Back to shop class!

11 April 2010


Crawford on Shop Class

A Practical Application of Object-Oriented Metaphysics

Day before yesterday in Genocide and the Nation-State I mentioned that I was listening to Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, and I appreciated that the book is book tough and uncompromising. I am also listening to Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford, and I admire this for the same reason. In fact, I consider this latter book to be just about the ideal instantiation of contemporary philosophy. It deals with real issues that face people in the world every day, and does so by drawing on many contemporary philosophical concepts. Crawford wears his learning lightly, as befits a man who got a doctorate in political philosophy and then got a high paying job in a think tank, only to quit the think tank to start his own motorcycle repair shop.

Crawford’s interesting personal biography is central to the book, as he describes the development of his own outlook on life and labor through the lens of his diverse work experience. He sets himself the task to defending the dignity and practicality for the manual trades, having himself been employed both as a “knowledge worker” and in the trades. This is the kind of book that will be praised by many people — Publishers Weekly named Shop Class as Soulcraft one of the top ten books of 2009 — understood by few, and consciously put into practice by almost no one. The kind of people who will praise it will be reviewers who are themselves distant from the manual trades, and not very likely to advise their children to stay away from college and learn plumbing or wiring instead of getting a degree in, for instance, journalism.

On the one hand, I consider this book to be about the most valuable contribution to the philosophy of labor since Simone Weil’s factory journals. It could be argued that the Age of Marxism triumphant distorted all philosophical writing about labor for more than a hundred years, forcing it to conform to a Marxist model on pain of being ignored if it did not. Much has happened in the labor market and in the evolution of labor since Marx, yet because of the dominance of Marxism in the discussion of labor, these emergent issues were not considered on their merits, but only in relation to Marxist ideology. On the other hand, and despite my admiration for Shop Class as Soulcraft, I nevertheless found myself in deep disagreement not only with its arguments but as much with its tone, and much that is implied but not explicitly stated.

Crawford uses “abstract” as a term of abuse. This bothers me. The weakest thing to be said on this score is that, despite organizing this work around his personal biography, it is still, nevertheless, a theoretical treatise and an argument, and in this sense “abstract.” But this is the norm in writing. “Abstract” has long been a term of abuse. Russell wrote of Bergson that, “All pure contemplation he calls ‘dreaming,’ and condemns by a whole series of uncomplimentary epithets: static, Platonic, mathematical, logical, intellectual.” While Crawford isn’t quite as ready as Bergson to slight the intellectual virtues, this is one of those themes that I said above is implied without being explicitly stated. Since my approach to the world is highly abstract, and I make no apologies for that, I am troubled by this devaluation of abstract knowledge.

While Crawford takes on a lot of soft targets like consumerism, absurd management teamwork exercises, and pretenses to “virtualism,” and does a good job of it too, he takes to task quite a number of apparently unrelated ideas. For example, he also uses “existential” as a term of abuse, notwithstanding the fact that existentialism once positioned itself as the protest against overly-abstract philosophical thought. The considerable literature associated with existentialism — some of it retroactively, like Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Kafka — delves deeply into the concrete concerns and lives of ordinary people. But I suppose this disdain for both the abstract and the existential is to be expected from a work that makes no claim to theoretical unity of exposition.

There is, however, a theoretical unity to the book, and it is not one that makes any explicit appearance in Crawford’s text. I find that there is a deep affinity and consonance between the central theses of Shop Class as Soulcraft and a recent philosophical movement called Object Oriented Ontology (also called Object Oriented Philosophy, and Object Oriented Metaphysics, or OOO, OOP, and OOM).

It is not often in the contemporary world that a new “movement” emerges in philosophy, but I think that we can safely call Object Oriented Ontology (hereinafter OOO) a contemporary philosophical movement. Its best known proponent is Graham Harman, author of Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects and Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. I have been planning to write a post about OOO for this forum, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Later this month at Georgia Tech there is going to be a conference devoted to OOO.

In fact, when I started listening through Shop Class as Soulcraft the first time (I’ve been through it once completely, and am now working my way through it again) I started looking for a copy of Harman’s Tool-Being as I thought, simply on an intuitive level, that a serious theoretical treatment of tools might be an appropriate way to approach Crawford’s interest in the manual trades. (When I looked on Amazon for a copy I found it priced at $99,999.00, so I took a picture of this and sent it to Professor Harman, who posted a short piece on his blog about it.) As it turned out, when I skimmed Harman’s text I found that his interest is not really in tools per se, and that he takes the Heideggerian distinction between presence-at-hand (Vorhandenheit) and readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit) in its broadest signification, taking Heidegger as a call to action to focus on all forms of tool-being. I could almost say that he is interested in the things themselves, but his approach his thoroughly Heideggerian and Husserl doesn’t seem to play much a role in his analysis.

The website for the upcoming OOO conference says, “Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example.” Thus OOO proposes a kind of ontological leveling, sort of like the Copernican cosmological principle applied equally throughout ontology, such that there are no privileged beings. This is an interesting thesis, but I will not try to take it up here. I only want to point out that when Crawford writes of, “…the world of artifacts we inhabit,” “focused engagement with our material things,” “Being able to think materially about material goods…” and that, “The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simply fact that such things lie outside the self.” Crawford here sounds like an authentic Object Oriented Ontologist.

I am emphatically not saying that Crawford is consciously pursuing the OOO agenda in his discussion of contemporary labor and the status of the manual trades within society. The interesting and important thing is that when a genuinely novel and contemporary philosophical movement emerges, it is often expressed across a spectrum of opinion and expression, among diverse writers on diverse topics, and finds its way independently into the many arts. I would not be surprised to see within the next decade painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, drama, television, and films that essentially take an OOO perspective, probably mostly without knowing that they are doing so. This happened in the middle of the twentieth century with existentialism. At the same time that Hazel Barnes (translator of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness into English) produced a miniseries about existentialism for public television in Denver, the commercial networks were producing fare like Route 66, which has a great many subtle (and not so subtle) existential themes. This is what it means for a philosophical movement to be timely.

Because I consider Crawford’s book so interesting I intend to return to it in several future posts, should I find the proper inspiration to write them, but for the time being I will leave it at that.

. . . . .

. . . . .


. . . . .

One Response to “Back to shop class!”

  1. […] 12, 2010 Some riffs from Oregon ON OOO. Posted by doctorzamalek Filed in Uncategorized Leave a Comment […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: