Review of Richard Sennett's "The Craftsman"

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James Livingston is Professor of History at Rutgers University and the author of Against Thrift.

What is it about Richard Sennett’s new book (The Craftsman) that is so irritating? Is it the smugness and the ignorance that inform it so deeply? Is it the fact that this is just the first installment of a projected trilogy? Is it the photo on the dust jacket which shows the author recumbent, resplendent, in white linen, arms covering the massive chair, as if Michael Corleone had grown old and gone South after all, using Cuba as his point of global departure? All of the above.

“One of our most distinguished public intellectuals,” the blurbs say. Really? Since when? Barbara Ehrenreich, one of the blurbers, is a much more distinguished intellectual, public or not, than Richard Sennett. What’s going on here?

I read Lewis Hyde, who has reviewed Sennett’s book for The New York Times Book Review, because William Leach told me to, in a great essay on consumer culture published in the Journal of American History back in 1980. Hyde’s book was then called—it has since been retitled—The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1979). It was, and is, a brilliant meditation on the difference between gift economies and capitalism, inspired and informed by Marcel Mauss, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Karl Marx.

George Gilder must have read it, too, because his insane book of 1981, Wealth and Poverty, is an attempt to equate the two. No, not Hyde and Leach—Gilder actually tried to equate Marcel Mauss (Durkheim’s son-in-law), the author of “The Gift” (1938), and that other, earlier Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Say, the classical economist who invented Say’s Law (which states that economic equilibrium is the rule because the production of goods creates demand for goods).

Then I read Leach’s book of 1993, The Land of Desire, and I was disappointed, of course, because it gets too nostalgic about the 19th century, and so disgusted by the 20th. You can sample my disappointment in Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy (2001), chapter 1. Like many other historians, including my colleague Jackson Lears, Leach suffers from artisanal longing, from the notion that a face-to-face relation with the world, with “the things themselves,” is better than a relation mediated by technology rather than tools.

Here’s an example of that longing, from Land of Desire, where Leach is denouncing the new, 20th-century world of consumer culture in which nothing is what it seems: ”The circumstance of material comfort and even of prosperity for most people throughout most of the nineteenth century [sic] was being superseded by the idea of possession, by being through having, by pageantry and show rather than by open confrontation with reality, by desire rather than fulfillment” (p. 190).

And now I have read Richard Sennett’s book, which the publicists have placed nicely even though it’s an academic press (Yale), and the same old longing happens without a hint of hesitance, or even self-consciousness. No, it’s more than the same old artisanal longing for authenticity. It’s much worse; it might even be destructive. The Craftsman, it’s called, and there’s a picture of a hand holding a tiny sculpture on the dust jacket, as if our relation to the world is still negotiated by the slight extensions of our bodies we call tools, by the leverage of devices that can be wielded with one hand.

There are three extraordinary irritants in this bizarre book. First, the author has not understood the writings of his own mentor—Hannah Arendt—as he has composed his paean to real work. Second, he thinks that he is saying something new, but he is merely reiterating the critique of capitalism and modernity that has been on offer from the Left for at least a hundred years. Third, and for me perhaps most important, he identifies pragmatism as the source of what he advertises as a novel intellectual approach to our present condition; this last move aligns him, he claims, with the late Richard Rorty and with Richard Bernstein, two giants of philosophy who tried to rehabilitate William James and John Dewey over the last thirty years. In this citation, as in the rest, he is just wrong.

Sennett thinks he is rescuing animal laborens from Arendt’s condescension. In fact, she made a very precise distinction between work and labor in The Human Condition (1958), her brilliant appreciation of Marx. She didn’t believe that “people who make things usually don’t understand what they are doing,” as the hapless Sennett has it—no, she believed, unlike Gramsci, that proletarians who labored blindly, passively, mindlessly, were a political problem. For they were the constituency of fascism, of every political idiocy available in the late-20th century. Theodor Adorno labeled them in 1950: The Authoritarian Personality (see pp. 744-52 for his own farewell to the working class).

The Human Condition is for political philosophy what Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform (1955) is for history and David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd (1950) is for sociology—another instance of what the Frankfurt School preached about benighted proletarians, “other-directed individuals,” who had no culture, no compass, no purpose, except those provided by the demagogues of the mid-20th century.

In that sense, Arendt’s second best book (On Revolution [1963] is far better than The Human Condition) is a celebration of poiesis as well as politics, indeed it is a plea to make politics the stuff of poetry, as it was in the ancient world, when questions of descent and dynasty—from whom was I born, to whom am I related?—were the substance of politics as such, as Oedipus the King finally understood.

“Who am I?” was the only question worth asking, then as now, but for us it is not necessarily answered in a public, political venue, where we act out our citizenship and develop our virtue. Our stage is society, the middle distance between the state and the family. The difference between these settings of self-discovery is the difference between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, between Aristotle and Hegel, between antiquity and modernity

The unity, the thematic force, of The Human Condition is, however, found here, where work, politics, philosophy, and poetry converge on the site of poeisis, the ancient Greek word for “making” in the sense of composition, not production, and the etymological root of the English word “poetry.” Arendt is closer to Hesiod than to Plato; she admires work that is not mindless or coerced. Like Sennett, she admires the work of the artisan because it is the predicate of politics as the Greeks understood it—if you own yourself, you are beholden to no one, you are a free man, and so you are immune to the rhetoric of the demagogues

But as Jacques Derrida, among others, tried to show us, this predicate of politics as the ancient Greeks understood it was also the predicate of metaphysics, of philosophy as such, and it, too, was rooted in the artisanal relation between active subjects and inert objects through which the slight extensions of a man’s body—mere tools—converted dead matter to useful items, valuable commodities.

