Does craft a craftsman make?

Reaching the conclusion of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, the last section on “Craftsmanship”, there is still much to sort through. But what I found myself questioning is who is the craftsman? I can see craft and craftsmanship as concepts that I can apply in my own work, teaching, and lifestyle – the making and what is made seem to better circulate across contexts. But craftsman, when I tried to similarly move it, seemed to stick as a word on Sennett’s page: craftsman. Sennett works to retrace the “spine” of the craftsman in Western society by describing the ambivalence represented by Hephaestus and Pandora. Sennett explains “Western civilization has not chosen between these persona so much as fused them into ambivalence about man-made physical experience” (293). He condenses views of Pandora and Hephaestus as artificers – one who makes beautiful but malign things, and the other who is flawed but makes good, everyday things. Tracing the fusion of these personae, he writes

“The man-made material object is not a neutral fact; it is a source of unease because it is man-made. Such ambivalence about the man-made has shaped the fortunes of the craftsman. History has conducted something like a set of experiments in formulating the craftsman’s images as drudge, slave, worthy Christian, avatar of the Enlightenment, doomed relic of the preindustrial past” (293).

And I wondered – where are we at now? In history, society, culture… How does that influence who is imagined as the craftsman? Is the craftsman the small family owned carpentry business that has been in operation for generations? Is the craftsman the couple who strive to live on their own labor outside of the city that make jewelry, or soap, or canned goods, etc. to sell at small, local markets? Is it the local artisan goat cheese company? Back home, in Michigan, is the craftsman nostalgia at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village – as diorama, as historical reenactments? Or is the craftsman in the auto factories? Or perhaps the craftsman isn’t associated with commerce at all, but is my dad, covered in dirt and grease every weekend (unrelated to his job)?

Sennett ends the book with this line, “The clubfooted Hephaestus, proud of his work if not of himself, is the most dignified person we can become” (296). And I wonder who is we?

The Craftsman: Material Consciousness and The Hand

While I have been enjoying reading Sennett as a whole, I was excited to read this section of the book given my own area of interest, but found that in this moment of thinking through, I have what I can best call “material scraps” of thoughts.

Material Scraps:

I couldn’t help but think about this Gorillaz song (the track layers masterful hip hop beats with audio of what sounds like someone practicing playing the violin – in the process of learning) in reading Richard Sennett’s chapter on “The Hand”. Sennett describes the Suzuki Method for teaching children to play music – habit as ingrained accuracy (and in the method, applying forms to the children’s fingers in order to get the feel of playing):

“What exactly did I do? How can I do it again? Instead of the fingertip acting as a mere servant, this kind of touching moves backward from sensation to procedure. The principle here is reasoning backward from consequence to cause” (157).

Left Hand Suzuki Method Lyrics

“The most important thing, is listening the recording of the music.
It makes them get um musical sense – and, uh – this is the point of the… fast progress!

“And also, everyday, every lesson
We have to make sure
They’re not lying about tunization!”

In recognizing the name Suzuki, I looked up Shin’ichi Suzuki and the Suzuki method and was surprised at the parallels between the philosophy of the method and the description of the guild apprenticeships Sennett describes in “The Workshop”.

In reading, I found myself trying to think of all the metaphors we use that focus on the hands as a means of making meaning. Hands allow us to learn “hands on”, to “get a grip”, to “get a feel” of things we’re doing. These metaphors then broadened to think of procedural metaphors for learning/obtaining knowledge or a skill – “we learn by doing”. These metaphors show a connection between head and hand, which is then absent in metaphors of rote learning, repetition, and mechanization in learning. I wonder if these were only possible after process and procedure changed with Fordist means of production that distanced/expanded the relationship between hand and head as the process of making something in total.

Richard Sennett: The Craftsman

Sennet, Richard. The Craftsman.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Richard Sennett, from Richard Sennett dot com

Richard Sennett, from Richard Sennett dot com

Richard Sennett’s website

About the author, from his Brief Biography

“Richard Sennett has explored how individuals and groups make social and cultural sense of material facts — about the cities in which they live and about the labour they do. He focuses on how people can become competent interpreters of their own experience, despite the obstacles society may put in their way. His research entails ethnography, history, and social theory.  As a social analyst, Mr. Sennett continues the pragmatist tradition begun by William James and John Dewey.”

Describes his works as “cultural studies“, but is using the phrase in an unusual manner to capture looking at how individuals and groups of people “make sense of material facts about where they live and the work they do”.

  • Works from interview and ethnography
  • Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and University Professor of the Humanities at New York University
  • Pragmatist/m: the function of thought is not to represent reality; instead, thought is a tool for prediction, taking action, and solving problems. Knowledge, language, science, and like philosophical topics are viewed in terms of practical uses and successes in action.

