Being a craftsman in the 21st century

Is it possible to do otherwise, from knitting to weaving?

Zappa Times

Zappa Times

“So many books so little time...” Inspired by Frank Zappa, Zappa Times writes about literature, nature, food, and economics.

I mentioned "The Forum", BBC podcast series in one of the old newsletters. I have been following The Forum for years with great pleasure and curiosity. It is very instructive for me. In each episode of this program, many different topics from literature to politics, from history to current events are evaluated by experts. In the past weeks, I came across a great episode about the history of knitting titled "Unravelling the history of knitting". With the sound of knitting needles faintly heard in the background, "Unravelling the history of knitting" was full of interesting details from beginning to end and was mind-opening in many ways.

The program covered many topics such as the history of hand knitting from the Middle East to Europe to Latin America and the fact that it was perhaps the earliest mechanized craft (the first knitting machine was built in 1589), and changing knitting fashions including Spanish stockings knitted from silk.

Of course, gender-related aspects are also touched on when the subject comes to hand knitting. In the 19th century, the emergence of knitting books and the much more frequent identification of needlework and needle knitting as feminine pursuits coincide around the same time. It is important to keep in mind that the association between femininity and knitting at the time was more of a class connotation for bourgeois and aristocratic women.

1st Heavy Metal Knitting World Championship in Finland (2019)

The main starting point for the program was the growing popularity of knitting in the 21st century. Indeed, after listening to this program, I did a small search on the internet and realized there is a lot about knitting, especially in the last 20 years. Knitting examples are shared on social media, knitting groups, knitting festivals, knitting markets, fashion shows, etc... For many, knitting has become one of the primary ways of coping with anxiety, socializing, and even taking a stand against burning issues such as overconsumption and environmental disaster.

This program immediately reminded me of Richard Sennett's The Craftsman (2008, Yale U. Press). Sennett has two main concerns in this book: The first is to explain the material and cultural background of jobs that require technique and skill in very different fields such as cello playing (Sennett was a great cellist, but a hand ailment forced him to give up his musical career), cooking, computer programming, carpentry. Sennett's second main concern in his book is to answer the question: what does the disappearance of craftsmanship tell us about the quality of the lives we live today?

Sennett is a social scientist who has been working in the sociology of labor and work for years. The transformation of employment conditions and working practices in the era of flexible capitalism, when the market and capital-friendly economic growth programs have become dominant all over the world, is the main theme of many of his books. [Sennett often uses the terms "flexible capitalism" and "new capitalism" for the post-1980s period, which many social scientists refer to as "neoliberalism"]. Among these books, especially The Corrosion of Character: The Effects of Work on Personality in the New Capitalism]; Respect: Respect in an Unequal World]; and The Culture of New Capitalism.

According to Sennett, the replacement of secure and long-term employment with precarious and short-term jobs constitutes the most fundamental dimension of the new capitalist transformation. On the one hand, in parallel with organizational and technological developments in this period, the average job in almost every sector becomes less and less skilled. In The Craftsman, Sennett discusses these developments and the effects of the general social and economic destruction of the market-centered economic order on the working classes in the daily lives of individuals. What is slipping away from us, disappearing, perhaps never to return, through transformations in working conditions? Why and how does this process affect not only work but also one's life outside of work? In other words, in parallel with the changes in working life, how is our life-changing on many fronts, from what we do at home to the relationships we establish with our friends?

Cover of the first edition of The Human Condition published by the U. Press of Chicago in 1958.  

