“Working Well and Being Well”
A Review of The Craftsman,
by Richard Sennett.
By Chris Smith.
The monastic tradition of the Church, and particularly the Benedictine stream, has gifted the broader Church with a rich heritage that values working hard and working well. This heritage has also been reflected more recently in the writings of Wendell Berry and other writers associated with the new agrarianism. For those readers who are deeply rooted in this heritage, Richard Sennett’s new book, The Craftsman, is an eloquent gift. Sennett, an esteemed sociologist at NYU, sets out in this book to explore “the intimate connection between hand and head” (9). He notes, however, that in the Western world this connection has become strained. Sennett attributes this divide in large part to our use of technology that “we did not make for ourselves and that we do not understand” (7). In demonstration of this point, Sennett posits the example of CAD software. Despite its mathematical precision, CAD eliminates the intimacy that was had in previous generations between an architect and the space in which he was working. In this previous era, the architect would, through a cyclical process of drawing, walking around and experiencing the site, become intimate with the details of the space in a way that the standard use of CAD does not allow.
Over the course of the book, Sennett explores the craftsman, the craft and the nature of craftsmanship. In the book’s first part, a reflection on the craftsman, Sennett introduces the contemporary problem of division of head and hand. His chapter on the workshop environment in which the craftsman works and in which the knowledge of the craft is transmitted from one generation to the next, is a crucial element in his understanding of the craftsman. In his chapter on machines, Sennett traces the rise of industrialism in the nineteenth century, the progress of which served to broaden the chasm between head and hand, and in the words of C. Wright Mills to turn craftsmanship into “an anachronism” (118). Sennett’s exploration of the craft itself is presented in poignant chapters on the mechanics of the hand, recipes and the communication of a craft, “arousing tools” and the struggle against the resistance of materials and the place of ambiguity in craft. In the book’s final section – on craftsmanship – Sennett explores quality and the ability to become a craftsman. The latter of these questions is of particular note because he argues persuasively that anyone can become a craftsman. Indeed, even in the play of children, they are learning basic skills that prepare them for the development of a craft: viz., the “dialogue with physical materials, the discipline of following rules [and] the advanced complexity of making rules” (273).
In the book’s conclusion, Sennett reiterates his intent in exploring craftsmanship: “the craft of making physical things provides insights into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others” (289). Although I bristle a bit at Sennett’s notion of relational techniques, I deeply appreciate his sense that we are fundamentally relational beings and that our labors in the physical world assist us in relating to our fellow-humans. Although Sennett did not explore this point, one wonders also if our inability to relate to others (e.g., the sort of isolation described by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone), is connected to the technologically-induced gap between head and hand that Sennett names at the book’s outset? Although he does not use this theological language, Sennett’s work here seems to reinforce the Christian notion that physical human work has an essential place in the story of God’s reconciliation of all humanity. The Benedictine tradition has been defined by its strong sense of humanity’s dual vocation to prayer and to work. It is easy to see that in prayer we are submitting to God’s reconciling work, but also in our call to work – if we take Sennett’s work here seriously – there is a sort of submission to God’s reconciliation. In other words, to cast Sennett’s thesis theologically, in submitting to physical work of our hands, we are learning the disciplines that help us live more peaceably with all humanity, thus bearing witness to God’s larger work of reconciling all creation.
Sennett’s work, offered in The Craftsman, is a valuable resource for the missional people of God. Not only is it a striking reminder of our call to work, but it also builds a convincing case that one’s diligence in pursuing a craft is intimately connected with his/her adroitness in relationships. I look forward to reading it again, and to savoring (and being challenged by) the fruit of Sennett’s own craft.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com