Saturday, May 15, 2010

Shop Class as Soulcraft

purchased Shop Class as Soulcraft at the same time and airport bookstore as Acedia and me. Perhaps because I was looking for inspiration on a particular issue, both books turned out to be about the same things written from deeply different perspectives.

Matthew B. Crawford has a duel career path, that of motorcycle mechanic because he loves it and philosopher because he wants to make sense of it all. Kathleen Norris is a poet, an oblate and theologian, likely for the same reasons.

At first, I didn't think Crawford answered the relation between the manual trades and soul craft but after mulling it over, I realized he made some of the same points as Norris regarding persistence, agency and the need to inhabit your own life.

Crawford and Norris agree on the pressing need for individual agency. She calls the result of a lack of agency in work "industrial acedia" (121) or inability to care and be present as an actor, and Crawford says that "meaningful work" and "self-reliance" are ideals tied to "a struggle for individual agency" (7).

Crawford looks into the causes of lack of agency in today's world. The "separation of thinking from doing" makes us unable to "be master of one's own stuff". Crawford takes technical manuals for example. The tech writer doesn't know how to assemble the swing set or repair the bike. They just know how to translate from Japanese and write instructions. The illustrator knows how to run CAD drawing program but not how to put the product together. The loss in translation caused by this separation of thinking tasks (translating, writing, illustrating) from doing tasks (of putting it together) mean the resulting manual is not as excellent as it could be. This gap makes it hard to be the master of your own stuff by doing it yourself, throwing a monkey wrench in agency.

Crawford and Norris both talk about the need to live up to our full potential.

For Norris acedia "allows us to settle for being less than we can be, both as individuals and as a society." (113) And "If sloth means, as the pastor John Buchanan contends, 'not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious, prudent, digging a hole and burying [our treasure],' it is critical that we take into account what this means for society at large."

Crawford approaches the same territory from another angle. Praise removes intrinsic motivation for doing something because you attribute your interest to the external reward (194-5). This suggests that if you turn a hobby into work it will lose its appeal but this doesn't happen to everyone. Crawford posits that people who keep enjoying their hobby as work do so because they progress in excellence, implying the presence of standards.

Both authors point out the role of community in banishing acedia and achieving agency. Crawford points out that you find out more about what is excellent by connecting with those who can best judge how well you've achieved the functional goals you're aiming at (increasing agency). Crawford explores the role of community in excellence through the example of bankers. Years ago, I sat with my grandmother at the Agra bank talking to her banker who lived in Agra (306 people, 131 households, and 89 families) with her and her grandson's wife who worked there as a teller. Excellence in the knowledge of risk and the accountability of paying off loans in the context of close community is far different from that of the quanticled mess of sold, bunched, factored derivatived and whatever else they do to loans today.

Norris looks at freedom from commitment vs staying in place over time. Not trying to get out of here or move on to anywhere but here but staying right here and persisting until.

Both authors agree on persisting in doing.

Crawford: "Trying to get past things with haste is incompatible with dwelling in things and giving them their due. But Tocqueville also suggests that the kind of attention demanded by practical involvement can serve as a corrective to this tendency." (227)

Norris: "how I perform those often dispiriting duties, from the changes of a baby diaper, to the bathing of an aged parent, reveals what kind of God we worship....That faith and love operate best through humble means of boring everyday occupations is a thoroughly biblical perspective, for its stories repeatedly remind us God's attention is fixed on what we regard as unimportant and unworthy."

Shop Class as Soulcraft has an interesting subtitle: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. The fact that this book won 4 best book awards in 2009 means it's a popular topic. The fact that there are 2 books out addressing the same issue means it's pretty relevant. Crawford provides a philosophical perspective over time and history on our attitude toward manual labor, liberating our thinking that the current attitude is the only one. Norris provides the theological perspective. 

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