Where’s Your Soulcraft?


I wonder if this rings true for any of my friends in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office:

To begin with, Jackall finds that though the modern workplace is in many respects a bureaucracy, managers do not experience authority in an impersonal way. Rather, authority is embodied in the persons with whom one has working relationships up and down the hierarchy. One’s career depends entirely on these personal relationships, in part because the criteria of evaluation are ambiguous. As a result, managers have to spend a good part of the day “managing what other people think  of them.” With a sense of being on probation that never ends, managers feel “constantly vulnerable and anxious, acutely aware of the likelihood at any time of an organizational upheaval, which could overturn their plans and possible damage their careers fatally,” as Craig Calhoun writes in his review of Jackall’s book. It is a “prospect of more or less arbitrary disaster.”

Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft 138-39.

I had bought the book last summer on vacation (how could I resist a NYT bestseller with a BMW /2 on the cover?), but hadn’t gotten around to reading it till this weekend.

Shop Class as Soulcraft is not, as I’d been led to expect, a paean to the trades. Rather, Crawford’s view is  (if I can do it justice in a sentence) that the work we do is degraded by our estrangement from the concrete results of our work.

That view, which I hadn’t considered, is congruous with various things I’ve intuited—for example, that “management” is different than leadership; that if your job can be offshored it will be; and that it’s better to take your car to an independent shop where you deal with the mechanic than to a shop where you deal with a “service writer.”

What do these intuitions have in common? They deal with or respond to the modern tendency to alienate the worker from the product of his work. Motorcycle mechanics (Crawford has a philosophy degree and a motorcycle shop) see the results of their work, and can judge it by objective standards (does the motorcycle run better?); similarly, plumbers and electricians and carpenters (does the toilet flush? do the lights work? is the house square?); as well as doctors (is the patient’s health improved).

Unlike the builders, mechanics and doctors practice stochastic arts:

Mastery of a stochastic art is compatible with failure to achieve its end…. As Aristotle writes, “It does not belong to medicine to produce health, but only to promote it as much as possible….” Fixing things, whether cars or human bodies, is very different from building things from scratch. The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not.

Practicing stochastic arts, where failure is inherent, reminds us of “the difference between self and nonself. Fixing things,” Crawford writes, “may be a cure for narcissism.”

Read the book.


One response to “Where’s Your Soulcraft?”

  1. narcissism narcissism n.
    An exceptional interest in and admiration for oneself.

    Syn: self-love, narcism.
    [WordNet 1.5]

    “Fixing things”, as a career path for 26 years, was a form of self love for me in that you do something concrete that has a tangible result, which reflects on you self-image positively. Call it self-pride. This is not bad, in of itself, until you apply your craft to/on other people, in order to quickly ‘fix’ them. Not good. I’m much wiser now. Now I try to build instead.

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