Matt Crawford as Steampunk

There is a not-so-spot-on review of Matthew B. Crawford’s book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, up now at The New York Times. I have no time to wonder right now why this particular reviewer had this particular reaction, so let’s get into the meat of it:

Mr. Crawford needed to hear things gurgle and roar, and so it is perhaps not a surprise to learn that he grew up to own his own motorcycle repair shop. And in “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” his passionate argument for a brand of hands-on self-reliance, and a plea for the dignity of the manual trades, he comes on like Ralph Waldo Emerson in a “Mad Max” get-up — leather jacket, fingerless gloves, sawed-off shotgun, the works. It’s an appealing combination.

A better reference — help me out, here, Peter — would be that one comic book, where a future civilization of neo-Victorians comes in second only to the super-Chinese, or to Steampunk, which is sort of like being a DIY Amish Sherlock Holmes from, yes, the future. Bear with me as I sort of explain why.

As “Shop Class as Soulcraft” rumbles along, however, a few bolts begin to fall off the machine. His calm, confident tone grows strident. (“What the hell is going on? Is this our society as a whole, buying more education only to scale new heights of stupidity?”)

Our reviewer seems not to catch Matt’s sense of humor. (It’s a bit dry.) This is not just a shame but an impediment to understanding:

What began as an expansive, mind-clearing argument begins to feel smaller, more pinched. Mr. Crawford fixates on “what is sometimes called ‘the 1968 generation.’ ” It isn’t exactly clear what an attack on the “easy moral prestige of multiculturalism” has to do with his argument, nor his soggy caricature of the “sushi-eating, Brazilian-girlfriend-having cosmopolitan.” One can’t eat raw fish or date South American women and still like to fix things?

Sure it’s clear. The cosmopolitan Matt laughs at (and you can’t get the character of his attack without putting it this way) has written off the messy, ‘primitive’ duties that someone takes on who sees inherent worth in the kind of manual competence that is best described — though Matt doesn’t put it in these terms — as analog, not digital. The closest the cosmopolitan gets to analog mastery, Matt leaves us laughing, is his tactile enjoyment of Toro and Carmina. There is a manner — admittedly, but appropriately — left to the reader to piece together, in which the manly analog competence Matt describes functions as a disciplinary hedge against the contemporary man’s slide into effete cush.

He pleads for a matey kind of “yeoman aristocracy” in which men are free to tell dirty jokes because “the order of things isn’t quite so fragile.” Well, O.K.. I like dirty jokes too. But they are complicated things — less complicated if, as in Mr. Crawford’s book, there are virtually no women to be found.

[…] Sentences like this one begin to pop up like dorsal fins: “People who ride motorcycles have gotten something right, and I want to put myself in the service of it, this thing that we do, this kingly sport that is like war made beautiful.”

About this passage I have (at least) three thoughts. One, “this thing that we do”? What is this, “Goodfellas”? Two, this type of gonzo romanticism does not fit the reality of the lives of most of the workers he purports to champion — dishwasher repairmen, plumbers, locksmiths. Three, hasn’t a vibrant and all-too-visible subset of the people who ride motorcycles — the noise freaks who omit their mufflers, the high-speed weavers through close traffic — definitely gotten something wrong?

One, yes — what is this, That Thing You Do!? Next question. Two, Matt’s thesis is incomprehensible once deprived of its insight into the way admiration factors into the maintenance of the practical discipline of manual competence across generations, not to mention across the social boundaries of boys and men who would otherwise be strangers, if not adversaries. Three, there isn’t a phrase in Shop Class as Soulcraft that leads a fair reader to even suspect that Matt would praise the ego-tripping hotdoggers our reviewer describes. Their ethos is roughly ten light years away from Matt’s — as would be clear to any competent reviewer of this book, to whose mind should immediately spring instead the closing passage of Hunter Thompson’s _Hell’s Angels. The ‘war’ Matt is talking about, unless I am badly mistaken, is a lot less about penis-measuring-by-proxy races and a lot more about the worth of the experiences a man can produce for himself in relation with a machine that he has come to know by handling it inside and out. That’s Steampunk, baby — the idea that technological ‘progress’ should ‘stop’ at the point of man’s diminishing returns in the production of that relationship. It’s not an arbitrary line. One might disagree with it — say, in the spirit of liberating women from household chores (a task that has at least sort of failed, right?) — but one cannot dismiss it as ‘mere aesthetics’ or self-satisfying pomo arbitrariness.

So much for my snap defense of the book. I do have criticisms, yes, but they’ll have to wait for another day. After all, they come second to these remarks in a deeper way too.