The Craftsman

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

People tend to have strong opinions about material culture, and what is viewed as advancement by one may be another’s anathema. The continuum ranges from those who experience acquisition (and thus ever-increasing production) as their birthright and those who may not possess as much or gain it as easily but who are nonetheless aspiring and acquiring to those who do not participate appreciably or successfully in the material culture as well as the iconoclasts who are consciously choosing to forgo it. Despite differing practices and perspectives, the culture of materialism seems likely here to stay. As it becomes irrefutable that materialism is endangering the ecology of the planet, long-term ramifications and ethics are increasingly being emphasized. People are asking what is good and what is enough and what is good enough. People are also asking about work. What is work for, and what does it mean to do work well?

Richard Sennett addresses such issues in The Craftsman. He investigatesamong other thingsthe history of craftsmanship; how work is (or could better be) organized; distinctions between job and career; the correlation between disciplined work and a settled mind; and the interconnectedness of work and play. Sennett values the sense of craftsmanship that was exemplified in earlier times and documents its diminishment. He argues, however, that its essence is still present in the technological world, evidenced by such examples as open-source computer software, particularly Linux, which Sennett refers to as a public craft. Refuting polarizing viewpoints, Sennett asserts that material culture matters. To that end, this first volume of Sennett’s planned trilogy lays the foundation by investigating craftsmanship as “an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” He explains that the second volume will explore the creation of rituals to deal with aggression, while the third will focus on making sustainable environments. Sennett says that all three books consider the dangers of material culture and look at technique as a cultural issue, yet each book is intended to be independent.

Sennett traces the fear of material civilization back to the Greek myth of Pandora. The story is that Zeus ordered Hephaestus (god of craftsmanship, bringer of civilization) to create Pandora (goddess of invention), who was sent to earth as a punishment for Prometheus’s wrongdoing. Pandora, possessed of talents, was also given a box (or jar, terminologies differ; Sennett sometimes refers to Pandora’s casket), which she was told not to open. Pandora disobeyed, and thus she released all the ills of humanity. Sennett cites the modern secular interpretation of this myth, in which the evils in Pandora’s casket are no longer seen as put there by angry gods but are somehow intrinsically the fault of humankind.

Sennett believes that “experts in fear of their own expertise” create new technologies almost in a detached way and then turn them over to the general public without a framework of how their work should be used. He references instances in wartime (obviously, the atomic bomb) as well as in peacetime (the ecological crisis, for example, for which Sennett believes “technology may be an unreliable ally in regaining control”). Sennett disagrees, however, with people who idealize the simpler ways of the past as well as those who eschew technological trends for the future. He unfolds his disagreement with influential political theorist Hannah Arendt and well-known German philosopher Martin Heidegger, among others, explaining that “fear of Pandora creates a rational climate of dread,” and dread can cause paralysis. Sennett sees technology as a risk, for sure, but certainly not as the enemy.

A student of Arendt almost half a century before, Sennett says that he was inspired by her ideas, but, even then, he felt they were not sufficient to deal with materialism and the technology inside Pandora’s casket. He argues that the division between Animal laborens (humanity as beasts of burden who ask “how,” where work is seen as a never-ending necessity) and Homo faber (people asking “why,” producing a life in common) is false because it “slights the practical man or woman at work.” In order to deal with the issues of Pandora’s casket, Sennett calls for what he terms a more vigorous cultural materialism, including a fuller general understanding of how people produce things. Rather than present the publicafter the factwith what...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

American Scholar 77, no. 2 (Spring, 2008): 128-131.

The Guardian (London), February 9, 2008, p. 6.

New Statesman 137 (February 11, 2008): 58-59.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 16 (October 23, 2008): 28-30.

The New York Sun, April 23, 2008, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2008, p. 20.

The Observer (London), February 17, 2008, p. 25.

The Sunday Times (London), February 10, 2008, p. 44.

The Wall Street Journal 271, no. 72 (March 27, 2008): D7.