Monday, November 20, 2006

In Praise of (the) Concrete

In the summer issue of The New Atlantis, a "journal of technology and society," Matthew B. Crawford celebrates the virtues of "manual competence."

" . . . perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: 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 the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work."

Crawford attributes the decline in manual work, and the loss of its intrinsic richness, cognitively, socially, and psychically, to Taylorism, the discipline that arose in the last century to boost the efficiency of factories. Which is a little ironic, because only last month in my review of Flaubert's Bouvard & Pecuchet here (scroll down) I reflected on the practical, hands-on skills my old man had acquired during five decades of his working life that enabled him to make marvelous sculptures in his retirement. Skills he acquired, yes, in a factory.

I've seen one or two comments in blogs over the past few weeks on manual incompetence. Crawford defends tradecraft for the sense of achievement it provides, but I think manual competence can be defended for another reason: because it consitutes a kind of knowledge acquisition in its own right and can generate an epistemology that is more comprehensive, more realistic, and less hubristic than one dependent on consumerism and paying someone else to do the "dirty work."

Didn't we used to call this praxis?

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