Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things
My orthodontist has been reluctant to remove my braces. “You must understand,” he tells me, “that if another orthodontist sees your teeth, it looks bad for me if they are not perfect.” Dr. Dayani doesn’t care that I paid off my braces a year ago. The extra sessions are not a concern to him. He just wants to do the job right.
What he’s really trying to say: it may be my mouth, but it’s his craft. This thought came to me as I was reading Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman while worrying my oral hardware on the airplane this week. What unites craft across the diversity of instances curated in this eclectic study is “dedication to good work for its own sake.” The craftsman, writes Sennett, manifests “the special human condition of being engaged.” The practical, repetitive, and often anonymous nature of craft distinguishes it from art, but the commitment of the true craftsman to achieving excellence on its own terms, because it feels good and looks right, separates craft from the instrumental, “bottom-line” mentality of engineering.
Sennett is no Luddite. He moves easily between traditional examples of craft — glassblowing, goldsmithing, cabinetry — and writing computer code or designing a cell phone. Sennett suggests that the open sorcerers behind the Linux project embody the same collective energies (and weird handshakes) as the masons who built Westminster Abbey.
Pertinent to D.I.Y. discourse is Sennett’s respect for the daily arts of cooking, parenting, and exercise. Craft reveals “the desire in each of us to do something well, concretely” (144).
For those not trapped on an airplane, I recommend skipping ahead to the chapter on “Material Consciousness.” Here Sennett probes the immanent forms of thinking that unfold in the synapse between hand and mind. His deeply evocative and tactile examples include pottery, cooking, writing, and brick making. You’ll be delighted to learn that “clay, like meat, is good to think with” (129).
Sennett is a “social philosopher” who draws on his own training in music to measure and transmit the special rhythms of craftsmanship. “Practicing,” he writes, “has its own structure and an inherent interest.” Through the rhythm of repetition, “we learn how to perform a duty again and again.” Each step towards mastery, moreover, “is full of ethical implication” (177, 178).
Meanwhile, as much as I love craft, I am glad my orthodontist has finally agreed that his work is done!— Julia Lupton · 2009-03-27