Shifting Phases's Reviews > Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford
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really liked it
bookshelves: buy-these

I both loved this book's wit and was frustrated by it. Overall, that's a good sign that there's lots of substantive content that's worth agreeing and disagreeing with.

Crawford's basic point that, contrary to popular wisdom, manual labour is not obsolete. He dissects the prevailing notion that "knowledge work" is the only path to a decent life and comes to a very different conclusion. Much of knowledge work can be codified according to rigid rules that can be done better by a computer (particularly if it involves searching or sorting). Much of manual work in the skilled trades can not be codified according to rigid rules. Furthermore, implying that manual work is not knowledge work is ridiculous. The distinction that matters is whether work can be codified, not whether it gets your hands dirty. Misunderstanding this causes us to misunderstand our economy, our educations, and our society -- and therefore to apply inappropriate remedies that lead to existential malaise. It's a Problem With No Name for the white collar world.

I had every intention of dismissing this as the romanticized paternalism of some middle-class white guy having a mid-life crisis. I mean, look at the title. I decided to believe that the title was forced on the author by some schlocky publicist. But it was recommended by someone whose opinion I respect, so I promised myself I would read a chapter. I couldn't shake the premonition that it would be a banal homage to "the good life" of earthy simplicity that is supposedly enjoyed by indigenous people, farmers, and the poor (even though they somehow rarely get book deals out of it). I was wrong.

I was wrong because this book's problems, though there a few, are in other places. The "male anxiety," for one thing, is over the top. The author never mentions a single woman working in the trades, uses male pronouns throughout, and refers to "men" exclusively when talking about the virtues and culture of working with your hands ("The satisfactions of ... manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy." p. 15). Women are metaphors for everything wrong with society (the white-collar world's worst excesses of mercuriality are "like being part of a clique of girls", p. 158; lack of manual skills causes a loss of self that results in a "maternal" dependence on one's stuff, p. 61). The rest of the time, women are absent (the hallmark of intellectual freedom on a job site is that you "can tell dirty jokes." p. 159; "Too often, the defenders of free markets forget that what we really want is free men." p. 209). Then there's one tiny footnote buried in the back of the book admitting that some of what he loves about the job site results in "the nonwhite guy and the woman... [incurring] extra hardship." Great -- you acknowledge that what makes it so great for you makes it twice as hard for me, but you're going to advocate for it anyway. You've got all this experience, and enough time to think book-length thoughts about it, but couldn't be bothered to come up with a single idea of how to extend the benefits you love so much to the rest of the world. Thanks.

The guy's obviously not a misogynist; he makes interesting and thoughtful use of quotes by Gertrude Stein, Hannah Arendt, and others. I get that his comments about "mankind" are just metaphors. But when all the metaphors about women are negative, and all the positive metaphors are about men, it starts to grate on your nerves. It's a kind of negligence that flies in the face of the book's message of human value, honor, and community-building (the New Yorker gives this nuanced analysis). For writing that fills in that gap, check out Susan Eisenberg.

Other internal contradictions in the text, not to mention the self-indulgence, are also sometimes distracting. While the author rants against things that are more complicated than they need to be, his own prose can sound like a standardized-test vocabulary list. The NY Times explains it well.

None of this stopped the rest of the book from being deliciously satisfying, as Crawford dissects ideas that usually reduce me to infuriated sputtering. If my critiques make it seem like I'm panning this book, nothing could be further from the truth. I recommended this book to dozens of people, because I want to talk about the ideas it connects: everything from the alienation of labour in the digital age, the meaning of agency in the context of "21st-century skills," authority, self-esteem, consumerism, class, engineering, embodiment, "imposter syndrome," to anarchism, marxism, and moral education.

My copy is almost invisible behind a forest of sticky notes where I marked thoughts the text had sparked, or favourite epigrams. I laughed out loud in restaurants while reading it. It helps that I'm a tradesperson working in a "knowledge economy" job. The people and philosophies he deconstructs surround me every day. The rebuttals are satisfying and worth saving, but the book also helped me dial back my own judgement a few notches and I came away with a bit more empathy for my interlocutors than I had when I started.

The rest is gravy. A few choice bits:

On concealing engineering:
"Lift the hood on some cars now" and you will find "another hood under the hood." (p. 2) This leads to dependence, passivity. Perhaps it is designed to engineer it? Or it is intended only to be smooth, and is willfully ignorant of its effects. I'm not sure which is worse.

On the "mysticism" of "craftsmanship":
"I won't be talking about Japanese sword makers... (p. 5) "I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a 'simpler' life that is somehow more authentic or more democratically valorous for being 'working class.'" (p. 6)

On the intellectual demands of manual work:
"This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have felt doing manual work... Perhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually. [emphasis is the author's -- M.]" (p. 5)

On not being bothered by our stuff:
"Why do some of the current Mercedes models have no dipstick, for example? What are the attractions of being disburdened of involvement with our own stuff?" (p. 7)

On human-scale life:
Self-reliance may be "only a thin economic rationalization for a movement that really answers to a deeper need: We want to feel that our world is intelligible... this seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home." (p. 8)


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Reading Progress

May 25, 2011 – Shelved
Started Reading
May 26, 2011 – Finished Reading
July 12, 2011 – Shelved as: buy-these

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