These are all questions Sennett asks about the more practical workings of life and seeks answers to in his book. In addition to these, there is also a more philosophical question that Sennett pursues in his book. Here, the influence of Hannah Arendt, one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, of whom he was a student, should be underlined, as he does in the preface of his book. In her book The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt distinguishes between Animal laborans and Homo Faber. Animal laborans refers to the state of being a human being who has to constantly labor to live, meet his biological needs, and act in a routine without thinking. In this state, man is not much different from other animals. Homo Faber, on the other hand, refers to the state of being human beings who create/build physical spaces and institutions that separate themselves from the natural world through their work. In this state, humans also argue with each other and make joint evaluations. The most typical examples of this state are architects, craftsmen, artists, and lawmakers. Animal laborans is concerned with the question of "how", and Homo Faber with the question of "why". Sennett rejects Arendt's distinction between Animal laborans and Homo Faber and explains his alternative perspective as follows:

The human animal, as animal laborans, is also capable of thinking; the producer may have more material for intellectual inquiry than other people; people who work together always talk to each other about what they are doing. For Arendt, the reason activated after labor performed. However, in a different and more balanced view, thinking and feeling are also included in the process of making (p. 7)

According to Sennett, worrying about the qualities of the fabric used by the craftsman in weaving or the characteristics of the fish cooked by the chef is also a practice that paves the way for reflection on what is "good". Weaving and cooking are acts of making/creating that also contain dimensions of happiness and satisfaction. Therefore, the making process involves much more than mere labor, culturally and emotionally. Where does satisfaction/pleasure emerge in acts of making/creating, and how is it organized? How and what kind of religious, social, and political values do these acts produce in practice? For Sennett, the way to answer these questions is to think of both Animal laboran and Homo Faber together, in their relationality. This way of thinking can also give us a perspective that can help us overcome the historical rifts between "practice and theory, technique and expression, craftsman and artist, maker and user". We can open the door to using our heads and hands more harmoniously, to living life skillfully. In this way, we may also be able to cope with the effects of modernity that sterilize, mechanize, and de-excite our lives.

[The Craftsman is the first work of Sennett's three-book project in which he examines the relationship between material culture and technique. After The Craftsman, Sennett published Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation (Yale U. Press) and Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City (Penguin) in 2018. In Together he discusses the historical and political development of cooperation and solidarity among people, and in Building and Dwelling, he discusses the social effects of urbanization and construction. In other words, in these three books, Sennett discusses the past and present of the skills people have developed for working, being together, and living in cities respectively, and offers us a critical reading of the basic acts that constitute our daily lives in the modern world].

First of all, according to Sennett, craftsmanship is not just a characteristic of certain professions or a term used for an outdated way of doing business. The carpenter who works in his workshop, the ceramist who prepares materials for his kiln, the technician who performs tests in his laboratory, the conductor who prepares his orchestra for a concert, the cook who cooks dinner for his guests, or the engineer who prepares a software program can also be described as craftsmen: "The experimental rhythm of problem-solving and problem-finding makes the ancient ceramist and the modern programmer members of the same tribe." (p. 26) In other words, the criterion of craftsmanship is the qualities of one's relationship with one's work, rather than the work itself. First and foremost, all artisans are above all lovers of good work. They have a devotional relationship with their work. Therefore, craftsmanship involves much more than manual skill. Being a craftsman involves learning the tools and materials used in the process of becoming a master through constant repetition (through exercises, drills, rehearsals, assignments, etc.), discovering flaws and problems and solving them, and interacting with other people (colleagues, journeymen, apprentices, post-docs, etc.) who are also on the same path. For artisans, the collaboration of head and hand is not an intellectual but also a social practice.

According to Sennett, the way to get people to do good work in today's modern societies has generally taken two routes: One, through moral/ideological imperatives/orders, people are made to do work for others. Two, societies/economies have increasingly been organized through competition and individual gain/return. Sennett says that neither of these two ways has worked. Where there is no self-determined commitment or solidarity, people have no motivation to do good work. Sennett also thinks that the fact that many of the tools we use, from user-friendly computers to smart home appliances, are often reduced to a few keystrokes, that is, to purely mechanical learning processes, seriously reduces people's capacity for both cognitive and physical skills.

