Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

By Michael Agger
Slate Magazine, May 19, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
By Matthew B. Crawford

When Matthew Crawford finished his doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, he took a job at a Washington think tank. He quit after five months and started doing motorcycle repair in a decaying factory in Richmond, Virginia.

Shop Class is the best self-help book that I've ever read.

The motorcycle mechanic faces the tactile problem of a bike that won't start. He tests various theories and deploys actual tools. The sign of success is a roaring engine. In Shop Class, Crawford talks about fixing bikes and the analytical lessons he draws from his gearhead days.

Crawford focuses on cubicle life and doesn't have a lot to say directly about the caring professions or about Web artisans. The cubicle life is amorphous, absurd. Crawford concludes that the office is best approached as a "place of moral education" with managers helping us become team players.

Crawford offers some strategies for avoiding despondent alienation. Learn to complete a task from start to finish. Start a small business, or learn a trade. Achieve mastery, which in turn gives you a skill not subject to the whims of office politics. And think about how your work affects others.

Crawford: "We in the West have arranged our institutions to prevent the concentration of political power. ... But we have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible (it is never guaranteed)."

Making Things Work

By Francis Fukuyama
The New York Times, June 5, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Matthew Crawford notes that all across the United States, high school shop classes teaching mechanical arts like welding or woodworking are closing down, to free up funds for computer labs.

This change radically undervalues blue-collar work that involves the manipulation of things rather than ideas. Expertise with things permits human beings to have agency over their lives. Most white-collar office work is dull routine more alienating than the machine production denounced by Marx. The average knowledge worker is caught in a morass of evaluations and planning meetings.

Crawford argues that most forms of real knowledge come from the effort to master the brute reality of material objects. These activities can't be learned simply by following rules, as a computer does. They require intuitive knowledge that comes from long experience and repeated encounters with difficulty and failure.

Crawford argues that there is something wrong with a global economy in which a Chinese worker sews together an Amish quilt with no understanding of its cultural meaning. Economic ties were once underpinned by face-to-face contact and moral community. Today's mortgage broker is a depersonalized cog in a financial machine that actively discourages prudence and judgment.

Bikes and Work

By Kelefa Sanneh
The New Yorker, June 22, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

In 1974, Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book eventually sold about five million copies.

Matthew B. Crawford has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, a fellowship at the University of Virginia, and a scrappy motorcycle-repair shop in Richmond.

Crawford means his book to be a philosophical manifesto for a dawning age: an ode to old-fashioned hard work, and an argument that localism can help cure our spiritual and economic woes. He sees the failure to appreciate skilled manual labor as a symptom of a narcissistic refusal to grapple with the material world. But Crawford is no Marxist. For him, the solution to big business is small business.

His book is, in large part, a treatise on the joys and frustrations of manliness in a post-manly age. For him, offices are profoundly feminized places. He sets its sights on the blue-collar worker, not on the fussy consumer. He writes dutifully about economic trends, changing labor markets, and the information economy. But he likes engines and building things and fixing things.

AR I don't imagine this will be as big a hit as ZAMM — which deeply impressed me back in 1974.