Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The political economy of craft

Not sure where I will go with these thoughts, but then again, the whole point of this blog (for me) is just to think. At all.

Reading Adrienne Martini's Sweater Quest has had me contemplating what all the fuss about craft is all about. (Sweater Quest is itself a fine rumination on the fuss as well. Here, I am responding less to what Adrienne writes and more to a contemporary American discourse on craft. Like, the fact that apparently it is the thing to do.) I get all the analysis about frugality and practicality and authenticity and so on, which you can see in articles in The New York Times Magazine on backyard chickens and female organic farmers and so on.

As a cultural anthropologist, however, I immediately feel hesitation about "authenticity" as an explanation. (Then again, even terms like frugality and practicality also ought not to be taken for granted. However, "authenticity" seems to be something about which cultural anthropologists are understood to have something to say.) Authenticity is a claim that one makes, not a fact or a reason in itself. So, authenticity seems to me a place to start an examination of craft, not end it. What does it mean now? What has it meant in the past? Who is making the claims about authenticity? Who is validating or invalidating them? What is at stake? How and why do people think about their lives as having or not having authenticity with and without craft?

As an aside, interesting to note the favoring of "craft" over "crafts." Not unlike "culture" versus "cultures." Craft sounds more grown-up, more significant, and like culture, more universal. It is the quality that gives things importance and meaning (and value) and not the things themselves. "Crafts" sounds trivial. Also, craft is dear - that is, expensive. Crafts are cheap: They are commodities. (They are not authentic?)

There is a discourse on "craft" in the social sciences that seems to me born out of claims being made for work and masculinity - I am imagining Richard Sennett's recent work, The Craftsman - but of course so much of the current attention to craft that is evident to me is on crafts associated with women. I think it is not surprising to observe that women now claim what they do as "craft" and not "crafts."

(Of course, this begs the question of which women? How does what looks to me like an educated middle-class woman's movement in parts of Europe and North America connect with other ideas and practices of crafting in other societies? Or is it only crafting under particular kinds of conditions? Do collectives of women sewing embroidered shirts, being paid by the bale, with the shirts being sold at a market, "count" as craft? Why or why not? Ultimately, does not the existence of industrial goods define craft, too?)

So, I will admit this: Part of me is just waiting for the backlash against craft. Because I see a risk of it becoming One More Thing that is being prescribed as Something I Ought to Do.

I am fairly certain that the thought never has crossed StraightMan's mind to learn how to whittle or tinsmith or cobble or scrimshaw.

Like StraightMan, I already am engaged in work from which I derive the satisfactions of continual process and practice and society and even observed results and effects. As much as we kvetch and kvell over the injustices and indignities of working in Higher Ed - in particular, being much underpaid not to mention misunderstood (sniff, sniff) - I think we both still feel the thrill for and from the the craft involved in being a teacher and a scholar. I think we might be in one of the few "good" jobs left in the world in the sense that, at least in the classroom, we enjoy a good deal of autonomy.

So, hear out my Barbara Ehrenreich moment: I think what has helped inspire the current turn to craft is the deterioration in the conditions of work that American men and women have experienced in recent decades.

Or as sociologist Arlie Hochschild suggested: In the late 1980's and early 1990's, when American men and women were spending long hours away from home, it was that work could feel like an "escape" from the pressures of home, where individuals might not feel rewarded or acknowledged as they might at work. When work, however, is not satisfying socially, emotionally, or financially, then home becomes a haven in a heartless world, as the historian Christopher Lasch called the family.

Yet, there are problems, too, with finding reward and acknowledgement in family, esp. in this era of expert-advised and resource-intensive parenting. Children might be part of the motivation to become involved in craft. Directing one's efforts at craft - like decorating a dozen bear-face cupcakes - can contribute to one's parenting. However, I wonder also whether or not craft offers another form of effort that frankly feels more "satisfying"? Unlike children, your craft is under your control. (This is where the issue of autonomy matters.)

So, it seems to me, the current discourse on craft seems worth examining both in terms of its gendered dimensions and especially its political economy. What are the larger conditions that effect this moment of craft? What does it mean for European and North American men to claim "craftsmanship" at a time when it is becoming clear that those "good" manufacturing jobs will not return to where they are - and for women to pursue craft / crafts at a time when females now comprise half the paid workforce?

Here comes my second Barbara Ehrenreich moment: Leaving aside the want and need for some kind of reward and acknowledgement that we expect in domains such as work and family - and now craft - can craft itself do it for everyone? Why do so many of us just expect work to suck so that we see our real, true lives and selves - the authentic - doing something else? Is it not worth trying to change?


  1. As someone who works in IT, I work all day but I have nothing tangible to show for it at the end of the day. Holding a printout from a database doesn't do it for me. Knitting, quilting, *making* gives me something to hold on to and say, "I did it!"

    Spending time with others at a Stitch n' Bitch lets me say, "you can do it too" or "how did you do that?". Let's face it, after college, you don't really make many new friends outside of work unless you make an effort. In my profession, which is increasingly being taken over by south Asian, single, young men, I'm not really going to socialize with them.