“Violence and Metaphysics” was the title of Derrida’s breakthrough essay, back in 1964. By my reading, he was trying, like Heidegger before him, to say that the presupposition of a subject already enfranchised by the artisanal attitude, an attitude resident, then as now, in the admiration of poeisis, was deadly—it allowed for metaphysics, but it killed thought, it disfigured politics, and sometimes it even harmed real people.

Richard Sennett wouldn’t understand a word of the previous six paragraphs. He thinks he is departing from Arendt, going somewhere new, and using pragmatism as the map to get there. He has in fact reiterated her critique of modernity by claiming that meaningful work is an intellectual prerequisite of political progress. And the new place where he finds himself, having written this book, is as old as Marxism, existentialism, phenomenology, and so-called critical theory—take your pick. Finally, his appropriation of pragmatism makes no sense except as a way of saying, “Hey, I knew Dick Rorty, and dig this, Dick Bernstein and I are neighbors!” Am I repeating myself?

For more than a hundred years, the socialist and sectarian Left has used proletarianization and alienation as its axes to grind. In effect, it has been protesting, in good Polanyian fashion, the universalization of exchange value, that is, the conversion of labor power to a commodity. The socialist and sectarian Left, in other words, has resisted proletarianization and it has lamented alienation. That is the sum of its protest, by now making it, almost impossibly, more pointless than this belated book about the political potential of making things, all by yourself.

Sennett’s faux erudition is just another example of the same old protest, which is also on display in Christopher Newfield’s even more poignant book, Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University ([2003], I reviewed it for American Quarterly in March 2006). The program goes like this. Marx was right, we need to fish in the morning and write symphonies in the afternoon. That is, we need to be artisans—no more bosses, no more division of labor, let’s all get as authentic as we can. Newfield actually thinks professors are the model for this export of artisanal practices from the universities to the larger society. Sennett, bless his heart, isn’t yet ready to tell us how we go back to the good old days. Volumes Two and Three will surely get us there.

You might ask, what’s wrong with authenticity, and you might wonder, where do we go from here if the critique of capitalism on offer from Marxism, existentialism, phenomenology, and so-called critical theory is pointless? Good questions. My first approximation of an answer is, “water flowing underground.”

The second approximation goes like this. Get over it. There is no exempted space or time outside of the weird figurations of the commodity form—there is no place where your authenticity might be enacted, so stop acting as if there is a “clearing,” a “free social space,” in which you might connect with your fans or your students. The universalization of exchange value is complete, and there’s no going back to the simple harmonies of artisanal labor, wherein subjects and objects, not to mention men and women, were rigidly and intelligibly juxtaposed. So learn to live in a world where beautiful souls—Hegel’s locution—have become an endangered species.

The third approximation of an answer is pragmatism. I mean it, pragmatism is a much better critique of capitalism than that available in what passes for Marxism and all the rest. To feel the full, angry force of this argument, you’ll have to read my “Pragmatism, Nihilism, and Democracy,” an essay that will be published soon in a centenary collection edited by John Stuhr of Vanderbilt. Meanwhile I will ridicule Sennett’s rendition.

You’d think he would know better, being a colleague and a neighbor of Bernstein and all. But no: “The pragmatist movement began in the late nineteenth century as an American reaction to the ills of idealism in Europe, embodied by G. W. F. Hegel, in the eyes of the first pragmatist, C. S. Peirce” (p. 286). Right, that would be the same Peirce who said Hegel’s “objective idealism” was the origin of his “pragmaticism. Don’t take my word for it, see Karl-Otto Appel, Charles S. Peirce: From Pragmatism to Pragmaticism, trans. J. M, Krois (U Mass Press, 1981), p. 201 n. 35. Or go to the source, see the series of essays Peirce did for The Monist between 1890 and 1893, particularly “Evolutionary Love,” wherein he makes this unforgettable claim: “Matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws.”

William James did vow to “fight Hegel.” So did Karl Marx. So did almost every sentient 19th century intellectual, from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche. The decision on the fight doesn’t matter that much—it’s not who won, but what we do, in retrospect, with the confrontation. Sennett understands so little of 19th-century intellectual history that he forgets Dewey’s roots in Hegel, he can’t see that Marxism and pragmatism are different fruits of the very same intellectual intersection between German idealism and British empiricism, and he cannot grasp that Hegel’s great contribution to political philosophy was his passage beyond poiesis.

Pragmatism was, and is, a way of accepting and studying a world without cratftsmen—that is, a world in which skilled labor is rare and abstract social labor is normal (the same world Marx saw coming). Dewey wanted “industrial democracy,” not the restoration of an artisanal paradise, a household economy in which real men presided over their work and their families. For Sennett to suggest that “good craftsmanship implies socialism,” and that Dewey hungered for those good old days of pioneer individualism, is almost laughable. Except that it’s also stupid.

Except that it’s also not stupid. It’s a way of reinstating metaphysics and politics as we practiced them once upon a time, as intellectual functions of men who owned themselves. It’s a way of reasserting the political authority of certified intellectuals. Now if you’re a student of Hannah Arendt, that’s a good row to hoe, even if you don’t understand a thing she wrote. But what about the rest of us? We should follow your lead back to the workshop, where the tools of our liberation are stored? Why would we want to be self-sufficient?

No, you stay in the white linen, you stay in the chair. Keep lecturing to those benighted undergraduates who want to work for big corporations rather than grow their own food and build their own cabinets. Remain recumbent, Professor Sennett, because the next time I go downstairs the only tool I want to find is a guitar. I know, you studied music, but the only thing I can make with that angular tool is noise. When I do, I’m not creating myself, I’m just playing a song. Maybe it’s music, but I can assure you it ain’t politics.

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