The Case for Working with Your Hands

Posted by Cygnus Team
8 July, 2010

Anyone looking for a good used machine tool should talk to Noel Dempsey, a dealer in Richmond, Virginia. Noel’s bustling warehouse is full of metal lathes, milling machines, and table saws, and it turns out that much of it once resided in schools. EBay is awash in such equipment, also from schools. Most of this stuff has been kicking around the secondhand market for about fifteen years; it was in the 1990s that shop class started to become a thing of the past, as educators prepared students to become ‘knowledge workers.’The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wide ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit. And, in fact, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to ‘hide the works,’ rendering many of the devices we depend on every day unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the proto–humans in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odysey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealdness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.

In this book I would like to speak up for an ideal that is timeless but finds little accommodations today: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be most hardheaded: the hardheaded economist will point out the ‘opportunity costs’ of spending one’s time making what can be bought,  and the hardheaded educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as jobs of the past. But  we might pause to consider just how hardheaded these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, once that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.

Around 1985, articles began to appear in education journals with such titles as ‘The Soaring Technology Revolution’ and ‘Preparing Kids for High-Tech and Global Future.’ Of course, there is nothing new about American futurism. What is new is the wedding of futurism to what might be a called ‘virtualism’: a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. New and yet not so new – for fifty years now we’ve been assured that we are headed for a ‘postindustrial society.’ While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, the manual trades have not. If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help. Because they are in China. And in fact there are chronic labour shortages in both construction and auto repair. Yet the trades and manufacturing have long been lumped together in the mind of the pundit class as ‘blue collar,’ and their requiem is intoned. More recently, this consensus has begun to show signs of cracking; in 20006 the Wall Street Journal wondered whether ‘skilled [manual] labour is becoming one of the few sure paths to a good living.’

This book is concerned less with economics than it is with the experience of making things and fixing things. I also want to consider what is at stake when such experiences recede from our common life. How does this affect the prospects for full human flourishing? Does the use of tools answer to some permanent requirement of our nature? Arguing for a renewed cultivation of manual competence puts me at odds with certain nostrums surrounding work and consumption, so this book is in part a cultural polemic. I mean to clarify the origins of, and thereby interrogate, those assumptions that lull us into accepting as inevitable, or even desirable, oour increasing manual disengagement.

I will be making frequent reference to my own work experience, most recently as a motorcycle mechanic. Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I suddenly don’t feel tired, even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Through the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a while. I give him a wave. With one of his hands on the throttle and the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back. But I can hear his salute in the exhuberant ‘bwaaAAAAP! blum-blum’ of a crisp throttle, gratuitously revved. That sound pleases me, as I know it does him. It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is ‘Yeah!’

The wad of cash in my pocket feels different than the checks I cashed in my previous job. Following a docterate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, I took a job as executive director of a Washington ‘think tank.’ I was always tired, and honestly could not see the rationale for my being paidd at all – what tangible goods or useful services was I providing to anyone? This sense of uselessness was dispiriting. The pay was good, but it truly felt like compensation, and after five months I quit to open the bike shop. It may be that I am just not well suited to office work. But in this respect I doubt there is anything unusual about me. I offer my own story here not because I think it is extraordinary, but rather because I suspect it is fairly common. I want to do justice to intuitions that many people have, but which enjoy public credit. This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as ‘knowledge work.’ Perhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually. This book is an attempt to understand why this should be so.

My examples are drawn mostly from the mechanical repair and building trades because that is what I am familiar with (I used to work as an electrician), but I believe the arguments I offer can illuminate other kinds of work as well. It so happens that most of the characters who appear in this book are men, but I am sure that women, no less than men, will recognize the apeal of tangible work that is straightforwardly useful.

Allow me to say a word about what this book is not. I want to avoid the kind of mysticism that gets attached to ‘craftsmanship’ while doing justice to the very real satisfactions it offers. I won’t be talking about Japanese sword makers or any such thing, and generally prefer to use the term ‘trade’ over ‘craft’ to emphasize the everyday nature of my subject. Compared to any real craftsman, my own skills are execrable, so I have no basis for talking about the higher spirituality that is alleged to arise from a perfectly fit mortise or whatever. As a rough working formula, we might say that craftsmanship, as an ideal, provides the standards, but that in a mass-market economy such as ours, it is the tradesmen who exemplifies an economically viable way of life, one that is broadly available and provides many of the same satisfactions we associate with craftsmanship. Also, we tend to think of the craftsman as working on his own in a snug workshop, while the tradesman has to go out and crawl under people’s houses, or up a pole, and make someone else’s stuff work. So 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 within my own experience, which I find is not illuminated by any of these fraught cultural ideals. Hardly any of the people I have worked with as an electrician or a mechanic have fit the stock image of ‘blue collar.’ Quite a few have been eccentrics – refugees from some more confining life. Some drift in and out of the work, as I have, as circumstances dictate.

This book 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, and in doing so I hope it will speak to those who may be unlikely to go into the trades professionally but strive for some measure of self-reliance – the kind that requires focused engagement with our material things. We now like our things not to disturb us. 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? This basic question about consumer culture points to some basic questions about work, because in becoming less obtrusive, our devices also become more complicated. How has the relentless complication of cars and motorcycles, for example, altered the jobs of those who service them? We often hear of the need for an ‘upskilling’ of the workforce, to keep up with the technological change. I find the more pertinent issue to be: What sort of personality does one need to have, as a twenty-first century mechanic, to tolerate layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines?

What follows is an attempt to map the overlapping territories intimated by the phrases ‘meaningful work’ and ‘self reliance.’ Both ideals are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the very centre of modern life. When we view our lives through the lens of this struggle, it brings certain experiences into sharper focus. Both as workers and as consumers, wee feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces. We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellecually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.

There seems to be a mismatch between form and content, and a growing sense that the official story we’ve been telling ourselves about work is somehow false.

The time is ripe to dwell on this unease rather than dismiss it. The scope of the economic crisis is still  uncertain as I write this; it may turn out to be a mere disturbance, soon forgotten. But, however briefly, we are experiencing a genuine crisis of confidence in our most prestigious institutions and professions. This presents and opportunity to reconsider some basic assumptions. The question of what a good job looks like – of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honoured – is more open now than it has been for a long time. Wall Street in particular has lost its luster as a destination for smart and ambitious young people. Out of the current confusion of ideals and confounding of career hopes, a calm recognition may yet emerge that productive labor is the foundation of prosperity. The meta-work of trafficking in the surplus skimmed from from other people’s work suddenly appears as what it is, and it becomes possible once again to think the thought, ‘Let me make myself useful.’

Back to basics, then. The cover is cracked. It is time to rip it off, look directly at the inner workings, and begin to fix things for ourselves.

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