    Having some folk to craft with one night a week is my chance to connect with people in all stages of life (age, profession, class) and it has really changed my life to know these people. Plus, I have some cool stuff to go with the memories of making it with them.

  2. I have to disagree with you about the backlash--I think it's already started, cf. the Martha spoofs, "not martha" bloggers,"Whatever Martha."

    And from the inside, it doesn't feel like there is this huge crafting movement. I wonder what some of the actual numbers look like. (The old ladies in my library craft circle certainly are different from the craftivism movement, so raw numbers don't get you far.)

    To some extent, isn't the re-embracing of craft already a backlash? A return to a pre70s feminism definition of womanhood? Crafting is often set up as a backlash to feminism. One which is of course complicated by the feminists who craft. The ones who are saying, "maybe we threw out the baby with the bathwater," as it were. It's an interesting question.

    I'll leave the authenticity to you. I have too much deconstructionist lit crit in my background to let a word like authenticity hold any water.

    Also, I crafted during my teaching career, but then I never thought of the classroom as a utopian work environment.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comments! I thought I was blogging to myself :)

    adnohr's comments speak to exactly what I have been thinking about what too many people's jobs fail to provide in terms of the satisfaction of discovery, invention, and community. So, on the one hand, I recognize craft as important, meaningful, necessary. On the other hand, it also just makes me wonder whether or not there is the possibility of changing the terms in which we work. We dedicate too much of our lives to work not to consider how it might be better.

    Anna, I had not thought about the Martha spoofs as a backlash against craft, but a backlash against Martha. For example, I seem to remember a parody called "(Is) Martha Stewart Living" that was published at least 10 years ago, sending up what at least then was perceived as her over-the-top perfectionism. It might be that the meaning of Martha has changed over time?

    I see what you mean about crafting being set up as some kind of response to feminism, and I feel like the key words here are "set up." Is the question really about whether or not it is "feminist" to craft? Or is the feminist question about what do women (and men, for that matter) need and want in their lives, and how and why are we not getting what we need and want, at work or at home and so on?

    Your comments about deconstructionist lit crit and the classroom as a utopian work environment made me snortle.

    Thanks again!

  4. Kate here (not anonymous) ~

    I remember _(Is) Martha Stewart Living_ -- it offered up practical solutions for party planning conundrums, such as what to serve at your child's bris (cocktail weiners in ketchup, of course).

    Since StraightMan might not be dusting off the anvil and soldering iron to finetune his tinsmithing abilities, I can provide some insight to one man's interest in the "back to craft" or DIY movement.

    I've often thought Karl a little over-the-top in his inclination to be as self-reliant as possible. But apparently his motivation has to do with his (rather gloomy) opinion of the state of the world economy and where we're headed. Take our obsession with consumption add Peak Oil and multiply by a financial meltdown or two. He's pretty convinced that the proverbial poop is about to hit the windmill (would that we had more) and life as we know it will become a hazy daydream.


    He bakes bread, gardens, cans produce, and makes yogurt not because he thinks it's charming (although if you pressed him I bet he'd cop to digging the attention he gets for it), and not even because he thinks that the skills he's learning would benefit us *that much* should his gloomy forecast come to pass. (It does, however, provide a means for psychological preparation.) As much as anything he does this as a symbolic act -- so when he's teaching college juniors about resource economics and pointing out how our society's lifestyle is unsustainable, he can say, "Yes, I drive, but I bike whenever/wherever I can; it's important to support local food and know where food comes from, so I pluck the feathers off of turkeys at a nearby farm before taking home a bird for T'giving; we need to know how to plan ahead for our needs, so I garden and can foods to be eaten during winter."

    A small gesture, for sure, but it makes an impression on students. Last semester Karl's name was brought up in discussion with some students and another econ prof. One of the kids could hardly contain himself and burst out, "Dude makes YOGURT!!"

  5. Hey, Kate! Sorry for not responding to your other comments on the blog. Still figuring out the widgets and so on. Honestly, I do forget that anyone even might read this. Thanks for indulging me!

    Hmm, what did Karl do for Y2K? It does seem like the popularity of what we might call practical crafts (which I guess might be a bit redundant in terms of the traditional dichotomy between "art" and "craft") might have a meaningful connection to latter-day survivalism and "off-the-grid" living as well as economic / environmental sustainability (so-called green) moves. In all, it suggests that a rather more complicated picture of how and why we craft: We craft in a particular historical moment.

  6. What did Karl do for Y2K, you ask? Why, he went to Big Cypress in the Everglades to meet my family in the most intimate of settings: http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.ryansonline.com/photos/NYE/phish%2520NYE%2520pics/c31site.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.ryansonline.com/photos/NYE/phish%2520NYE%2520pics/3.htm&usg=__dhwaBPppAvZ5KG6gG5oeOcZt88Q=&h=334&w=500&sz=55&hl=en&start=3&um=1&itbs=1&tbnid=rNsYmcnro0Lf6M:&tbnh=87&tbnw=130&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dbig%2Bcypress%2Bphish%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DX%26tbs%3Disch:1

    (don't know if this big honkin' url will all come through, but here's trying.)