TILBURG – As a preemtive warning, this’ll be a slightly longer read than usual.
One of the consequences of the industrial revolution and machinisation of our economies is the gradual decrease of importance and prevalence of what we consider to be “authentic” craftsmanships: the miller, the baker, the furniture maker, the butcher, the mechanic. Granted, not all of these professions are regarded a “craft”,- only the ones whose purposes and activities can be romanticised.
What most of these crafts, however, have in common is that they all contributed to the social structure of the community. With your local butcher, baker, milkman, and whatnot being replaced by supermarkets, this sense of social hierarchy is eradicated. Many still lament the exodus of small shops and craftsmen in their town.
They’re a dying breed, really. My father and a friend of his once wrote a book on the retired craftsmen from the area they hail from. These were mostly professions involving manual labour (a.k.a. craftsmanship) that no longer exist: woodcarver, miller, small farmer.
Instead, we now buy mass-produced foods and crafts in the supermarket and the IKEA. Economically, this makes perfect sense. Specialisation and mass-produce is cheaper and having your table made by a furniture maker is undoubtedly more expensive than the table with those removable parts from the Bruno series.
They’re not unique nor individualist (while at the same time the sheer number of different models and colours are there precisely to give you the illusion they are in the same way “new with a vintage look” does), however, most of our identities are build on the principle that we are unique and authentic individuals.
If our consumption culture allows us to construct our own identities in an act that is in its very nature designed to somehow mark the difference between you and I, and our modern societies incessantly focus on the individual, then how come we all buy mass-produced products?
It’s an interesting paradox. It’s also the reason there are so many different brands of toothpaste, shower gel, or clothing lines. To give us the illusion of choice and authenticity whiilst still maintaining the economic advantages of mass-production.
Another consequence of this paradox is the return to “old-fashioned”, “home-made”, “authentic”, “hand-crafted” products and product processes. The increasingly popular vintage, second-hand clothing industry is an example that comes to mind.
Another consequence of mass-production is the alienation between the product and the worker: you hardly ever manufacture an entire product, instead you are specialised in one particular part which makes you lose touch with the final product, as Marx applied it to the Industrial Revolution.
If the people making the stuff have lost touch with the production process, then it’s a given we have too. I don’t know how most of the things I buy have been made. This is inherent to the technological advances we have made in the last 50 years: I don’t know how GPS works, really. I don’t think I’m supposed to, either.
So it’s easy to complain about the seeming lack of knowledge of the new generation of Men:
While it’s not universally true, among people my age, it seems our dads are a lot handier than we are. Sometimes I imagine what would happen if there was a terrorist attack or natural disaster that wiped out our electricity and disrupted society. How many of us would be standing on our lawns, scratching our heads, absolutely clueless about what to do next?
Learning hands-on skills is about more than survival, however. Men are made to be productive, to create things with our hands, to enjoy the manly satisfaction of taking things apart, seeing how they work, and putting them back together. Manual skills have stopped being passed down from father to son. And in our digital age, much of what we do for both work and pleasure is often conducted in an intangible realm with intangible results.
Making stuff is manly, as you may have inferred already, and knowing how stuff is made and how can do-it-yourself is knowledge and skill that any Real Man should have. Naturally, we have seem to lost these capabilities somewhere along the line. And it’s really important for your manhood:
(…) while working with your hands may no longer be necessary for your livelihood, it doesn’t mean it not necessary for you soul. The need for craftsmanship spring eternal.
The analysis proceeds.
At the same time, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them.
So 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.
Basically, as a man, you should be able to build what you buy. Or at least be able to repair it. In all fairness, my dad is way more skilled in handywork than I am. He’s a woodcarver, has built furniture, and regularly repairs all sorts of stuff.
However, besides it being advantageous to have someone like my dad around (although he sometimes laments the fact he’s also always the go-to guy for things when they get broken), there is a psychological element central to manhood that revolves around creation. Building something manually.
(…) craftsmanship might be defined simply as the desire to do something well, for its own sake. If the primary satisfaction is intrinsic and private in this way, there is nonetheless a sort of self-disclosing that takes place.
Unlike this immaterial world where people can work as a communication liaison for a company that utilises outsourced human resources departments of other companies that are currently in the middle of a merger with a third company), a Real Man seems to feel the need to project his competence on objects that exist in physical reality, with the ultimate judgment of pragmatism evaluating his successes and failures.
The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth.
He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.
Because craftsmanship refers to objective standards that do not issue from the self and its desires, it poses a challenge to the ethic of consumerism, as the sociologist Richard Sennett has recently argued.
The Art of Manliness is getting sociological now. I’m curious.
The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new. The craftsman is then more possessive, more tied to what is present, the dead incarnation of past labor;
the consumer is more free, more imaginative, and so more valorous according to those who would sell us things. Being able to think materially about material goods, hence critically, gives one some independence from the manipulations of marketing, which typically divert attention from what a thing is to a back-story intimated through associations, the point of which is to exaggerate minor differences between brands.
I suppose there is some sense to be found in this argument. Consumerism drives on a wheel of consumption, directed by fashion, trends, and the fact that some products aren’t made to last.
On the other hand, the idea that consumption creates identity does also apply to handmade craft if the consumption is solely or primarily based on identity construction rather than functionality (e.g. you buy the handmade table or you build the table yourself because you fancy yourself a Real Man. The act of craft then becomes an act of consumption).
On the whole, craftmanship might be an argument against mass-production and overconsumption (which are inherently linked processes), however, this is not necessarily the case.
This seems to be more an issue of control over a production process than letting go of exploitative capitalism. This control is not so much concerned with the consequences of the production process but much rather with the fact that the consumer (the Real Man) has no influence over it.
The stereotype of men 50 years ago was the image of the guy endlessly tinkering in the garage. While that image has been fading, let’s start today to bring it back.
There are several suggestions made by the Art of Manliness concerning skills you might want to learn:
How to tune your bike
How to change your car’s oil
How to fell a tree
How to make a bookshelf
How to install of a ceiling fan
How to do electrical wiring
How to fix a leaky faucet
How to make furniture
How to build a tree house
How to build a deck
How to lay tile
How to replace your car’s brakes
How to use a soldering iron
How to split wood
How to build a campfire
How to clean a gun
How to garden and landscape
Obviously, you can’t learn these skills in a single day. This task simply requires that you take a least one step towards learning a new manual skill.
For instance, you could learn to be a Viking at Norway’s Viking School, with the added disappointment that they also admit women and are therefore a bit more progressive than the actual Vikings were. On the upside, you learn how to build a Viking boat and how to throw an axe.
If Norway is a bit out of your way, you might want to spend some time watching the Discovery Channel’s How It’s Made. You’ll be informed about, well, how it’s made. I’m pretty sure they have some “don’t try this at home” warnings, but I’m sure you’ll be fine.
I recently learnt how to fell a tree. It was very cathartic, if I may say so. Especially if you go about it with a huge fire axe. However, when I look at the above list and select the things I can’t do (I definitely cannot clean a gun), then my priority goes to making furniture. That’d be nice.
Maybe I should get a book on that.