Wednesday, February 6, 2013

All hail the fiber arts

Now, I am no Marxist (unless we’re talking about Groucho), but I think Karl really was on to something when he talked about the dignity of work and the alienation that many people feel from the work they do and what they produce.  In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx decried “the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being”—this resulted in the “alienation of labour.”

A couple of years ago, I read a really fantastic book, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. (If you haven’t read it yet, you really owe it to yourself to do so.)  Crawford is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University in Virginia, but just as importantly, he runs a small motorcycle repair business.   Prior to writing his book and starting his business, he was the executive director of a Washington-based think tank, and to be blunt, he hated it.  It didn’t offer him fulfillment or satisfaction—instead, he found much more happiness in working with his hands.

The motorcycle business may have paid a lot less than his think tank job, but the motorcycles were far more rewarding. As Crawford writes, he feels “a greater sense of agency and competence …doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as ‘knowledge work.’” This knowledge-based economy is quite different from the 19th century manual labor economy Marx talked about, but even now when knowledge work dominates, it’s hard to refute that we all feel “alienated” from the work we do sometimes.  Can anyone who sits behind a computer for eight-plus hours a day really feel entirely engaged with what they “produce” all the time?

So where do the fiber arts (or any craft involving yarn or thread) come in? I’m glad you asked! You may know that I am a long-time knitter (or “knit-wit,” as my dear boyfriend likes to call me).  It is something that I do for relaxation, but more than anything else, I love the process of creating something tangible.  I, like Crawford, love to work with my hands.  (I would have loved a home economics and a shop class when I was in school, but neither was offered.  I’ll come back to this another post, when I can give it the time and complaining it deserves.)

Although Crawford goes out his way to say that his description of the intrinsic rewards of manual labor do not translate to manual hobbies, I actually think that at least parts of his book are applicable to them. In fact, knitting is a perfect example.  Yes, it can be repetitive, but it also often presents problem solving challenges, whether they are in pattern design or in fixing mistakes.  (This is consistent with Crawford’s contention that manual work is often more intellectually stimulating than knowledge work.)  And the result, when the process is completed correctly, grants a nice sense of accomplishment and pride. It fills a void that knowledge work alone cannot fill.

Crawford maintains that “crafts” are not the same as manual labor, or “trades,” and this belief springs from the reason for the onset of the modern appreciation of crafts.  The Arts and Crafts movement which arose during the Progressive Era was largely “a form of protest against modernity.” Those who embraced arts and crafts did because they had the luxury to do so: “such spiritualized, symbolic modes of craft practice and craft consumption represented a kind of compensation for, and therefore an accommodation to, new modes of routinized, bureaucratic work.”  Translation: like Marx said, the new knowledge economy bites, and crafts make your life more bearable and remind you of the joy of human creativity. (Maybe the folks at Initech could have used some knitting needles and yarn.)

But here’s where I differ with Crawford: knitting is not only a leisure activity and something to be enjoyed among those who have the luxury of free time.  Its roots are in necessity—people knitted clothing to keep warm.  Yes, it is more a hobby these days than anything, but the skill is a valuable and a useful one, in my opinion. Furthermore, as someone who enjoys manual and non-manual work, I find I need to be engaged in both pursuits, and having the former as a hobby enriches my life, even if it is not how I make money.

For Marx, part of the reason why manual labor was alienating because workers were just cogs in the wheel—by only being part of the production process, you’re not really “in touch” with what’s being made. But the process of making something from start to finish is much more rewarding and fulfilling, because it is much more an expression of one’s self.  In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx has a line that really strikes me: “the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life.” He may be talking about estrangement from work, but I think it applies to a manual hobby just as much.  Wearing a sweater I made is much different from wearing one I bought at a store. However, it’s not just because I appreciate the art of a handmade piece; it is also the reflection of a skill I possess.  For me, at least, that is where most of the pride comes from.

As I said above, I’ll return to this topic, because oddly enough, it’s a rather political one (the growing separation between “thinking” and “doing,” and what that means for how we are educated and what skills we value as a culture). But for now, the latest expression of my own life:

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