I have a piece of stone sitting on my desk. It’s a Clovis end scraper. Many thousands of years ago, it was used to separate meat from hide.
It has a perfect weight to it. It’s heavy enough to put some momentum into your swing, but not so heavy that cleaning a hide would wear you out.
I found it on a beach on Long Island Sound. Just sitting there. Someone dropped it and it banged around in the sand and the surf for centuries. It could be very old. Scrapers emerged 40,000 years ago at the start of the Upper Paleolithic. (I’m guessing this means the warranty has expired.)
To make this scraper someone had to take a small rectangle of granite and give it 7 new planes. Tricky. A work of very precise sculpture without any of the tools now available to the sculptor. The maker was making something by hand that would help the scraper make two things by hand: dinner and clothing. Teaching the hand new tricks, that was the way we made a place for ourselves on the planet.
For a stretch of time so long it dwarfs our sense of scale, we made things by hand. It was only in the last several hundred years that we turned machines into an external self and asked them to take over. And, boy, did they take over. “Satanic mills” ran all day and night, turning the factory into air you couldn't breathe and noise you couldn’t stand. Increasingly hand-made was a reminder of “the world we have lost,” as Peter Laslett called it, the world before the advent of the industrial. It was the marker of the world before the machines came.
The artisan works by hand. This is a guarantor of imperfection. This is true because most human hands can’t make things without making them a little bit crooked. Hand work is charmingly crooked. It is also a guarantor of scale. Working by hand obliges us to keep it small.
Making things by hand is an almost eccentric thing to do when so much of our world is abstract and immaterial. Thomas Stewart introduced us to the idea of “intellectual capital.” And we have been encouraged to think of our work as “digital content” created for an “attention economy” and a “creative class” in the formation of an “information society” and the age of the “Infovore.” All of this happens without hand work. Well, except for the tapping of fingers on key boards. This work happens in the head, not the hand.
Handmade objects are material. They come from a hand. They come to rest in a hand. They act on the world through the hand. Much of the rest of the day we bathe in 1s and 0s streaming from computers, entertainment centers, and smart speakers. There is something more actual about the artisanal.
Matthew Crawford is worth reading on this and other artisanal matters. Here’s what he says in Shop Class as Soulcraft:
The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth.
Crawford detects in hand work what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” This is the moment when we are so completely absorbed by what we are doing that we lose track of where we are in time and space. We can only stop the flow experience by falling out of the embrace of the moment. “Oh," we say, “Sorry. I was miles away.” From a creative point of view, this is deep space, the place we are able to bring the best of our problem solving to bear on the problem at hand (“should I cut it this way or that way?”) and the larger issues of life (“How do I make myself make sense to a 15-year-old?”)
As Crawford points out, we were inclined to scorn hand making in the later 20th century. We got rid of shop class for computers and coding. We encouraged kids to give up trades for a berth on the global economy. Only lonely figures like Mike Rowe and his show Dirty Jobs were prepared to stand for manual labor. Everyone else seemed to think this was beneath the dignity of a professional class to which everyone else seemed to aspire.
Handmade things are material. But working by hand is an intensely cerebral exercise. We learn to make the hand sentient. Artisans “listen” with their hands. They “see” with their hands. For some, hands are the way to discover. We follow them to knowledge. They lead us to understanding.
There is a “conversation” between the hand and the material being worked. The craft person proposes a shape for the wood. The wood disagrees and makes a counter offer. The two of them work out a compromise. This will sometimes rise to an inspiration. Neither party knew what would come of their interaction until, magically, something remarkable did.
But discovery and conversation doesn’t stop when the artisan is finished. They carry into the people who buy the object. They too now listen, see and discover with it. They say the object is alive. They can hear it “speak.” (Certainly that Clovis scraper speaks to me. Mostly, “Man, you have it so easy”.) We can hear the object chatter, murmur, declaim according to the instructions of the Artisan.
We admired how perfect things were when made by machines. Recall little Jerry Seinfeld’s love of the perfect rectangularity of the PopTart. Recall those toiletry kits that people used to bring home from trans-Atlantic flights for their kids. All sleekly designed with zippers and compartments and things inside. A dream for any 8-year-old, an immaculate creation, and now gloriously theirs, a promissory note from adulthood of the glory and glamor to come. I have heard of people sending products back when the packaging was punctured. Apparently they want things to come straight from the factory with the perfection intact. They say they want things “factory fresh.” Factory what?
But now we love things that are immaculate because untouched by machines. Once scorned, the manual is back. The handmade object can assume extraordinary powers. So we are still learning what it means to make something by hand. There is a mystery at the heart of the artisan experiment.
"Handmade" is an excerpt from Grant McCracken's Return of the Artisan (Simon and Schuster, 02022).
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