A friend works as a hospital histologist. Usually reticent about her work, she has spoken with pride about making a wax slide for body tissue, examining it and then reporting on its composition. Richard Sennett would identify my friend as a craftsman. She knows that "to do good work means to be curious about, to investigate, and to learn from ambiguity".
These are also the traits of Sennett's appealing new book. It introduces a trilogy that will explore the techniques of making things and the bodily dispositions that together show how "we can achieve a more humane material life". Sennett has always been intensely curious about how we live, and his skills as an investigator range dazzlingly across usually separate fields. He wants to learn from the ambiguities of how we live in order to point to ways of achieving a more humane life. This is a book of magisterial ambition.
The shape of a more humane life is identified with the disposition of the craftsman. He embodies the human capacity to be engaged by the task at hand. The craftsman learns how to use his body (the hand especially) the better to work out how to do a good job. For example, my friend's skills calibrating a microscope have become increasingly subtle over the years as she deepens her knowledge of what "good work" means in the laboratory.
Sennett says that danger emerges as soon as the pragmatic question of how is replaced with the more abstract why. The hint is that as soon as humans start asking why they do things either they stop doing a good job or, like the Los Alamos bomb scientists, they realise that they are working in an ethical vacuum and do what they do simply to see if they can do it. Why becomes why not?
Sennett says that craftsmanship is based on three abilities. First, it involves an ability of localisation in the sense of material presence. Here, then, my friend's craft is localised because she has the tissue samples before her, in the laboratory that is her workshop. Second, craftsmanship requires an ability to question. Solving one problem (carefully calibrating a microscope) leads to other questions (can I see that more clearly if I do this?). Finally, craftsmanship needs an ability to "open up", by which Sennett means, "being open to doing things differently, to shifting from one sphere of habit to another". In each case the guiding principle is how to do the job better, not doubts about why it is done or where it is going.
Craftsmanship is seen by Sennett to be a royal road to the achievement of a sense of respect (and so this book continues his previous inquiries). By committing ourselves to doing a good job we transform ourselves from workers into craftsmen and, in so doing, make the hours count.
My friend in the histology laboratory would understand this. She has a very solid sense of self-respect and is respected by her colleagues. She knows that her time at work counts, both in terms of her own self-regard and because of the invisible but crucial role she plays in permitting the craftsmanship of others or, more grandly, human wellbeing. To this extent she is a shining exemplar of the more humane life.
But my friend rarely talks about respect. Her conversation turns on inadequate laboratory equipment, hospital dirtiness, poor salary, cack-handed and heavy-handed management and job insecurity. Her abilities as a craftsman are increasingly devalued by the demands of the institution in which she works. Sooner or later, she believes, she will be made redundant. And the craftsman's skills that she has are so precise, so well developed, that they have little market value.
Sennett knows that there are threats to the craftsman, but his book never really confronts them. It is not really enough to say that: "Social and economic conditions ... often stand in the way of the craftsman's discipline and commitment." The point is that the institutions and enterprises of contemporary social and economic life are not primarily about creating opportunities for the nurturance of craft skills. They are about closing down the ambiguities of the world in the name of ever tighter efficiency (which nevertheless fails precisely because of the inescapability of ambiguity, and so the management consultants are called in again - and again), or they are in the business of profit generation.
The latter is something that Sennett understates. He discusses Japanese car plants as if they were beacons of craftsmanship, and he says they used management styles that allowed all workers to localise, question and open up. But this is to miss the main goal of the car plants, which was to make profit.
From the point of view of the car plant, just as from that of my friend's hospital managers, the employer's measure of a "good job" is the addition of quantifiable value, whereas for the craftsman a "good job" means engagement with the process regardless of costs or time. But in this equation it is not the craftsman who has the control. As with Japanese car workers, as maybe with my friend, unemployment is never too far away nowadays, and the satisfaction of doing a "good job" doesn't pay the rent.
Sennett's book is characteristically engaging. It will be used in management seminars and political think-tanks as a panacea for how men and women can respect themselves, others, the job at hand and, thereby, contribute to the achievement of a "more humane material life" (with "humane" becoming identical to the empty "prosperous" or vacuous "happy"). Meanwhile, the consultants will plot cost-efficiencies, and the politicians will tell us that if we all do a good job life will become better, although of course some of us will have to be made to do a "good job" at respect-demolishing pay rates. And the employers will be scouting the world for labour that is more flexible and cheaper than craftsmen.
For Sennett, workshops are where apprentices and masters work side by side, and he gives the example of the Stradivari and Guarneri violin ateliers; poignantly, as his career as a cellist was curtailed by a hand injury.
Sennett, a sociologist with chairs at the London School of Economics and New York University, was brought up in a Chicago housing project by his mother, a social worker, from whom he inherited his socialist views. He had far from privileged surroundings - "the guy living above us used to pee out of the window" - but won a place at Harvard after being invited by sociologist David Riesman and has never looked back.
Sennett has been married to sociologist Saskia Sassen for 21 years but their shared field does not dominate their marriage: "People imagine our pillow talk is all about the global economy. Well it isn't. Well, not much."
By Richard Sennett
Penguin Allen Lane
Published 7 February 2008