom – uncomfortable, that is, for American conservatism. Many conservatives have an affinity for what I might call the Aristotelianism of Crawford’s argument – its willingness to argue from a conception of human nature, its willingness to entertain hierarchies of human purposes, etc. – but that Aristotelianism tends to stop at the office door, which, if you believe Matt Crawford, is really where it should start.
Matt Feeney is a freelance writer in Oakland, CA.