Reflections 13th February

Winter Walk. Blue Lias. Stockton, Warwickshire.

On my Mind

I found myself thinking about our addiction to deficiencies this last week. Perhaps it’s the gradual move away from the pandemic as the “fear du jour,” or maybe just an increased awareness, but whatever the reason it seems that our news and the accompanying narrative is about our deficiencies, the things we do not have or are not, promoted by those who would love us to see them as the route to short term salvation.

It feels like promotion of a form of collective ADHD in service of consumption going back to the work of Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew) who used his uncle’s insights in the early days of “scientific advertising” to peddle cigarettes as “Torches of Freedom” by linking them to women’s enfranchisement.

I considered the path we have taken since Bernay’s time in identifying (or manufacturing) deficiencies and satisfying them for profit.

Bernays’ dark genius extended the reach of advertising to provide the appetite needed to make industrial scale feasible for manufactured goods – the compelling logic of the “theory of the firm” – which created the explosion of the middle classes in the West, and brought with it the tool of debt to finance the purchases on which scale depended. The story beyond that has taken us to the point where we are now where we have just about exhausted the irreplaceable resources the planet has provided us with more “stuff” than we will ever need.

So we moved on from promoting a deficiency of “stuff” to a deficiency of being, and have increasingly industrialised what is needed for us to “belong” to those areas where we are told success resides – education, location, association. Whereas fifty years ago we craved a sports car, or a detached house as signs of success, we have now moved through often questionable postgraduate qualifications to highly paid but unfulfilling jobs and looking for purpose through influencers and celebrities. The next phase; looking at LinkedIn may well be spiritual fulfillment through a whole range of questionable approaches to instant enlightenment.

I cannot help but think that the individualisation of success started by Bernay a hundred years ago has got us very lost indeed when we need courses and instructions on how to appreciate the world around us.

There’s an interesting observation in Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman about generalists and craftspeople, and the relationship between the two. He argues that generalists are vital if we are to understand and make sense of the world around us, but in order to understand ourselves we need a relationship with craft – an ability to create, or repair, or repurpose something tangible, something which enables us to say “I was here” – even if only to ourselves.

At a time when processes and automation reduce our “hands on” relationship with what we create, he has a point. There is a danger that in a very short time we have gone from making things for ourselves and those around us, to chasing “stuff” made by people we do not know as a means of marking our existence, to chasing ephemera sold to us by those whose principal interest in us is no more than our willingness to pay for what they offer.

There is I think a question to all of us, regardless of where we are in our careers, as to what matters to us – enough to want to master, to develop craft. We can train process – to people and AI – but the difference between process and craft is love of subject. Whether welder or writer, plumber or poet, carpenter or chemist it is our love of what we do, and what we create that gives us meaning and the ability to say “I was here.”

In a time when we are being sold deficiency, I think we need to identify those areas where we can develop sufficiency on our own terms, not open ourselves up to the judgement of others. The satisfaction of something we know well done, and satisfying for the knowledge that we created it.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Inspiring me this week

Phil Davidson is a Luthier. I’d like to think we can all recognise something of his focus in the four minute video in the work we do. If we can’t, Ithink we need to ask why.

In Praise of Hands, From Psyche Magazine, a beautifyul film about the nature of craft that needs no further explanation.


The Joy of Long Form Conversations

One of the (many) things I’ve enjoyed learning during the last two years is that proper conversation is irreplaceable when we’re trying to get to grips with difficult subjects, Time to think, room to disagree, space to respect the importance of the subject and the need to craft approaches, rather than buy them off the shelf.

Here are a couple of examples I’ve appreciated.

Climate Change. Yes, again. we can’t avoid the subject not can we solve it with simple solutions. Rich Roll and Peter Hawken.

Joe Rogan, Spotify, Canadian Truckers and Jordan Peterson

In a week that has seen controversy, I enjoyed this long form debate.


A Closing Thought

Working in the realm of words comes with risks and rewards. At the workbench I cannot bullshit a plank of white oak or a chisel; as mediums for thought they stubbornly ground me in the actuality of things. At the keyboard, the immateriality of words confers a mixed blessing. On the upside, their imprecision is conducive to wonderful flights of imagination and association. On the downside, that same malleability puts me at risk of ambiguity and self-deception. The strongest suit of thinking with words is its transmissibility, its viral infectiousness. Words disseminate ideas more easily than objects. They have the potential to reach far larger audiences, and reach them in a form that is more readily absorbed. Language can mainline ideas straight into the collective mind,

Excerpt from: “Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman” by Peter Korn.

Have a great week


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