There is craft in Pierre's laboratory



'There is craft in Pierre's laboratory' Craft Victoria July/August, 22 (215): 4-6 (1992)

The McDonalds Restaurant has now established itself as one of the most pervasive and enduring venues of modern capitalism. If you wanted to learn something about today's world, there would be few better places to start than this universal public space. There are many qualities that have brought McDonalds success: speed, cleanliness, reliability, etc. But from a craft point of view, what seems particularly distinctive about this restaurant is that all its eating implements are disposable. Traditionally, the host entrusts diners with eating equipment provided by the restaurant. There is a elemental form of human exchange involved in the understanding that the diner on departing the restaurant, cutlery will be left in its place. This is exactly what McDonalds liberates clients and host from: the social contract of things.

The anonymity of the McDonalds Restaurant is the kind of phenomenon which prompts writers from New York like Richard Sennett to associate the lost status of things in the modern world with the decline of social structures. In my last article,[1] I presented his argument that the demise of craft in modern lifestyles was associated with a less meaningful existence. In this article, I will attempt to question whether craft has indeed declined, using as an counter-example the role of technician in a contemporary scientific laboratory.

Last time I presented two alternative ways of evaluating the demise of craft. The New York story showed that the decay of social structure associated with the loss of care for the material world leads in the end to a kind of nothingness -- an absence of meaning. By contrast, Friedrich Nietzsche would claim that the absence of craft is a liberation from the kinds of order that deny the wild winds of life and passion.

We know from the fable of the grasshopper and the ant that freedom without care can have disastrous results, but the failure of state communism has also shown that all care eventually becomes no responsibility. Freedom and care, though rivals, need to be kept in play together.

Personally, I champion the version provided by the New York school because I don't believe that there is a meaning which can be revealed without some kind of human structure. However, there is a time for the kind of negativity which Nietzsche advocates: structure needs its anti-structure, or chaos, if it is to have any regulatory function. How the two values of care and freedom are resolved is a complicated issue that warrants much further thought, but here at least, I wish to restrict the focus to an important assumption in the New York story: that craft is no longer relevant to the modern world. Here I want to explore the possibility that this assumption is misleading: that craft may indeed not have declined but instead discovered new practices in which to operate.

Before beginning this new point, we need to agree on a definition of craft. If we are to travel with this definition, we need to pack it securely and lightly (you could say we need a well-crafted definition of craft). Traditionally, philosophers like Collingwood have defined craft by contrast with art.[2] Craft is useful, whereas art is without function. The primary intention of this kind of definition is to make an economical and reliable category. Craft is a box into which you can throw all those objects which might have a practical as well as aesthetic function.

In this style of argument, a definition is constructed which stands outside the world. Whatever the definition, it does not affect the objects which it includes or excludes. But with the emergence of thought broadly labelled as `poststructuralist', we have an alternative approach. Since the ancient Greeks, we have assumed that knowledge exists outside the world, in powers such as god or reason: truth is a light that reveals the world but is not part of it. Poststructuralists argue that knowledge is indeed inside the world: knowledge is considered a `practice' governed not by truth but by the material conditions by which that knowledge is produced -- these material conditions include speech, text and institutions.

So when looking for a `definition', the poststructuralist looks for an existing device that regulates the flow of meaning. We could retreat to a distant place and confer on a black and white definition of craft, but that would ignore the fact that definitions of craft are already in operation, regulating the pricing of objects, the status of aesthetic practice and even the ways people come together. The question changes from what the definition of craft is to what it does. Not everyone is willing to follow the poststructuralist line of thought, but its emergence as a theoretical approach in writing about culture should tempt us to look at what it might have to offer the crafts.

From this point of view, the definition of craft lies in a conceptual toolbox along with `art', `science', `trade', `profession' etc. It can be brought out and applied to almost any productive practice. When we speak of the `craft of ...' a particular activity, we deal with a knowledge of materials that is shared among fellow practitioners. It is an internally regulated flow of information -- internal because it is learnt practically rather than through abstract media such as texts. You cannot be taught `the craft of' a particular field in a seminar room or in a library. You need to belong to some group who maintain the information necessary to perform the practice. This group tells each other the `tricks of the trade' and shares a special love of the materials employed. Painters can be artists when talking to their audience of viewers, but they become craftspeople when speaking among themselves.

If what we know of craft is considered more broadly than specific practices such as ceramics and silversmithing, then we can begin to extend our sight more widely to other fields, and consider whether the contemporary developments in technology have actually been counter to the spirit of crafts.

Technoscience is one of the major growth industries in the modern world. Today we hear stories about the richest man in the USA buying up the research project that sets out to describe the DNA sequence in humans. Popular media programmes such as Towards 2000 marvel at the capacity of technology to increase in our mastery over nature. If we were to find craft in this field, then we would be discovering a lamb in the lion's den.

This is where poststructuralism provides a fresh perspective. As you might anticipate, it approaches science not as a transcendental realm of pure inquiry, but as a material practice whose basic aim is to produce publishable findings. A French anthropologist, Bruno Latour, spent many months following scientists around a neuroendocrinological laboratory in France. Latour argues that science is too often examined as a product of single minds, whereas on ground level it is often more readily understood as determined by the quite material and social factors that regulate the interactions between people and nature in a laboratory.

