JUNE 23, 2015
I FIRST READ Matthew Crawford’s 2009 best-selling book Shop Class as Soulcraft in the surgery lounge of the Cleveland Clinic waiting for word on my mother — she was undergoing an operation to remove a brain tumor. The irony of reading the book under those circumstances — it was widely and aggressively marketed as a celebration of working with one’s hands — was not lost on me. Sitting in the high-ceilinged lounge, under a pall of dread, I was drawn deeply into Crawford’s argument for work that is “meaningful because it is genuinely useful.” Here, I thought, was a way for me to talk with my mother about my work that might put it on par with the labors of both of my grandfathers, my dad, and my brother, all of whom were or are railroaders. I knew I could make a good argument for how the craft of writing is useful, just like the craft of motorcycle repair. Hadn’t Crawford taught himself both trades, after all? And he’d learned them so well that he’d written a book inspired by his experiences as a vintage cycle repairman.
Shop Class resonated with me and thousands of others because it called attention to the ways that the digital and information age has brought about a new corporate ethos predicated not on “producing goods but projecting brands,” a paradigm shift for which employees require fewer and fewer hard skills as opposed to more strategies for networking and team-building in an environment where decisions are not so much made as arrived at by algorithms. Ultimately, Crawford argues that what we’re witnessing is the “degradation of work”; the “separation of thinking from doing.”
This is where The World Beyond Your Head begins — with this separation as the basic condition of a society in which our prodigious powers of attention are mostly focused on things that are immaterial and unreal, digital and pixelated. A startling amount of our communication with one another is not face-to-face but rather mediated by screens; and this virtual reality is held together by satellites orbiting miles above the earth. Furthermore — and this is the big reach that some readers will find troubling — our dependence on (and preference for) mediated relationships has created a culture that is narcissistic, solipsistic, and relativistic.
This is hardly a new concern, but Crawford, a philosopher by training, takes a unique approach, tracing his views back to the Enlightenment, specifically to Immanuel Kant. Many readers will likely defer to Crawford about how Kant’s “metaphysics of freedom” informs our cultural understanding of the individual’s perception of his of her environment, but suffice it to say that it is a kind of baby-out-with-the-bathwater situation: Crawford argues that the emphasis on rationality and scientific inquiry that worked to undermine oppressive regimes and institutions (like the Church), and ushered in new ideals about freedom and equality for all, has given risen to what he calls “subjectivism,” a view of the world in which “moral and aesthetic judgments have the same status as mere sensations, such as an itch — they are entirely one’s own.” He further argues that this stance has come to deeply inform a particularly American view (the far Right notwithstanding) that collectively held values are dangerously (and ironically) exclusionary.
For Crawford this is a recipe for “moral autism,” a state of mind in which individuals are so wrapped up in a “fantasy of autonomy” that they become “impoten[t].”
With this [fantasy] comes fragility — that of a self that can’t tolerate conflict and frustration. And this fragility, in turn, makes us more pliable to whoever can present the most enthralling representations that save us from a direct confrontation with the world. Being addressed to us, these representations allow us to remain comfortable in a little “me-world” of manufactured experience. If these representations make use of hyperpalatable mental stimuli, the world of regular old experience may come to seem not only frustrating but unbearably drab by comparison.
However, fear not: the secret to turning back a few hundred years of cultural inertia can be found in the “skilled practices” of the short order cook, professional motorcycle racer, jazz musician, and organ builder. The complex physical and cognitive skills necessary to these jobs require us to focus in “narrow and highly structured patterns”; “ecologies of attention” that “give coherence to our mental lives” because these practices inevitably lead us to developing clearer and clearer standards for determining when they (and others) are operating at the height of their craft.
If you can digest these early chapters, as filled with philosophical jargon as they are, then Crawford’s argument begins to make sense. The book is intricately structured and it’s worth hanging in there, especially for the chapters on how the gambling addict entertains a false sense of control over the randomized tumblers of a slot machine, and, conversely, how jazz musicians and glass blowers achieve “empowerment through submission.”
When it comes to becoming empowered, the common denominator for Crawford is what he calls “joint attention” — working with and through other people in order to create something new. This is where he believes the Enlightenment ultimately went wrong: we cannot rely solely on our individual experience to understand and navigate the world; experiencing the world with and through others helps us to begin to see it more clearly.
For Crawford, the artist is a good example of how joint attention works.
“[The artist] must defamiliarize herself with her everyday perceptions […] She has to try to perceive as a baby does, or as an empiricist supposes we all do […]” taking nothing for granted; looking upon the world with an eye for its nuance and a keen interest in how it changes from day to day, moment to moment. The artist shows us the world “as viewed by a consciousness that has, for a spell, liberated itself from conventionality.”
Curiously, however, with the exception of the jazz musicians, Crawford gives very little love to artists. Consider, for instance, the chapter in which he takes MacArthur “Genius” award-winner David Foster Wallace to task for his now famous Kenyon College commencement address, “So This Is Water.” Crawford dismisses Foster Wallace’s advice to the graduates as “therapy […] offered in the spirit of virtual reality.” According to him, Wallace promotes too much the will of the individual — the idea that these hyper-educated, newly minted graduates can defuse the chaos, annoyances, and grotesqueness of the world and achieve greater peace by being mindful of their tendency for self-centeredness.