The Craftsman

From The Craftsman Magazine archives

From The Craftsman Magazine archives

“History has drawn fault lines dividing practice and theory, technique and expression, craftsman and artist, maker and user; modern society suffers from the historical inheritance. But the past life of craft and craftsmen also suggests ways of using tools, organizing work, and thinking about materials that remain alternative, viable proposals about how to conduct life with skill.”


“The craftsman represents the special human condition of being engaged” (20) in collective, tangible, material reality. But craftsmanship is poorly understood as a reduction to manual skill in a singular being without recognition of value in joining skill and community. Sennett sets out to examine the concrete practices of craft as investigatable – expanding notions of what counts as craft to technology, science, medical and like domains of craftsmen as craftsmanship has become institutionalized. His aims (as we continue reading) are to “explore what happens when hand an head, technique and science, art and craft are separated” (20) through larger issues presently and historically.

Main Argument (thus far)

Craftsmanship, dedicated,  skilled, good work for its own sake (20) that focuses on achieving quality to standards set by a community (25) is now organized in three troubled ways (52):

  • attempts of institutions to motivate people to work well (issues of individual competition, charades of cooperation)
  • developing skill, a trained practice, in environments that deprive people of repetitive, hands on training (a separation of head and hand)
  • conflicting measures of quality in products – one based on correctness and the other on practical experience (pulled between tacit and explicit knowledge)


In a time and global economy of automation and mass production, what is an available means of production that reorients itself as craft – making with a connected head and hand – beyond small enclaves of artisinal and craft counter-movements? (Sennett cites Japanese factories as more successful than Western production based on the collective way of doing, despite the scale and range of production.)

Does Byron Hawk’s post-techne – “the use of techniques for situating bodies within ecological contexts in ways that reveal models for enacting that open up the potential for invention, especially the invention of new techniques” ( “Toward a Post-Techne” 384) in combining technique, the technical, technology, and techne – provide illumination as a means toward solving the problems that Sennett is setting up to work through? What might this look like in action?

The Craftsman

Tomorrow we are discussing the first chapter “The Troubled Craftsman” in Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (which I will facilitate discussion on – a thumb in the crease of this post to return with a more holistic focus).

In this moment though, I am struck by the book’s prologue. For one, just having finished Aristotle yesterday, I am seeing his influence come through in the making of things for the good as a cultural matter in conducting a particular way of life (8) – connections! And while we have yet to read Bruno Latour, knowing that we will be reading pieces of Pandora’s Hope (which I have not read), and having a personal interest in Latour, I am captivated by drawing connections between Sennett’s use of Pandora, “Pandora’s Casket”, and Latour’s Pandora’s Hope in what I have read on it in his piece “An Attempt at Writing a Composition Manifesto”. Sennett writes

“If in this way culture’s time is short, in another way it is long. Because cloth, pots, tools, and machines are solid objects, we can return to them again and again in time; we can linger as we cannot in the flow of discussion. Nor does material culture follow the rhythms of biological life. Objects do not inevitably decay from within like a human body. The histories of things follow a different course, in which metamorphosis and adaptation play a stronger role across human generations…Material culture provides in sum a picture of what human beings are capable of making…Nature might be a better guide, if we understand our own labors as part of its being.” (15)

With Aristotle’s definition of nature still fresh in mind, I’m wondering what Sennett is eliciting with nature and if it is functioning as something to push against man|technological makings?

This makes me think of Latour’s compositionism as a way of envisioning progress not as forward looking, progressing in creating new materials (ideas and things), but at what is made – composed and decomposed. He explains

“compositionism takes up the task of searching for universality but without believing that this universality is already there, waiting to be unveiled and discovered. It is thus as far from relativism (in the papal sense of the word) as it is from universalism (in the modernist meaning of the world — more of this later). From universalism it takes up the task of building a common world; from relativism, the certainty that this common world has to be built from utterly heterogeneous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable and diverse composite material.”

and a more explicit Pandora connection

“The thirst for the Common World is what there is of communism in compositionism, with this small but crucial difference that it has to be slowly composed instead of being taken for granted and imposed on all. Everything happens as if the human race was on the move again, expelled from one utopia, that of economics, and in search of another, that of ecology. Two different interpretations of one precious little root, eikos, the first being a dystopia and the second a promise that as yet no one knows how to fulfill. How can a livable and breathable “home” be built for those errant masses? That is the only question worth raising in this Compositionist Manifesto. If there is no durable room for us on Pandora, how will we find a sustainable home on Gaia?”

In what ways are Sennett and Latour invoking Pandora, materials, making|composing, and nature for what we craft? Is Aristotle’s “good” as a function of our making still pertinent? Or is there something more sinister, a loss of connectivity between head and hand, at (mass) play?