Latour offers a kind of scientific realism. Just as what appears as `art' is a glamorised version of what goes on in the studio, so what presents itself officially as `science' is the more romantic picture of the technical business of running a laboratory. Though science appears to be a pursuit that is universal in scope, there is still much in the everyday workings of a laboratory which are local and specific. In the production of materials necessary for the discovery of natural entities, the expertise of the technician makes a difference. Latour listens to the language of the workbench:

The presence in this setting of what scientists refer to as `an exquisite bioassay for growth hormones' or of a `very sensitive assay for CRF' is highly valued by members, and is the source both of their pride as well as the points they make in the literature... The apparatus and craft skills present in one field thus embody the end results of a debate or controversy in some other field and make these results available within the walls of the laboratory.[3]

Thus it seems that the technician can be viewed as more than an invisible slave to science, but one whose productive role equals that of a master craftsperson in the manufacture of objects. Latour's mission as an anthropologist is to highlight the importance of material factors such as craft skills in the understanding of how science produces facts. Facts in the end are appreciated on similar terms to any other well-crafted objects: clean, smooth, hard-wearing and, importantly, useful to other scientists.

To give some sense of the effect of this change of perspective on our conception of how science operates, Latour tells the story of Watson's discovery of the double helix. The cliched version of scientific discovery has a thinker sitting passively beneath a tree waiting for the apple to fall to earth, the penny to drop. It is an abstract picture which doesn't correspond at all to the events of Watson's discovery, where -- on someone else's advice -- he tinkered around with cardboard cut out forms until he saw a particular symmetry emerge.

When I got to our still empty office the following morning, I quickly cleared away the papers from my desk top so that I would have a large, flat surface on which to form pairs of bases held together by hydrogen bonds... Suddenly I became aware that an adenine-thymine pair held together by two hydrogen bonds was identical in shape to a guanine-cytosine pair held together by at least two hydrogen bonds.[4]

One could argue that it was the physical dexterity in Watson's play which was critical in the discovery of the double helix. But this means a radical challenge to the ivory tower picture of human knowledge. Is it possible to include thinking in a definition of `craft'?[5]

While Watson and his fellow scientists might discuss together the finer points of cardboard cutouts, there is something which filters this kind of detail out for the public audience. The story that arrives in the classrooms and lounge rooms is one of great minds, insight, flashes of inspiration. What's the difference between these two stories? The craft-based story of discovery makes Watson out to be ordinary. By contrast, the intellectual story places him in a position of mystical power: like Moses, the information comes from the grand heights of solitary journey, far away from the negotiations and promises that stitch together a normal life.

So how does this picture of craft in modern technoscience relate to traditional understanding? Certainly, the production of scientific facts does correspond to the idea that craft relates to the usefulness of a product. A scientific fact needs to be reliably reproduced in order for it to be used in other laboratories. And it does involve the transformation of raw material. Raw material in this case may be an organic solution that needs to be assayed or purified. Basically, the end product of this process is a piece of paper on which a measurement has been taken.

By looking at knowledge as a `practice', we manage to find evidence of craft in the least likely location. In doing this, we settle on an issue that more sharply delineates our contemporary context: the absence of handiwork in the life of a technician. Sure there is cutting, staining, marking, etc., but these are not as important as the technician's intimate knowledge of the machines he or she is operating: e.g., the know how to set up and read the fractionating columns. The question is: does the difference represented by the `hands on' craft traditionally associated with making objects and the machine-mediated craft of technoscience amount to a cause for concern about the modern condition.

Certainly, if the extension of the craft category allows the inclusion of modern technoscience, then the sad tales told by New Yorkers about the decline of the crafts simply misses the fact that it is hiding out in unlikely locations -- somewhere up in those anonymous glass buildings is a software programmer delicately weaving an elaborate computer package.

The critical question, then, becomes what kind of world is implied in the technician's relation to nature. In part, the technician's aim is to render nature tame, or docile. To guarantee that it will respond regularly to the same kind of commands. To this degree, the technician is like an animal trainer who brings to the surface the classical beauty of a wild creature and in the meantime shares an intimate relationship with their non-human adversary.[6] Certainly, it is a world capable of love and care (though this might not quite extend to the small furry creatures in the laboratory).

In terms of thinking about the situation of craft in today's world, what this new development means is a place for craft as a forum for thinking about the implications of modern technology. It provides a continuing narrative about the relationship between humans and nature that extends beyond what we find in Sunday craft markets to the business of the most newest and most highly capitalised industries. In my next article, we will consider the agent whose demise more sharply problematises today's working environment: the human hand.


[1]. `There is no craft in the Pierre Bar' Craft Victoria 1992, March/April, 22 (213): 5-7

[2]. Collingwood, R. G. The Principles of Art London: Oxford University Press, 1958

[3]. Latour, Bruno & Woolgar, Stephen Laboratory Life Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986 (orig. 1979), p. 66

[4]. Watson, J. D. `The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA' in G. S. Stent (ed.) The Double Helix: A New Critical Edition London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981 (orig. 1968), p. 114

[5]. Latour follows Heidegger's words, that `Thinking is craftwork' [Gedanke ist Handwerk].

[6]. For a sympathetic account of this relationship between human and non-human, see Hearne, Vicki Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name New York: Vintage, 1986