Monday, October 11, 2010

Recovery or revolution?

I admit that I admire a professor who places a provocative text into my hands as a requirement of the course he is teaching. I especially admire a professor who has the theoretical fortitude to force the reading of material that does not necessarily support, as so much propaganda, his own inestimable positions. Such is the case with Bill Ramp’s choice of Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford. It would be easy to write off this book as just another luddite tome advocating a resistance against the encroachment of ‘technology’ and its contingent value system – namely the alienating predisposition of capitalist schema. Crawford is far more ambitious than that and to that end the work is commendable indeed.

Like Dwight Garner’s NYT review describes,

Many of the ideas in “Shop Class as Soul Craft” are deeply resonant. Mr. Crawford mourns that shop classes were largely eliminated from American high schools in the 1990s because they are expensive to run, and sometimes dangerous. He takes this as a symptom of a larger problem: We have, as a people, lost our fundamental manual competence. We can no longer fix our own stuff, and we are increasingly steering our kids “toward the most ghostly kinds of work.”

His book, he writes, “advances a nestled set of arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful. It also explores what we might call the ethics of maintenance and repair.”

What Crawford successfully argues is a recovery of the devalued nature of skilled manual labour in western society which, according to his convincing rhetoric serves to dehumanize individuals into ghostly work that is reduced to insignificance. His argument is immediately amenable to all the common luddite advocacy against advancing technology and the all-too-common-place theoretical position that postulates that capitalism with a human face might be possible. On the face of it one can easily get succumb to his throttle twisting rhetoric that seems to reject the way the blinkered pursuit of all things ‘technologically advanced’. He certainly advocates a return to the idea that we should be able to lay our hands on the stuff that we interact with daily.

It was exactly this type of mentality that led me to attempt to build my own computer a few years ago. I was frustrated by the fact that my machines seemed to invariably breakdown (whether to the onslaught of viruses or hardware dysfunction) I resolved to crack open the box that gave source to my frustration and learn how to build one for myself. I learned a lot of stuff about how a computer works. In the process of building my first three or four units I encountered numerous problems whose solution gave a great deal of satisfaction. But I think that the only thing that this venture really gave me was a mediation for the anger that frequented by disposition when something would go wrong. It put me in direct connection and control over a piece of machinery that seemed to have mystical power over my very existence. I would love to report to you that from that time on computers have ceased to be a source of pain and concern in my life. I am sad to report that a recent bout of spyware saw me returning not once but twice to some eager lip-licking ‘technicians’ who gladly exorcized the demonic rascals from my hard drive. It was not that I was powerless in my own ability – it was just that even with my advanced detailed knowledge of the machinery and its essential working structures. And even with the deductive (rudimentary as it is) skill in diagnosing the diseases which help my machine captive I chose to give over my advanced cognitive skills in order to save myself the drudgery of fixing it myself.

In the same way Crawford seems to all too conveniently avoids the idea that while he IS the one who fixes rare bikes with cunning and skill –there are many who for a myriad of reasons have abandoned that as a notion worth engaging in. In so doing he also missed an important point about his argument. It does not go far enough.

Sure he can recover out of the ghostly shadows the value of manual labour but only to the point of fetishsizing these other forms of work within the current system of operation. Its true that skilled manual labour needs to be revived as valued. --That the old ways of doing things are important and necessary…

it is not uncommon to see people abandon the conventional methods of face to face interaction – lets say by telephone – in favour of cryptic facebook messages or ominous text messages open to whimsy of pluralistic emoti-lante-ism (emotion + vigilante + ism --- to borrow a Shrute-ism).

BUT… what we need to realize is that somewhere buried in this hog-riding rhetoric is a certain longing to see past values restored to their proper position within a system that once gave it honour. It’s the system that requires adjustment/fixing/repair not the ‘mechanics’ of some yesteryear nostalgic repertoire of frames that might only serve to reinforce the perpetually problematic ethos of our current free market ideology. We need a different way to imagine the idea of value. We need a different way to image the idea of significance.

Why is it for instance that the poverty-stricken Haitian boy slapping an old bike tire down the dusty road lives with a peculiar sense of joy, generosity and gratitude that is blaringly lacking in the youth of our ‘more advanced’ society? His engagement with a less technologically advanced world and his enjoyment of more simple pleasures is evidence of the need to reconsider our ideas about value – our ideas about worth and work… But we are wise not to think that if we could merely get our own children to play marbles in the dust or carve their tops that this would be enough. We must be driven beyond these superficialities toward the type of revolution that reframes our world toward ideological positions that refuse to accept that individual worth can be evaluated, reduced, or judged according to the ability of the individual to produce products or labour that meets the vacuous arbitrariness of our modern world of work. 

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