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modern craftsmanship

Craftsmanship is a term most often applied to manual laborers and denotes the pursuit of quality in making a violin, watch, or pot. This is too narrow a view. Mental craftsmanship also exists, as in the effort to write clearly; social craftsmanship might lie in forging a viable marriage. An embracing definition of craftsmanship would be: doing something well for its own sake. Self-discipline and self-criticism adhere in all domains of craftsmanship; standards matter, and the pursuit of quality ideally becomes an end in itself.


Understood this way, craftsmanship sits uneasily in the institutions of flexible capitalism. The problem lies in the last part of our definition, doing something for its own sake. The more one understands how to do something well, the more one cares about it. Institutions based on short-term transactions and constantly shifting tasks, however, do not breed that depth.


An organization in which the contents are constantly shifting requires the mobile capacity to solve problems; getting deeply involved in any one problem would be dysfunctional, since projects end as abruptly as they begin. The problem analyzer who can move on, whose product is possibility, seems more attuned to the instabilities which rule the global marketplace.


...craftsmanship has a cardinal virtue missing in the new culture's idealized worker, student, or citizen. It is commitment. It's not simply that the obsessed, competitive craftsman may be committed to doing something well, but more that he or she believes in its objective value. A person can use the words correct and right in describing how well something is done only if he or she believes in an objective standard outside his or her own desires, indeed outside the sphere of rewards from others. Getting something right, even though it may get you nothing, is the spirit of true craftsmanship. And only that kind of disinterested commitment - or so I believe - can lift people up emotionally; otherwise, they succumb in the struggle to survive.

- Richard Sennett, from 'The Culture of the New Capitalism' (2006).

Sociologist Sennett has become a kind of 21st century Max Weber, specializing in the sociology of labor and the workplace. In the context of global capitalism and what Zygmunt Bauman has called liquid modernity, craftsmanship has all but become "dysfunctional". Instead it is the opposite type, the "problem analyzer", aka the consultant, who thrives in this kind of workplace.

His next book, 'The Craftsman' (2008), built on this idea further. In an interesting review, Lewis Hyde summed up the know-how of craftspeople:

They know how to negotiate between autonomy and authority (as one must in any workshop); how to work not against resistant forces but with them (as did the engineers who first drilled tunnels beneath the Thames); how to complete their tasks using "minimum force" (as do all chefs who must chop vegetables); how to meet people and things with sympathetic imagination (as does the glassblower whose "corporeal anticipation" lets her stay one step ahead of the molten glass); and above all they know how to play, for it is in play that we find "the origin of the dialogue the craftsman conducts with materials like clay and glass."

For an inspiring freestyle elaboration of this theme - based on his experience as a musician - see Sennett's Premsela Lecture 2011, titled 'Out of Touch' (PDF).

Compare also this more lyrical but otherwise very similar description of craftsmanship from Ivo Andrić.


the gift

...a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, (...) works of art exist simultaneously in two 'economies', a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a wor… Read the full post »

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