Motorcycles and Heidegger

Idols, a short story by Tim Gautreaux in the current issue of The New Yorker, is about a man who works at repairing and restoring old typewriters. It isn’t the most impressive or busiest of current professions.

A few pages later Kelefa Sanneh reviews Matthew Crawford’s first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. After reading Sanneh’s review, repairing old typewriters didn’t seem like such a menial activity after all.

Crawford’s book is written in the tradition of Robert Pirsig’s almost classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that George Steiner, also writing in The New Yorker, compared to Moby Dick. Crawford writes about the “soul destroying consequences of our new work habit—endless hours spent at flexible jobs, performing abstract tasks on computer screens.” If you’ve ever held a job like that, you’ll know full well the experience Crawford describes. I did once and it was sheer misery.

Crawford argues for the return of old fashioned hard work, work where the outcome is clear and where success is evident. When you work at repairing a typewriter, you know with certainty when it is fixed. His book is also an argument that localism can help cure our spiritual and economic woes.

Sanneh says that Crawford believes that fixing motorcycles is a form of philosophical investigation that helps him understand Heidegger’s theory of skillful coping. The logic of this relationship eludes me. Nevertheless, I do understand Sanneh when he says Crawford believes “a cluster of cultural prejudices have steered many potential tradesmen into college, and then toward stultifying office jobs, which provide less satisfactory and less security than skilled manual labor, and sometimes less money.”

Indeed, Crawford believes that those who are trained in skilled labor, such as a mechanic, a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter, offers a person “a place in society” as well as an “economically viable” job that isn’t going to evaporate in the next recession or moved overseas in the next wave of global buyouts. It also guarantees a job just about anywhere you might wish to live.

That was never true of university teaching. If I wanted to move Palo Alto, I needed to know the university there had an opening in my field and that I had a good chance of ranking number one in its highly competitive selection process. Plumbers and electricians can move to Palo Alto and find plenty of work without giving the matter a second thought.

Crawford’s manifesto for skilled manual labor and the return of craft originates in his first hand experience maintaining motorcycles. He claims repairing motorcycles fills him with a “sense of agency and competence.” None of can readily occur in big corporations that Crawford claims do little else but elicit boredom and engage employees in mindless tasks or routine activities that one can hardly take any degree of pride in.

Here I am reminded of the argument Malcolm Gladwell made in Outliers in accounting for the success of the cultures formed in the rice paddies of Asia. Those endless hours in the hot sun, planting and weeding in a rice paddy brought forth a product that gave those in the fields a sense of accomplishment under conditions of considerable uncertainty and poverty.

Sanneh concludes his review of Shopcraft as Soulcraft with this note: “Crawford wants his readers to become better, happier, more productive workers. Who could argue with that?”