ad astra per alia porci

working, once removed

It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.

– Anaxagoras

What follows is an attempt to map the overlapping territories intimated by the phrases “meaningful work” and “self reliance”. Both ideals are tied to a struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the very center of modern life. When we view our lives through the lens of this struggle, it brings certain experiences into sharper focus. We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense…

The idea of agency I have tried to illustrate in this book is different. It is activity directed toward some end that is affirmed as good by the actor, but this affirmation is not something arbitrary and private. Rather if flows from an apprehension of real features of the world… [A person’s] individuality is thus expressed in an activity that, in answering to a shared world, connects him to others… For in fact we are basically dependent beings: one upon another, and each on a world that is not of our making…

We usually think of intellectual virtue and moral virtue as being very distinct things, but I think they are not…

– Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work


I love watching Bear Grylls in Man v. Wild, gallivanting around and successfully surviving in the wild. Just to be fair, I love Ray Mears in Survivorman too, for his tenacity and outrageous courage in living and filming his escapades in the wilderness absolutely alone. I love watching Mike Rowe in Dirty Jobs, explaining and unveiling the hidden world of people who do jobs that nobody else wants or dares to do. I love watching crab harvesters in The Deadliest Catch bring in cages upon cages of humungous Alaskan king crabs, braving the choppy, dark waters of the Bering Straits and working unending hours on the rain-soaked decks of crabbing boats in the unforgiving freezing rain and snow, and going back home to a warm fireplace and relieved spouses with their pockets full of cash.

What attracts me is the frank, refreshing honesty in what they do, and an immense sense of physicality.It is experience at its most intense and raw, and there is no fudging because the results are there for all and sundry to see. You either survive or you don’t; the crab count cannot be doctored. There is no reliance on easy talk and smiles, things that people will term as “charm” and “charisma” (but to me just exercises in hypocrisy).

Interesting enough, for all its merits and honesty, I find myself simultaneously a voyeur, peering over the edge into the hidden worlds of people who I know I will never find the will to emulate and society does not give sufficient respect, gratitude or attention to. A touch of fantasy and impossibility separates me from their actual worlds.

Fortunately enough, I chanced upon a book which articulates and analyses what was to me an instinctive gut feeling of respect and admiration and gives me the ah-ha! moment. In his paean to the manual trades Shop Class As Soul Craft, Matthew B. Crawford makes a compelling case for a new appreciation for the manual trades, and critiques the pieties of conventional conceptions of what constitutes proper work.

My reading habit tends to be influenced by my current situation. I Googled and Amazoned this book after reading about it in an article in Newsweek about work satisfaction while (rather aptly) commuting to work in a law firm in my white shirt and black pants. I found the Amazon reviews on Crawford’s book as well as Crawford’s article in the New Atlantis and NYT on the same subject interesting and relevant enough to warrant reserving the book from the library.

It did not disappoint. I was consistently able to relate to what Crawford had to say and compare it to my experiences as a legal intern. My prior uneasiness with and slight disdain for the majority of white collar jobs were articulated in logical argument.

In a nutshell, Matthew B. Crawford dispels notions that the manual trades do not engage the intellect and provide meaningful jobs that are stable and sheltered from the threat of outsourcing. In fact he argues that the blue collar trades . In doing so, he also critiques the current job landscape and the workplace’s tendency to dehumanise and ignore the intrinsic needs of humans, which include the need to see the tangible effect one’s work has on the world and fidelity to and fulfillment of objective standards and ideals.

The tradesman’s work is psychically and emotionally fulfilling. As Crawford points out, one of the central problems of the modern world is the lack of individual agency. Office workers feel as if they are mere cogs in a machine, with little or no power to shape their immediate reality and no tangible fruit of their labour to show. A mechanic in contrast sees the actual fruits of his labour, in what Crawford terms as the “overlap” between the “community of consumption” and the “community of work”. The small town furniture maker sees his product put to good use by the community and is enlivened by it; such a job caters to the basic human need for “rational activity, in relation to others” that serve a greater community good and need.

By the sheer nature of the work of a manual trade, a practitioner is a true student of his trade. He cannot fix a machine in his mind, and neither can he go guns blazing into a repair job without a measure of theory. He has to understand theory in the abstract and confront reality where theory often has to be adjusted or even discarded in order to achieve the goals of his trade.

Such work affirms the individual’s sense of Emersonian self-worth and situates him within a larger ethic and purpose, the sort that nourishes a soul and gives direction and stability to lives. In Crawford’s words:

The satisfaction 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 felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.

This book is also an exercise in breaking misconceptions about “menial labour”. The phrase suggests that such jobs do not engage the mind and are merely automated tasks that anyone can perform, and that such jobs are low status jobs. The former is not true since the mechanic must have a close understanding of his work in order to be good at it, but the latter is unfortunately a fact that is sadly dependent on prevailing social perceptions rather than any objective criteria.

Contrast the work of a skilled practitioner of a manual trade with the work of an average paper pusher in the office. The best and most accessible representation of the plight of the office worker is probably the Dilbert comic strip.

The world of Dilbert, with its crazy unfeeling bosses, excruciating boredom and inane bureaucracy is alarmingly close to real life. Life in a cubicle can be existentially absurd. We work with people we would not normally interact with in life, and chains of hierarchy command our uneasy relationships. There is silence, and very often boredom. Work is done mostly through impersonal emails and on paper. An intense sense of purposelessness, of “why am I doing this?” and “what am I doing here?” pervades work.

