Sometimes the most valuable observations are made by someone who doesn’t quite “get it.” And by “get it” I mean a willingness to fill in unstated details.
Getting it can be a good thing. The case for agrarianism, for example, cannot be fully made in an article or book or series of books, or even a life’s work. I don’t think that Wendell Berry’s books taken together make an airtight or even a strong case for agrarianism; it’s perfectly legitimate to read them all, understand and agree with his observations, and yet find oneself a fair distance from understanding agrarianism as a coherent whole, much less persuaded of it. In the end, Berry can only point to deep truths and show how he thinks agrarianism explains them; it is up to the reader to fill in the details which Berry can only hint at, having arrived at them more through life experience rather than study, and then decide whether it all leads to agrarianism, or something else that overlaps agrarianism, or something else entirely.
Getting it can also be a bad thing. I’ve been in many situations where I was caught up with enthusiasm for someone else’s vision, and it always happened because I was too willing to assume that the unstated details led to the conclusion being advanced. Too often it turned out to be wishful thinking. Not only was I wrong in assuming that the details led to the conclusion, I was wrong in thinking that there were any such details at all; the person casting the vision was just as guilty of wishful thinking as I was, having selected their vision more for its marketability than for its soundness. Some of the more notable delusions I subscribed to included approaches to church growth, discipleship, homeschooling, child rearing, corporate worship, authority, courtship, and antithetical Christian living. In all these areas I could have done better by thinking things through thoroughly before embracing an idea; my saving grace was that embracing the idea didn’t keep me from trying to understand it more deeply, and under such scrutiny the unworthy ideas eventually showed themselves to be tattered and threadbare. And fortunately a few of the ideas have continued to withstand such scrutiny and have ended up foundational in my current thinking.
Kelefa Sanneh has just reviewed Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft for the New Yorker, and he does not get what Crawford is saying in the way that I get it. For various reasons I know several things that Crawford wasn’t able to say or chose not to say in his book, things that go a long way towards completing his case. In some sense Crawford’s book is aimed much more towards me, and the other folks who are likely to get it, than it is towards Sanneh. But because Sanneh is a fair-minded and observant reader, the fact that he doesn’t get it makes his review particularly valuable, because he makes note of several weaknesses in Crawford’s case that an enthusiast would be likely to gloss over for the sake of the greater good.
I call Sanneh fair-minded and observant because, even though Crawford is making a case that is a direct challenge to the kind of urban, knowledge-worker lifestyle that I assume Sanneh lives, he points out the weaknesses without using them to destroy or dismiss Crawford’s position. This is good for those of us who are strongly sympathetic to Crawford, since it forces us to face up to those weaknesses and think them through, to come up with explanations or to acknowledge that there is more thinking to be done.
One difficulty that Sanneh zeroes in on is the fact that whatever our principles, the life we lead must be lived in the midst of a society thoroughly devoted to consumption:
But how do you serve craftsmanship without serving the market? How can an independent artisan insure that he doesn’t become an entrepreneur—and, in time, a corporate executive? This question haunts Crawford’s book, and it helps explain why he takes pains to present himself as merely an aspiring craftsman with “execrable” skills; a professional mechanic who still feels “like an amateur.” These disclaimers are meant to assure readers that, in a society afflicted by hyperspecialization, Crawford isn’t some technical wizard; he’s just a regular guy who happens to be handy with a seal puller. The idea is that we can become him, and that he won’t become someone else—he won’t build a bigger shop, hire more mechanics, expand into Maryland and then Delaware, create a lucrative line of Shockoe Moto leather jackets, and, finally, collaborate with BMW on a gleaming series of R69S replicas. He won’t, in other words, end up like Gene Kahn, the organic-farming pioneer who appears in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” as a vexed figure: Cascadian Farm, which he founded in 1971, has thrived and grown and joined the corporate food chain; Kahn is now the vice-president for sustainable development at General Mills.
I remember having those worries about Gene Kahn’s story when I read Pollan’s book, and although I admire Joel Salatin greatly I don’t think he stands in as much contrast to Kahn as Pollan portrays him. Much of what I’ve heard about making a living selling local food is depressingly entrepreneurial, and in particular depressingly dependent on finding ways to sell food to affluent people. This particular weakness is one I currently have no answer for.
