Against the notion of ‘craft’: thoughts on the cultural politics of romanticising exploitation

On pg 106 of their Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? Simon Winlow and Steve Hall describe the changing realities of work, as more and more jobs become “non-unionised, low paid, short-term, insecure and part time”:

We should also note that few of these jobs enable workers to construct and maintain an image of themselves as socially valuable (Winlow and Hall, 2006, 2009a; Southwood, 2011; Lloyd, 2012); in fact, many of these McJobs (Ritzer, 1997) communicate the exact opposite: the low-level, low-paid service worker is seen as disreputable, exploitable and untrustworthy, the homo sacer of the post-political order, waiting tables, flipping burgers and sweeping rubbish. These are fundamentally insecure and alienating jobs. The people who have these jobs do not want to retain them beyond the obvious and pressing need to earn enough money to pay for their immediate living expenses (Winlow and Hall, 2009a). Most of the positive symbolism associated with traditional work has already been stripped away. They do not cling to and seek to defend an image of themselves as fast food workers, call centre operatives, cleaners, supermarket shelf stackers or factory box-packers.

This is the context in which I’m interested in contemporary discourses of ‘craft’. As anyone who’s followed my work will probably have noticed, I’m drawn to these ideas because they seem to promise a bulwark against alienation. For instance in higher education, I’ve long seen the idea of ‘craft’ as a way of experientially reclaiming the pleasures of scholarship in an institutional context which increasingly hinders, if not outright obliterates, such internal goods.

But are these residual pleasures mere consolation prizes against a background of exploitative precarity and communal diminishment? Increasingly, I wonder if they are but the theoretical challenge as I see it lies in recognising the reality of these internal goods while nonetheless being critical of their cultural deployment in the creation of a new ethos of work.

Can we see the notion of ‘craft’ as something that is developing alongside, indeedimplicated in, the stripping away of traditional bases of working identity? On the one hand, for example the elaboration of the role of barista into that of cultural producer able to meaningfully express oneself through latte art (etc), goes hand-in-hand with the normalisation of part-time labour and zero hours contracts in the hospitality sector. On the other hand, craft micro-production and the opportunities for micro-enterprise are being embraced alongside the decline of secure employment, the growth of underemployment and the still expanding phenomenon of forced freelancing.

To explain away the real pleasures people take in these ‘crafts’ is problematic. But we need to avoid a dichotomy in which we take their accounts of craft pleasure at face value or we reject them in the name of being ‘critical’. What interests me is how the discourse of ‘craft’ increasingly organises the pleasures and dissatisfactions of contemporary labour, giving cultural form to “I am” statements* about one’s working life in a context where structural trends had made such statements less tenable in precisely the way Winlow and Hall suggest.

The notion of ‘craft’ also finds itself employed as part of a macro-economic narrative in which the harms of structural unemployment, particularly that led by technology into the previously secure professions which are themselves subject to longer-term trends toward deprofessionalisation, can be offset by the imperative towards craft production. There’s a kernel of truth here but only a kernel. The idea that mass unemployment can be offset by the expanding ranks of Etsy craft sellers is obviously absurd. But it’s another vector through which ‘craft’ can be used to effectively romanticise exploitation and abjection.

So on level, I increasingly find myself opposed to the notion of ‘craft’, despite this being an idea which I’ve gone on about for years to anyone who’ll listen to me. On another level, I’m still drawn to it as a way to organise my own experience, something which I think is ripe for informal autoethnography. There’s also a critical potential in the notion of ‘craft’ which I think shouldn’t be lost and that’s why we need to avoid dispensing with it entirely. What I mean here is captured incredibly forcefully by Akala after his freestyle in this video: ‘the craft’ is something which transcends marketing and commerce, something basically irreducible in any arena of human activity and a site upon which excellence can be achieved:

*This is an expression I heard on a radio call in show i.e. “I am an X”. I wish I could remember which one because I’d love to cite this properly.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

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  1. To me, craft means having an intuitive sense, devloped through experience, of how to do something well, and taking pride in it. I think that’s entirely compatible with engaging in struggles for job security, good wages, professsionalisation, and control of the means of production. Indeed it could help motivate such engagement, because it offers a conception of work that’s intrinsically worth doing and therefore worth fighting for, work that’s satisfying partly because it involves a degree of autonomy, and therefore requires control over the means of production.

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