Of course, the conclusion to be drawn from this book should not be "everyone should become a craftsman, spend their lives making pottery and playing the saz". This is not what Sennett is trying to say. The point is to rethink the relationship we establish with the tools, materials, and surroundings in our lives, not only in our working lives but also at home and while socializing with our friends. How can we transform this relationship into a more active one? When "doing" something, can we make the muscle, mind, and heart work together to extract greater energy from the act? Can we make this energy transitive and interactive in the community or society? Perhaps the most important challenge Sennett draws our attention to is to be able to ask these two questions together, both in our daily practices and in our work: "How can I do this better, more effectively, more easily?" And "Why am I doing this work, what will be the consequences of what I do?" The increase in the number of people who can bring these two questions, which Sennet thinks continue to stand together in craft and which he says modernity and especially the new capitalism have separated, back together and seek answers to them is one of the most important steps towards building a better future.

Sennet's The Craftsman reminded me of the works of an artist I discovered in recent years and was very impressed by. This artist is Grayson Perry.

Grayson Perry begins his artistic life with ceramics. Vases and plates made of ceramics are among Perry's first works. Perry then continues his contemporary art career with weaving works. Craftsmen made me think that Perry's works are a good critique of capitalist modernity that sharpens the distinction between craft and art.

For anything to be considered art in the capitalist modern era, it has to be original, authentic, unique, and surprising. [This desire for uniqueness has led to the emergence of brand-new tools in our digital world. NFTs (non-fungible tokens) blockchain technologies now prove the uniqueness and authenticity of a work of art. I plan to discuss these very interesting developments in a future article]. Therefore, an understanding of art that is increasingly related to market value is emerging. In this process, the craft is becoming more and more devalued. From this point of view, the predominance of ceramics and weaving in Perry's works can be read as a critique of the increasing commercialization of art over time, and it's becoming more detached from everyday/ordinary life and people. Of course, it is not only the techniques Perry uses to make his works that make me think of this. In addition to these, the details about the concepts and content of Perry's works, in which he searches for the answer to the question of why also give clues in this direction.

Six years ago, I had the chance to see some of the most well-known of these works in an exhibition at the Pera Museum and I was impressed. In my sociologist's mind, these works reminded me of Pierre Bourdieu's book Distinction. In this book, Bourdieu, so to speak, takes a class X-ray of French society in the 1960s and 1970s. He examines the distribution of various forms of cultural practices (music, home decoration, food, art, etc.) among class fractions and the formation of class identities through these practices. In some of the works in this exhibition, Perry was subjecting the Britain of the 2000s and its class tensions to an artistic and aesthetic interpretation from a similar perspective.

If you are interested in Perry's work in more detail, I have three recommendations. The first is a documentary series that he made himself: All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry. This is a very gripping documentary series that forms the background of many of his recent works and contains serious ethnographic sensitivities. The second is the catalog/book of the exhibition at the Pera Museum: Small Differences (Pera Museum, 2015)

The third is The Reith Lectures, a 3-part series of talks given by Grayson Perry in 2013. How do measure the value, the goodness of a work of art? Who decides the level of quality of a work of art? What is the place of art in society? Where do the boundaries of contemporary art begin and end? These are just a few of the themes Perry explores in this series of lectures...

[Of course, The Reith Lectures is a lecture series that deserves to be an article in itself. It was started by the BBC in 1948 in honor of its first director, Lord Reith, and has brought together intellectuals, scientists, and cultural figures from many different fields. One of the most influential lectures in this series is the 6-part lecture titled "Representation of the Intellectual" in 1993, in which Edward Said discussed the meanings and responsibilities of being an intellectual].

Yes, we started with knitting, and we came to weaving. Let's close with one last question. Could it be that the knitting people I mentioned at the beginning of the article are trying to weave the holes and tears that the new capitalism has made in their own lives?

Hikâyeyi beğendiniz mi? Paylaşın.


Okuma listesine ekle


Zappa Times

Zappa Times

“So many books so little time...” Inspired by Frank Zappa, Zappa Times writes about literature, nature, food, and economics.






Richard Sennett

The Craftsman


Zappa TimesZappa Times




Being a craftsman in the 21st century

Is it possible to do otherwise, from knitting to weaving?

17 Haz 2022


Zappa Times

“So many books so little time...” Inspired by Frank Zappa, Zappa Times writes about literature, nature, food, and economics.