Crafting a New World
Sociologist Richard Sennett explains how working with our hands enhances critical thinking, radicalizes labor, and makes us proud
image by Margaret Cusack / www.margaretcusack.com
There is a craftsperson in everyone, according to Richard Sennett. But don’t spend too much time plumbing your psyche for a latent woodworker, quilter, or metalsmith. Craftsmanship, according to Sennett, a sociologist at New York University and the London School of Economics, both includes and eclipses the endeavors that might jump to mind. It is an “enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake,” he writes. It’s also an impulse that contemporary culture, with its obsessive embrace of efficiency, financial reward, and the bottom line, has devalued—to its own detriment.
Since the 1990s, Sennett has worked to dissect and illuminate how capitalism affects us. His latest book, The Craftsman (Yale University Press), explores how “making is thinking,” and what is lost in a society that fails to recognize craftsmanship and what is learned through using our hands.
The author sees in craft and craftsmanship the development of critical thinking, imagination, the ability to play, a source of pride, even validation of our existence. And there may be no better time than now, as people are engaged in a broad discussion of “what next,” to take heed of his ideas. One emerging theme of the post-financial-meltdown world is that many of us do not wish to return to the way work was.
In this interview, reprinted from American Craft, Sennett speaks with Suzanne Ramljak, a writer, art historian, and editor of Metalsmith magazine. They discuss his work, his diagnosis of American culture, and a craft-based prescription for change.
Your most recent book, The Craftsman, is the first in a trilogy devoted to what you call “techniques for conducting a particular way of life.” Can you elaborate on this project?
This is a project about material culture in the broadest sense. The Craftsman was about making things well; the second volume, The Workshop, focuses on developing social skills and cooperation; and the third, The Foreigner, will be about environmental design and crafting cities.
The question that ties them all together is: How do we develop skills in the course of making things, whether they are physical objects, social relations, or environments? Underlying this study is a theory I called “situated cognition,” which is the way human beings develop their capacities through craftwork.
One of the key issues you’ve identified is “how paying attention is organized.”
Attention is something that gets organized by others, as well as us. When we focus on making a physical object, or on playing a musical instrument, our concentration level is mainly self-directed. In a social context, focusing on the concrete and particular is shaped by our interactions with other people. They situate us.
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