Wallace is a key example for Crawford, and he seems to enjoy taking the writer down. Perhaps Wallace found a way, through writing, to deal with the crass and soul-deadening grind of modern life, but the implication, according to Crawford, is that he was no different from screen-drunk iPhone user, since nowhere in his address does he suggest that we should have actual conversations with actual people. It’s not that Crawford is being unfair (it’s easy to see his point, especially if you find Wallace’s fiction to be pedantic, as some do) so much as it is that he ignores the fact that for all of Wallace’s post-modern posturing and erudition, his work is full of deep empathy for the depressed and damaged.
But it’s here that Crawford might have more wisely focused his attention. Wallace, dogged his entire life by addiction and mental illness, didn’t survive, and while Crawford acknowledges his suicide, he misses (or passes on) an opportunity to consider a different can of worms: what happens when the craftsman inspires others, but fails to help himself?
This is an issue that is best handled by Lewis Hyde in his 1983 book The Gift, in which he observes that the artist, if he is to feed himself, must live in a precarious double economy: one in which art is freely given away, and another, which requires us to produce work that is salable — palatable to a customer looking to make an investment.
Though Hyde isn’t mentioned in The World Beyond Your Head, he presents an interesting challenge to Crawford’s thesis. Hyde demotes work and elevates labor: work, he argues, is a job that one engages in on the clock with the purpose of making money (“welding car bodies, washing dishing, computing taxes”) Whereas he likens labor to grieving, during which “the soul undergoes a period of travail, a change that draws energy,” for example “writing a poem, raising a child […] resolving a neurosis, invention all forms.”
Even so, in the latter half of the book, Crawford’s argument for the importance of skilled practice begins to make more sense. Despite the near hagiographic tone he uses to describe it in his first book, work isn’t for him so much about soulful personal change as it is having a set of skills that inform critical and analytical abilities. He lays the blame for the loss of these skills on a “culture of performance” in which the most successful people are not those with the most experience or expertise, but those who exude the capability to adapt to a changing marketplace; according to him, liberal arts educated youth therefore have the advantage.
But this is a hefty assumption on Crawford’s part. How do we really know this? Mainly because many colleges and universities continue to insist that it’s true. And, in the end, the prediction for the future success of these graduates is almost entirely based on the reputation of the schools that confer their degree.
Meanwhile, the “culture of performance” has created what Crawford calls a countervailing “flattening” force. As we have become more virtually connected and more focused on individuality as the source of our (mythic) national power, we have also begun to lose any sense of shared common values. He cites a 2008 sociological study by Notre Dame professor Christian Smith in which 230 young adults were asked to describe their views on morality — the overwhelming response was that each of us determines what is right or wrong for ourselves.
This is not surprising in the least, but it is revealing of Crawford’s larger philosophical project. For him, this “squeamishness” people feel in the face of making a value judgment leads to a loss of individual coherence, which contributes to a loss of communal coherence, which creates a “vacuum” that will be filled up by a “monoculture” in which values and tastes have been established by survey. Armed with information gleaned from Facebook, Twitter, and online shopping sites, “corporate forces, which are not at all shy about offering up a shared experience,” anticipate our desires and suggest to us that certain outlays of money will give our lives such deep joy and meaning as to make them, as American Express has it, “Priceless.”
Readers interested in the ways that technology is shaping us and our institutions will find The World Beyond Your Head deeply engrossing, although those familiar with the history of media criticism will no doubt question the originality of Crawford’s argument.
As far back as 1964, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan argued that increased use and dependence on information technology leads not to greater knowledge and freedom but to “mental breakdown.” Being inundated with so much information shapes our habits and behaviors into “uniform and continuous patterns.” He prophesies that literacy and rationality will soon be associated with those who fully conform to the light-speed pace and expectations of new technologies and those who do not conform will seem primitive and “pathetic.”
And since the Vietnam era, Noam Chomsky has accused large, mainstream news organizations of being nothing more than “corporations ‘selling’ privileged audiences to other businesses.”
Then there’s Neil Postman, author of the 1986 best-seller Amusing Ourselves to Death: Discourse in the Age of Show Business, who synthesizes McLuhan and Chomsky: “It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.”
Crawford, however, references none of the above.
Ultimately, I’m willing to ignore his snubbing of these foundational thinkers, since his focus is on “work” as the way to counter technology’s pernicious effects. I’m disappointed, though, that he doesn’t acknowledge the ways in which writing — the very medium he is using to communicate his ideas — could also be a disruptor.
And reading. Reading is one of the most important skilled practices I know. For many, however, it will be easier to believe, in this age of distraction and A.D.D., that setting our phones down and getting back to work with our hands is the answer, when perhaps what we need is a more generous definition of skilled practices. Indeed, if you follow Crawford’s argument to its logical conclusion, I think what he’s really advocating for isn’t that we all quit our jobs and get back to “work,” but that we reimagine the roles of both work and education in the attainment of healthy and happy lives. But how to convince the non-reading public — or at least a public that associates reading with beaches — that this is true; let alone an anesthesia-drowsy mother who has just emerged from brain surgery? However, for her son, a bookish Midwestern kid with railroading in his blood, arguments over the importance and worth of work versus the so-called life of the mind feel especially urgent.