Reading: Shop Class as Soulcraft (ch. 1-3)

shop class cover

Penguin Books, © 2009

Matthew Crawford is a philosopher and a mechanic and an entrepreneur. Although an examination of work might seem ill-suited to a blog that proclaims to be about the exploration of creative play, I don’t believe that work and play are opposite ends of a continuum or two sides of a coin–any more than I believe that philosophy and mechanics are two entirely distinct disciplines.

Crawford’s book tackles education, economics, morality, and work. As I read, I intend to capture in a series of posts excerpts that speak directly to questions about creative work/play. If you’d like to enter into a conversation with me about these words through the comments, please do. 

“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.” I do, in fact, want to rehabilitate the honor of the trades, as being choice-worthy work, but to do so from my own experience, which I find is not illuminated by any of these fraught cultural ideals.”

“Introduction,” page 6

Hmmm…is this why I sometimes chafe against simple living blogs–especially the especially beautiful ones? I come from working-class people. My people made things from necessity, not for play–although I find evidence of artful intention in their works that remain. As I attempt to cultivate the same skills–for example, to learn to knit and sew with craftsmanship, or to grow food and preserve it–I feel more comfortable when I label those activities as play than work. The thing is, I get to choose in a way that those who came before me did not. I am engaging in those activities for pleasure, not necessity. Is that the only real difference between work and play? In some ways, I feel more inauthentic when I do those things, as if I am playing house. It reminds me of my college days, when I was “poor.” True, I lived on very little. I lived in some pretty terrible places. But I don’t presume that I really know anything about living in poverty. I always knew that if I were really in dire straits, I had a safety net of family to catch me, and I think that makes all the difference in whether or not one is truly poor. So I don’t think I can know what value it adds to a life to make things ourselves when there is no other choice but to do so.

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. he can simply point:  the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”

“A Brief Case for the Useful Arts,” page 15

Yes. I would like to be relieved of the need to offer chattering interpretations of myself.

“…creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra).”

“The Separation of Thinking from Doing,” page 51

“The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an on-going submission. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary–there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument….

I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making….

In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways.”

“To Be Master of One’s Own Stuff,” pages 64-65

“Creativity is the byproduct of mastery”–This is why I feel the need to do exercises as I embark on this journey to explore creativity, especially in areas in which I have little experience. It is easy to look at the creative work of those who are accomplished and think, “I can do that.” And then, I sit down at a table with my gathered materials and feel blocked. I have no ideas of my own. I have no vision. The vision comes from the doing, not the other way around.

What is it we submit to? As Crawford says, the laws of our materials, the “concrete limits that are not of our making.” But also, I think, to the truth that we must submit before we can create. We have to learn and try and fail. We have to do, we can’t just look.


That’s all for this entry. I will add others as I continue reading.


8 thoughts on “Reading: Shop Class as Soulcraft (ch. 1-3)

  1. Marian says:

    I’ve been letting thoughts on this percolate all afternoon, and here’s what I’ve come up with:

    I agree with Crawford’s aim: the trades do need their honour rehabilitated. Our society is far too caught up in status. Everyone wants their child to become a heart surgeon, all the while forgetting that if there are no plumbers, and the surgeon has to fix his own broken toilet, he/she is not going to make it into the surgical suite that day.

    As to whether something creative is work or play: I too, come from a working class family (my dad worked in mechanical maintenance, fixing escalators/elevators, painting, etc, for a large department store chain). In addition to his day-job, my dad was also an excellent carpenter. He spent much of his time in his shop, building things. It’s hard for me to know, at this point, how much of that was necessity (would we have had a bookshelf if he didn’t have the ability to make it? Could my family have afforded to simply buy one?). There’s no doubt my dad loved woodworking, but he always called it “work”.

    The work/play definition is one I struggle with, and I too, would dearly love to be freed from the need to offer chattering interpretations of myself. I find myself settling (somewhat obstinately!) on the opposite side that you’ve stated: I feel more comfortable with myself and my reason-for-being when I call what I do work. So when I garden, and have a bumper crop of kale and spend hours in the kitchen washing/steaming/freezing — even though we could afford to buy the 17 batches of kale I preserved — I call it work. Sewing curtains? Also work. Personally, I don’t like the idea of defining work as something done from necessity, and “play” as making a choice to do the same something because one gets pleasure out of it or despite the fact that one could afford to buy it ready-made. I recognize that my feelings on this could entirely be coloured by the fact that I’m a SAHM, and I’m perhaps over-sensitive to the injustice of being told I don’t work. A woman in a factory in the third world makes curtains. She gets paid for her time (however little) and no one would ever tell her she doesn’t work; a SAHM makes curtains (and spends her day putting on the hats of various other professions), but she is routinely told she “doesn’t work”. All that being said, I too, seem to have drawn lines in the sand between what constitutes work and what constitutes play: I seemingly cannot allow myself to knit during the day (even though my daughter would love me to finish the fingerless mittens I started over Christmas). Even though I know there are women in Nepal, hand-knitting mittens, and they’re clearly “working”, I don’t knit until the evenings, when I’m presumably “off work” 🙂
    Marian recently posted…Processed Food is a Slippery SlopeMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I am so curious: Why is sewing “work” and knitting “play”? Or at least, something that happens when you’re “off work”? I can see I’ve spilled a kettle of fish. 🙂

      My views on this are colored by having been married to someone who was OK with spending time on projects that had use for the family (building furniture, home renovation, sewing curtains) but not on those that benefitted no one but the person doing the project (writing poems that would have a small audience if any and would not bring any money into the household). They are colored, too, by being acutely aware of which home tasks feel like “work” (cooking, cleaning) to me and which feel like play (sewing curtains).

