A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Matthew Crawford, a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, owns and operates Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. Stand back and take a look at that statement. Is it not pleasing? Do you not like the incongruity of it: a state-registered intellectual running a hobby bike mechanic’s rather than a hobby farm? Rare breed classic bikes and gallons of fork oil instead of rare breed sheep and stinky cheese.
The odd thing is that Crawford is more mechanic than philosopher. He grew up on communes where he practiced various trades, including wiring houses, at an age when he should not have been. If you grow up
on a commune, you rebel by becoming a gearhead: machines are metal and wood is for hippies. At fifteen, he got a job in a Porsche repair shop where he started by cleaning the owner’s flat and moved on to cleaning parts which were then sprayed black, fitted to a customer’s car and photographed as if they were new spares. “It became clear that in stepping off the reservation of the commune and into the world of commerce, there were some psychic adjustments I was going to have to make.”
Precious little though the mechanical education was, Crawford had to begin working on his old VW Beetle and discovered a difference between the intellectual world of his father, a physicist, and the reality to be dealt with in fixing things. He learned that “mechanical work has a chancy, elusive character, very different from mathematics, even for expert mechanics.” As he summarizes the lessons of working on cars and bikes:
This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and nonself. Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.
No matter how smart you are, how experienced, how knowledgeable, the thing is what it is and your feelings, hurt or otherwise, make no damn difference at all.
After acquiring a taste for driving sideways (“I’d sometimes lock eyes with some startled matron, keys in hand, as I came round the bend at full drift, a skinny kid with poofy hair and a demonic grin.”) Crawford studied physics at university, where he was introduced to philosophy. This led to him learning Greek and acquiring a PhD in the history of political thought at the University of Chicago. During a one-year gig when he was supposed to be turning his thesis into a book and looking for a tenured academic job, he used the money that should have been going toward a book on Plutarch to buy a compressor to drive the pneumatic tools in the motorcycle repair shop where he was building a CB350 (relation of the CB550) based cafe racer. This brought him into the orbit of mechanics and craftsmen specializing in obscure and awkward jobs, of the type known to anyone who has ever done anything for themselves on a vehicle. He took a job as director of a think tank, “making arguments about global warming that just happened to coincide with the positions of the oil companies that funded the think tank”, but hankered for the life of the independent tradesman, “an image of liberality that I kept coming back to.”
Crawford makes two main arguments in the book: one philosophical, the other political. The philosophical argument is that fixing things is good for you. He denounces Build-A-Bear, which involves anything
but building a bear, and its car and motorcycle equivalents, which involve bolting on some accessory from a catalogue as a way of expressing your individuality:
The consumer is disburdened not only of the fabrication, but of a basic evaluative activity. (For example, in customizing a car or motorcycle from scratch, the builder must harmonize aesthetic concerns with functional ones, and make compromises so the result isn’t prone to, say, catching on fire.
Fixing, or making, really making, things cures narcissism. If you get this wrong, it does not care about your self-esteem: it will break off, fly through your fuel tank and wreck your motorcycle. This, Crawford argues, is an experience too many people are, by design, spared: “A student can avoid hard sciences and foreign languages and get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong.” Part of being adult in the real world is the consciousness of a reality, physical or social, where your feelings do not matter. Things are what they are and they must be dealt with as they are.
For this reason, Crawford laments the decline of `shop class’, the teaching of metal- and woodworking in school. Not only does it teach you things which might be useful to you, giving you control over your stuff, it helps you become a proper adult because you learn that it matters to get things right by some objective measure. People who have mastered a hard skill form a better society than those who have not, because they are not merely passive consumers of goods which control them, and because they are not narcissists, people who “view everything as an extension of [their] will, and therefore [have] only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. [They are] prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence.” Is there a more coherent antithesis to the self-help happiness industry which teaches that you need only look far enough inside yourself to get what you want, what Crawford calls the “cult of the sovereign self”?
Crawford’s politics are hard to pin down: he quotes Marx and Marxists (especially Harry Braverman) with approval where they talk about alienation, but he is no socialist. He argues for a `progressive-republican’ approach (note the small `r’), recognizing that “we are basically dependent beings: one upon another, and each upon a world that is not of our making.” His vision is of a society of people practicing trades which cannot be offshored (try getting a Bombay call centre to fix your leaking toilet), which situates them in a “particular community.” Quite apart from other considerations, a trade which requires your presence on-site is a steady job. In Crawford’s world, skilled work is a good thing, for the people who do it, and for the society they do it in.
Predicting classics, especially future ones, is a risky business, but this book looks set to become one. It lays out the pleasures and responsibilities of living as an adult, learning from being wrong and dealing with the world as it really is. Read it and force it on anyone who talks about `self-esteem’.
Shop class as soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford, ISBN