Shop Class as Soulcraft: a Book Report, Sort Of

That Other Blog Over There piqued my interest in Matthew Crawford’s SCAS some months back, but apparently someone or something did the same for many other Chicago readers, with the result that the public library didn’t have a copy available until last week. Sometimes that kind of situation makes me desperate enough to actually go out and buy the book, without even waiting until it comes out in paperback (which usually happens at roughly the same time that the Chicago Public Library acquires it.) Fortunately, this time, my current difficult finances enabled/required me to hold out a bit longer and finally read the library’s copy. I don’t mean to sound curmudgeonly, because SCAS was a reasonably good read. But it was not the wellspring of original thought that That Other Blogger led me to expect. It was, in fact, warmed-over Paul Goodman and David Riesman, without a single attribution to either of them.

Well, okay. See: The More Things Change… for more grousing about the same thing, and for a mode of reconciling oneself to it. Those who have not read Goodman and Riesman, as Santayana might have said, may have to rewrite it. With, admittedly, an interesting overlay of speculation about the financial crisis of the last couple of years, drawing a nice parallel between the alienation of labor and the commoditization of mortgages. These are still worthwhile ideas, and if books by Goodman and Riesman have become hard to find, Crawford is no doubt entitled to reintroduce their thinking to this generation, which probably needs it more than mine did.

And, like Goodman and Riesman, Crawford talks almost entirely about how our alienation from the world of physical work affects men. Which is a serious batch of issues, well worth discussing. But how about the way that alienation affects women, if in fact it does so at all, or even as much as it affects men? I think women are in better touch with the physical world, and physical work, than men, these days. We still, by and large, do the cooking and the cleaning and the housework. Admittedly, the portion of it that men agree to do is usually the least alienated and most interesting part of it, such as fancy cooking. But women do the day-to-day plain cooking, and take as many shortcuts in the process as they can afford, since they are under the same time pressures from the paid workplace as their menfolk. As a result, there are probably a lot fewer women around than in my mother’s generation who can tell you how to make a good non-lumpy gravy without buying it in a jar. Last night, for the first time in a couple of years, I made such a gravy. It took maybe ten minutes longer than the kind that comes in a jar, and that ten minutes was already tied up with various other tasks involving preparation of a pair of turkey drumsticks, so the total process didn’t take any longer. It felt like an accomplishment, even though nobody except Mr. Wired would ever have noticed.

Also, the other night, while working on a blog about the effect of third-party payment on the economy, I got so absorbed in this mind work that I forgot about the very material teakettle under which I had lighted the burner, until I discovered that the water had boiled away and the kettle had been ruined. Or rather (from Crawford’s point of view) its ruin, initiated by an inadequately performing whistle, was completed. So much for intellectual work versus physical work.

Generally, every night, I clean up the kitchen (having made the momentous discovery that the Elves will not do it for me, no matter how long I leave it, and that it really does feel nicer to make breakfast in a clean kitchen) and find the task quite satisfying. I proofread and copyedit my text as I type, and take pride in producing final text with minimal numbers of typos and fluffs. (It took me a while to understand that most people do not proofread their emails before hitting send, and that it is considered rude to call their attention to typos.) I don’t like messy text going out over any of my signatures. All of these activities are interactions with the physical world that lack the homespun glamor of Crawford’s conduit-bending and motorcycle repair work. So they lack even the narrow “public” of such predominantly male activities. They are mostly what industrial psychologist Frederick Herzberg calls “hygienic factors”—things, the presence of which does not noticeably please the person who benefits from them, but the absence of which seriously displeases him/her. A lot of women’s work fits into this category.

The other thing Crawford ignores, perhaps because he is a white male, is that the kinds of material immediate-feedback work he finds least alienated are also the kinds that attract many really intelligent “minority” workers and women. Rosabeth Moss Kanter discusses this phenomenon at some length. She feels that choosing “staff” rather then “line” positions within the corporation limits the upward mobility of women and minority workers, and generally advises against it. But “staff”—such as engineers, computer analysts, medics, and janitors—perform work that can be quickly evaluated, with little room for the evaluator’s prejudice. A good engineer builds bridges that don’t fall down, even if her boss doesn’t like her because she is “too shrill” or “too quiet,” or even if he is Jewish or Asian or Hispanic and doesn’t quite “fit in” in the lunchroom. Crawford draws on Dilbert and “The Office” to ridicule personality-based evaluations, but it seems not to occur to him that this style of evaluation encourages not only groupthink and stupidity, but discrimination. And Kanter does not, evidently, realize that taking a staff position may limit one’s upward mobility, but also limits the likelihood of suffering discrimination for not being the “right sort of person.” (For a lot more information on this phenomenon in the history of the American legal profession, see Jerold Auerbach’s Unequal Justice.)

So anyway, read SCAS, but don’t buy it unless you have never read Paul Goodman or David Riesman and can’t get hold of any of their stuff now. And while reading them, listen for the bloody teakettle. Or just heat the water for your tea in a self-limiting microwave (something Crawford would no doubt appreciate.)


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