Sanneh probes further with his scalpel, and underneath the puzzle of consumerism he finds another, deeper puzzle, namely connoisseurship:
Proponents of homegrown food and “(very) small business”—which is how Crawford describes his shop—sometimes talk about how artisanalism improves the lives of workers. But the genius of this loosely organized movement is that it’s not a labor movement; it’s a consumer movement. Pollan writes about the Italian Slow Foodists who realized that “even connoisseurship can have a politics,” and he voices his own hope that “an eater in closer touch with his senses will find less pleasure in a box of Chicken McNuggets than in a pastured chicken or a rare breed of pig.” In fact, pleasure isn’t merely the motivating force in Pollan’s books; it’s the goal. His chief criticism of Chicken McNuggets is that they are insufficiently delicious. (Has he tried them with the hot-mustard sauce?) He is both a gourmand and an idealist, which means that he tastes the entire food economy each time he has a meal. When he saw those migrant laborers, maybe he was thinking about their wages—but he was also thinking about his supper.
This is much closer to the bone. I was surprised and pleased to see a problem stated so clearly when I read the passage in The Omnivore’s Dilemma where Pollan asks Salatin whether it’s truly feasible to get his artisanally grown food into the hands of city dwellers, and Salatin responded that perhaps the problem is the existence of cities themselves. But as I continue to think about this I suspect that Salatin (and even Wendell Berry) have not fully faced up to the fact that their own visions, though perhaps not dependent on the existence of cities, are very much dependent on some social trends that cause cities to come into existence.
Salleh is not done with us yet.
Crawford promises more than good taste; his book sets its sights on the blue-collar worker, not on the fussy consumer. And so he writes dutifully about economic trends, changing labor markets, and the uncertain future of America’s information economy. But he can’t feign much enthusiasm for, say, jobs in the health-care sector, no matter how satisfying or useful or plentiful those jobs might be. Really, he likes engines and building things and fixing things; his dedication to his shop is rooted in his admira
tion for his clients and for what he calls the “kingly sport” of motorcycle riding. In other words, his work is “useful” only insofar as it enables men to ride motorcycles—an activity that might fairly be described as useless. Crawford may have set out to write a book about work, but the book he actually wrote is about consumption. No less than Pollan, he is a connoisseur, exercised more by shoddy workmanship than by shoddy working conditions.
Salleh has put his finger on something important here, but I don’t think he has correctly divided things up. Not having read the book, I am only guessing that what Crawford is plumping for here is the idea of “a job well done” and the peculiar satisfaction that comes from it. Salleh is mistaken to say that this makes Crawford a connoisseur. A connoisseur is someone who takes detailed pleasure in a job done by someone else, someone who has detached the goodness of the result from the goodness of producing that result. Crawford no doubt is able to appreciate the quality of work done by others, and I suppose his livelihood gives him a special ability to do so. But it isn’t the motivation for what he does, since otherwise he would be better off finding a high paying white collar job that would better fund the acquisition of quality work done by other people.
But there are two things not to be missed here, both involving what Salleh calls connoisseurship. The first is that connoisseurship is a driving force, probably the main one, in the local food movement. Nine-tenths of what you read about local food is focused on the eating of it, and most of that eating is done by people who are involved in the growing at best symbolically. Is it better to eat local food than industrial food? In some ways, certainly. The quality is probably higher, it is probably healthier, it gets you closer to nature, it supports local farmers. But it doesn’t address more fundamental problems in our relationship with food, the most important being our relatively recent decision to leave the growing and processing of it to others while we go off to do more important things. Local foodies have exactly the same relationship to their vendors as do industrial foodies, namely that of consumer to producer. By itself the local food movement gets us no closer to the agrarian ideal of supplying your own needs directly.
The more important problem involving connoisseurship is that it enables someone to make a living as a craftsman in modern-day society. No small-scale producer can compete with the modern industrial machine on the basis of price. Even the higher quality of a craftsman’s product cannot by itself justify the premium he is required to charge. Which restricts the market to people who, for whatever reason, are willing to pay unreasonably high prices for higher quality, i.e. connoisseurs.
There’s nothing especially wrong with catering to rich people (and by “rich” I only mean folks who have enough disposable income that they are able to allocate an unreasonable amount of it to a particular expenditure). But for those of us for whom the ultimate goal is self-sufficiency, I worry that funding the project by catering to the local food market may end up being the devil’s bargain.