      I want to suggest that the work/play distinction isn’t a useful one–to say that one woman’s work is another woman’s play and leave it at that–but that seems too facile and I suspect it would be me avoiding a question that’s important to explore because it feels like a hard, slippery one.

      I know I’ve heard many times that the luckiest people in the world are those who are able to do work that they would do for free simply because they love doing it. In essence, they are paid to play. But it is not that simple, and, in fact, I’ve made conscious choices not to do the creative things I love (such as blog) for money because turning those tasks into “work” changes the experience of doing them for me. I lose the part of it I love most. Writing this, I’m wondering if this is somehow at the heart of the tension between women who work primarily at home and those who work primarily outside the home. When my kids were small, I often thought that I would so love to have been able to stay at home with them and have the creative work of raising them and making our home be my primary job. I was jealous of women who had that. But the truth is, if that had been my role, I suspect I would have felt much differently about it. I know there are aspects of that life I would not have liked, and I suspect some of the things I took the most joy in when I was home would have changed for me if I were home all the time. I think I would have felt pressure to do things in ways I didn’t have to when the activities were part of my time “off.”

      I know that for me, in thinking about this blog and what I want to explore, “play” means those creative things I am choosing to do simply because I want to. “Play” means I get to choose how seriously I want to do them. I think I’m using “play” because I want to give myself permission to not-work at them–meaning, to do them badly, to do them sporadically, to do them for no other purpose than my own satisfaction.

      • Marian says:

        I have absolutely no valid reason why I view sewing as work and knitting as play! I enjoy both endeavours (well, to clarify, I don’t really love sewing curtains, but I did love sewing clothing for my children, back in the days when they would wear things I sewed). Because both activities result in useful and tangible ends (clothing/home items and sweaters or mittens), it really is a completely arbitrary distinction!

        Your ex-husband sounds remarkably like my father! My father was (is) a no-nonsense, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of man with the stereotypical German work ethic, and he was continually busy with something. He made it pretty clear that everyone else should be busy doing useful, productive things too (although reading was somewhat exempt from this, and was considered a good thing to do as well, even though there was no concrete product at the end). Being raised by this man (and by my mother, who (at least when I was growing up) was usually busy as well, and who instilled the whole “hands must never be idle” dictum that resulted in copious amounts of needlework being produced in my childhood) unfortunately resulted in the total squashing of a dream that I’ve had ever since I can remember: writing. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I never allowed myself to write because there was always something else to do, something that would result in an actual, physical something at the end of the efforts (and words on a page that in all likelihood would never be read by anyone else didn’t count as a physical something). I do recognize the fact that a novel is a physical something that can only be achieved through the long process of writing, so it’s probably a sad sign of innate pessimism that made me think this way. Several years ago I decided that I didn’t want, at the age of 80 or 90, to look back on my life and be angry with myself that I never even made an honest attempt to be a writer, so I started carving out time to sit and write, and amazingly, I made some great progress. Then, four years ago we moved to this fixer-upper and I’ve allowed renovations (I’m the drywall fixer, the painter, the oftentimes carpenter) – with their tangible results – to shove the writing to the side. My blog was born partly out of the need to get back to writing, but I have to confess that it was also born out of a need to make a tangible difference in a world I was getting fairly depressed about. Quite honestly, it was your reaction to my first post – the way you said my words influenced you to finally make a change with the plastic grocery bags – that still makes me keep going with it. But – and here again I’m running opposite to you – I can only make myself sit down and write (either on the blog or on other projects that I let fall by the wayside four years ago), if I reassure myself that it’s work!

        As to the tension between SAHMs and mothers with paying jobs … I think a lot of that comes about from guilt and jealousy on both sides of the fence. I’ve always been jealous of having an answer (other than SAHM or homemaker) to the inevitable “what do you do?” question that always arises when you meet someone. I never actually planned to be a SAHM. I always assumed I would go back to working (part-time though) as a pharmacist, but then we ended up moving provinces for my husband’s work right after our daughter was born. I would have had to jump through a number of hoops in order to be licensed in our new province, and then our second child was born. And then, making the hoops even harder to jump through, came our move to the US. Although my degree and professional credentials were one issue, another issue was the fact that my husband travelled an enormous amount for work, and that traditional childcare would be a problem for a shift working pharmacist with no family close by to call on for help. And then, just as I started to think well, perhaps I should be thinking of going back to work (somehow/somewhere!) we had our third child. So stay-at-home motherhood/homemaker status has always been a bit of a bone of contention with me. Between my father’s strict work ethic and my mother’s hands-must-not-be-idle and the sinking feeling I have deep down that I’m “wasting my degrees” and not contributing enough (something my husband would never, ever say), I’ve always had a really hard time “playing” during the day when I feel I should be “working”, and so my years as a SAHM have been utterly filled – sewing, baking, cooking, painting, building, volunteering, cleaning, ironing, gardening, chauffeuring, and lastly, when I think I’ve “worked enough” I get to the knitting and writing …
        Marian recently posted…Processed Food is a Slippery SlopeMy Profile

