More than four decades have passed since readers made the acquaintance of a figure who has assumed an almost mythological role in the stories that are sometimes told about the way we live now. This was the bricoleur, introduced into the cultural conversation by Claude Lévi-Strauss in the opening pages of The Savage Mind at the high tide of structuralism in the early 1960s. The bricoleur is, simply, a kind of handyman. Unlike the carpenter or the electrician, he has no particular set of tools or domain of expertise. He can perform any number of tasks, but his knack is for improvising. “The rules of his game,” as Lévi-Strauss put it, “are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools . . . which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project.”
The Savage Mind argued that the traditions and narratives encountered by anthropologists were a sort of bricolage. But in reviving this somewhat old-fashioned word and putting it into a new context, Lévi-Strauss quietly transformed the bricoleur into an imaginary hero of sorts, with something like a community of fans, primarily among people in the humanities. This development seems ironic. For many years, the whole thrust of academic life has been to cultivate an ethos of professionalization. Alas, the social sanction for giving doctors and lawyers a degree of state-enforced control over both their own credential-granting systems and the market for their labor really does not exist for, say, interpreters of James Joyce; yet the fantasy is resonant and, it seems, difficult to give up.
The notion of the bricoleur exerted a certain charm among the strenuously professionalizing, for it offered the gratifying prospect of imagining a tactile and worldly dimension to one’s intellectual activity. The bits and pieces of various theories or systems could be regarded as parts of a rough-and-ready “tool kit.” If they were incomplete or out-of-date—well, so much the better: To “make do” was a challenge to prove one’s knack. Thinking became tinkering. And while the status-minded protocols of professionalization might seem to demand ever-greater rationalization and bureaucratization of intellectual life itself, the fantasy of bricolage gave one permission to see the accumulation of cultural capital as infinitely flexible and almost automatically self-regenerating. The bricoleur’s bag of tricks “is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock,” as Lévi-Strauss wrote, “or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.”
Enter Richard Sennett, whose book The Craftsman is the first volume in a projected trilogy—but also the latest in a series of reflections on the damage to the social fabric caused by the reigning economic system, whatever one might want to call it. (“Neoliberalism” implies a new order; “late capitalism,” something decrepit. Either way, it sounds like wishful thinking.) Sennett’s work is not easy to pigeonhole. It roams with barely legal freedom between political philosophy, social psychology, art history, urbanism, and yesterday’s news about downsizing.
But the effect is not one of programmatic interdisciplinarity, still less of bricolage. His closest intellectual kin—though he never, to my knowledge, cites him—might be Paul Goodman, the social critic and man of letters whose work exhibited the very same strangely coherent sprawl. In Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals (1962), Goodman wrote that his field of study was “the human beings I know in their man-made scene. . . . If you talk separately about their group behavior or their individual behavior, their environment or their characters, their practicality or their sensibility, you lose what you are talking about.” It was Goodman’s mission to champion both individual liberty and a communitarian sensibility—seeing the growth of concentrated corporate and bureaucratic institutions as leading equally to homogeneity and to a tendency to siphon off the wellsprings of commonplace human creativity.
This commitment made for a very improvised and undogmatic sort of radicalism, now almost completely forgotten; nobody makes a career from doing Goodmanist theory. But the same libertarian strain is found in Sennett’s work, updated for the era of globalization and high-tech. The “man-made environment” that Sennett has looked at in recent books such as Respect in a World of Inequality (2003) and The Culture of the New Capitalism (2006) is one shaped and reshaped by incredible (and constantly advancing) levels of economic productivity.
A strong tendency of recent years is to regard technology itself as the driver for both wealth creation and cultural change. By contrast, Sennett has focused on the everyday level of world formationour shared ways of making sense of things through the experience of making a living. (Sennett’s work, if not Marxist, is at the very least grounded in some notion of mankind as the species that creates itself through the labor process.) Our options for understanding life fluctuate when the conditions of life and work themselves are in flux.
In his earlier books, Sennett traced how the idea of “career” emerged during industrialization as a way of narrating the development of an individual’s skills and economic viability. But what happens when shifting occupations becomes a necessity and even a norm: something you can expect to do more than once? What then remains of the autonomy and progress-mindedness formerly embodied in the aspiration to “have a career”? The risks and the rewards of the marketplace disrupt the routines of even its more powerful members. What grounds for solidarity exist within any given class, let alone across classes?
With The Craftsman, Sennett returns to one of the themes implied and sometimes sketched in his earlier work, now making it central. It involves returning to an old, familiar, and ultimately invidious distinction: the contrast between the human being as rational entity, on the one hand, and as laboring creature, on the other. One version of this dichotomy was central to The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt, who was Sennett’s professor. The Craftsman (as might some other of Sennett’s books) can be seen as a dialogue with Arendt, but Sennett’s challenge moves very quickly onto its own terrain, rather than chopping her concepts.
The craftsman is someone whose combination of skills and training cannot be readily understood if the old binary oppositions—head and hand, reason and labor, theory and practice—are taken as givens. The domain of craft, in Sennett’s account, subsumes activities as unrelated as cooking, music, pottery, architecture, glassblowing, computer programming, and bricklaying. It was Plato who started the denigration of craftwork by dismissing cooking as a “knack,” something done without the full exercise of reason. Sennett insists that there is indeed a rational process under way in craft, but one seldom heard except by practitioners. “Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking,” he writes; “this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.”
The ability to enter this dialogue, to find the rhythm of involvement with the materials, is slow to develop. It requires both long practice and regular communication with others who have mastered the craft. And while techniques do evolve, the pace of change within a craft tends to be slow. This is not a defect: “The slowness of craft time serves as a source of satisfaction; practice beds in, making the skill one’s own. Slow craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination—which the push for quick results cannot.”
When speed and efficiency become the only criteria for judging productivity, it becomes difficult to justify the demands of craftsmanship. But they are irreplaceable, even so. Craftwork feeds into the repertoire of skills for shaping and repairing a social world. Sennett quotes a passage from C. Wright Mills that sums things up beautifully: “The laborer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in the work in and for itself; the satisfactions of working are their own reward; the details of daily labor are connected in the worker’s mind to the end product; the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops within the work process; work is connected to the freedom to experiment; finally, family, community, and politics are measured by the standards of inner satisfaction, coherence, and experiment in craft labor.”
This, then, is what goes missing when things accelerate and fragment beyond a certain point—though it is part of the rhythm of Sennett’s own craft that he reminds us here, with an abundance of references that I will not even begin to catalogue, that the claims of craftsmanship have endured in the face of mechanization, deskilling, and the market. The second volume in Sennett’s trilogy will examine ritual (understood as a means of crafting behavior and ethos); the third will consider the question of how we might become “good craftsmen of the environment” amid impending ecological catastrophe.
Sennett’s enterprise here does not simply ignore the anxious concern for professionalized authority and status. It undercuts that concern entirely—implicitly posing instead the idea that intellectual activity itself might best be understood as a kind of craftsmanship, not very different from that of Linux programming. At the same time, Sennett is not simply tinkering with conceptual flotsam. Over the years, we have had plenty of scholarly books that were cobbled together, bricoleur-like, from spare parts and sealing wax and brightly colored lengths of string. It is good to be reminded that work in the humanities can be about the problems and the possibilities of human life, as such. The Craftsman should find readers who will, so to speak, make something of it.
Scott McLemee is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes the column Intellectual Affairs for the online publication Inside Higher Ed.