  2. Sarah says:

    I think the discussion going on in the comments here is even more interesting than the dialogue with the book in the main post! Plus, Rita and Marian, you two are adding a layer of gender to the conversation which is something that I suspect is missing from the book (I have not read it but I remember when it came out the discussion around it just seemed so dang male).

    I like what you are saying about creativity being the byproduct of mastery, and the importance of the constraints of one’s materials. But I wonder if all manual labor is really creativity? Is making a sewing machine run really the same kind of activity as making a quilt with a sewing machine? I kind of think it is not but I am willing to be persuaded. I think there are two elements here that are getting conflated — making things with one’s hands (or maybe more broadly: being competent at doing things with one’s hands), and creativity. They’re not the same thing, though some activities may have elements of both, and both are valuable in their own right.
    Sarah recently posted…Thoughts on month one of dressing like a birch forestMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I love your questions. I haven’t finished the book (it’s a bit of a dense read), but I’m confident that Crawford would not say that all manual labor is creative. In fact, he makes a clear distinction between labor that requires intellectual engagement with labor that does not (automated factory work, for the clearest example). One of the more interesting ideas to me is that we have begun stripping individual creativity/thought from some white-collar work in the same way we once did manual labor, with the result that it’s becoming as soul-sucking as working on an assembly line can be.

      I’m pretty sure Crawford would say (and I’d agree) that simply running a sewing machine is not creative work, but building or repairing one is. Of course, this all hinges on what our definition of “creativity” is. I guess I think creativity results in the making of something new. That could be a new idea, a new procedure, a new solution to a problem, or a new object. Or, maybe not always new? Maybe it is taking an existing thing (a procedure, say) and applying it in a new context. Or maybe it is more about a way of interacting with existing elements in this world: Making decisions about how to use and combine elements for a given purpose.

      Working within that sort of definition, I can see that gardening the way I have to grow food is not really creative at all. I know so little about how to do it, I’ve just bought plants and put them in the ground and watered them and hoped they’d live. There was very little decision-making or thought on my part. So, even though I was “creating” food, I wouldn’t call the act of doing so creative. I can see, though, that it’s possible grow food in a much more active, intellectually engaging–creative–way. Perhaps simply cooking is a better example. I can follow a recipe just fine, but I’m not very good at altering one or improvising with ingredients on hand. I’m definitely NOT a creative cook!

      As for issues of gender and creativity, more on that soon to come!

      • Sarah says:

        I guess I was thinking more about the distinction between building a sewing machine and fixing one. There are lots of different ways to build a sewing machine, but when it comes to fixing one…if the timing belt is busted you put in a new timing belt, you know? It’s an engineering problem. Of course, solving it might require creativity of thought — that kind of “seeing things differently” Crawford talks about that you mention in your latest post. But I think that’s different from the creativity of expression that is possible when you use the sewing machine to make a quilt. I’m not trying to say one kind of creativity is better than another, just trying to be precise about the terms. I agree that intellectual engagement is a big part of what makes work meaningful, whether the work is blue-collar or white-collar, and that the loss of that intellectual engagement in both spheres is a big problem. Anyway, I feel a bit pedantic writing this comment after reading your latest post, but I need a little more time to think about that one before I respond.
        Sarah recently posted…Thoughts on month one of dressing like a birch forestMy Profile

        • Rita says:

          Maybe it depends upon how complex the problem is? Changing a timing belt doesn’t seem very creative to me, either. Maybe it’s more creative when you don’t know what the cause of the problem is, and you need to figure it out. And the figuring out requires some experimentation. You have to put together bits of knowledge and act on them. But also: I get what you are saying. Making a quilt seems more creative to me, too. As for the last post–I know the answers to the questions coming up for me are likely in some middle ground between purpose and personal expression/enjoyment. But I think I might need to toss purpose aside for awhile to get anywhere.

  3. May says:

    I grew up #9 in a family of 10 kids. We had a three bedroom house. Perfect, you know—boys, girls, parents. One bathroom. And perhaps the biggest compliment I could ever give my parents–I never knew I was poor. Grandma made a lot of my clothes, and because they came from her it never occurred to me that they were anything less than amazing. Canning and preserves would be the one area that might have given me pause. Everyone I knew got their veggies from tin cans. Home filled jars made me uneasy. Now I love looking in my pantry and seeing mason jars filled with things I have grown.
    May recently posted…Fount of KnowledgeMy Profile

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