The advancement of the modern economy is very much predicated on the phasing out of physical jobs and its substitution with modern “thinking” jobs. However this comes at great social cost. People are essentially lost as cogs in machines; they do not know the effect of their work and the standards to which their work are judged (if they exist at all). If such standards do exist, they are usually so vague that they serve as nothing more than public relations material or useless platitudes. The cubicle dweller has trouble explaining in any degree of meaningful detail what exactly he is doing, without resort to jargon and artificial phrases. The lack of a clear standard through which to measure work results in irresponsibility since no one can be said to be underperforming or doing things wrongly, and this perpetuates immorality.

Crawford notes the modern tendency to separate thinking from doing in the white collar working place. Whatever can be done mechanically in a job is farmed out to “lower level workers” while thinking is the dominion of the supposedly highly-qualified intellectual class with their scores of degrees and qualifications. However as mentioned above, true learning comes from the synthesis of both theoretical learning and actual doing; the student that is only introduced to theory has a half-baked understanding of a subject and fails to appreciate the subject adequately.

The cubicle worker is in essence a hopeless idiot. Not in the derogatory, colloquial sense of the word, but in the sense that the word is used by Robert Pirsig in Zen and The Art of Motorcyle Maintenance and interpreted by Crawford: an idiot is a person who does not see his work as part of an involvement with something outside of himself, of larger concern and universal quality. An idiot teacher would only care about whether he has adhered to issued instructions from school authorities; he would not see that he is entrusted with the important task of expanding young minds and the need to maintain a personal concern for each individual student. An idiot is at bottom, to quote Crawford, a “solipsist”, that is a selfish person who only thinks about his own views.

Crawford posits that intellectual and moral virtue are in fact entangled. The mode and level of cognition that pervades our work determines the moral quality of the person. If a job reduces you to a mere instruction-following cog in the machine (e.g. the ubiquitious zombie helpline worker who can chant pre-written responses to genuine queries and problems without ever taking a real interest in the plight of the caller), chances are that your sense of morality and care for others will be reduced somewhat too. The current economic crisis is testimony to the destructive potential of such a pernicious approach to jobs; bankers respond only to cold profit while investment salesman see their role only as conduits for passing on poisoned investment products rather than the guardians of the financial well-being of their clients. They see themselves as cogs in a chain that foists financial products on the unsuspecting public, and their better judgment and perceptions are suspended. Crawford terms this as a process of “learned irresponsibility”, since responsibility and concern for others is the bedrock of most ethical systems. If this is true, the perceived degradation of the moral character of the modern man can be linked to the increased mechanisation and depersonalisation of jobs.

The predicament confronting the modern cubicle worker reminds me of various characters of some fine books I had the privilege to read. Biff and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman are probably the most striking examples. I tried to relate what I read to characters and people I knew, and these two sprang immediately to mind.

These are two characters who are hopelessly out of place in their materialistic society. Biff used to be a star quarterback and dreams of working in a ranch with his hands, but instead caved into pressure from his father to find a way to a job behind a corporate desk. Willy loves tending to his garden and really should find a job as a gardener, but instead he fell prey to the delusions of thinking that everyone should find a job in sales and live the high and successful life and embarked on a failed career as a traveling salesman. They have submitted to social pressure and sacrificed their better selves at the altar of social misconceptions of what constitutes proper work.

I believe that Biffs and Willys can be found everywhere in the world. We can see shades of them in ourselves and others. These characters, like many paper pushers, struggle in the modern working climate, which fails to nurture the best in men and fulfill our psychic and emotional needs. One particular phrase used by Crawford seem particularly appropriate here; to paraphrase Crawford, while “every job entails some kind of mutilation”, it is important to make sure that “none of this damage touches the best part of yourself”. A firefighter runs the risk of burns and bruises, but he does so because he is engaged in the noble and fulfilling endeavour of saving lives. However a modern cubicle worker might find it a struggle to state what exactly he is sacrificing time and his mental health for. Some things are simply too precious to be damaged, and many jobs in fact do just that.

Crawford’s writing sheds much light on my current situation. I am a law student, and if all goes smoothly, I should be starting a career as a lawyer soon after I graduate. However even before starting my career, I am able to see how lawyering has the potential to be at bottom unfulfilling and uncongenial to the better parts of one’s humanity. Since being a lawyer is one of the quintessential white collar professions, Crawford’s critique can almost be fully applied to lawyering.

My chief experience as a legal intern was that to be a lawyer is to live life by proxy. Instead of being  a businessman, lawyers aid businessmen in their endeavours, be it through drafting merger and acquisitions documents or negotiating terms of sales and purchase agreements. Instead of playing a sport, lawyers act for sportsmen. Instead of nurturing brands, lawyers are engaged in intellectual property work. It feels like an opt out, and whenever I hear fellow students that say they love the sea and hence they want to go into shipping law, I roll my eyes. If you really love the sea, why not be a sailor? Or a fisherman? Anything that actually gets you into direct contact with the object of fascination itself.

Seen from a more negative light, lawyers are mere cogs in the machine of commerce. They are conduits, the lubricant that allow things to move more smoothly. And they are paid a lot and work obscenely long hours, to do things that are not explicitly productive. There is no furniture at the end of a working day or project, except for maybe a few documents, and I bet that lawyers have a tough time explaining their work to any common person. The doctrines of consideration and undue influence are artificial, without any anchor on concrete reality.

Is there then some connection between the unfortunately emerging phenomenon of errant lawyers absconding with money and the nature of the job? Ethical standards exist for the lawyering profession in Singapore, but professional standards seem to be open to interpretation, and bending. There is really no correct way to draft a contract, or to make an argument in court. Subjectivity pervades the profession, and this is perhaps a reason why lawyers get jaded, and in the worst cases, downright immoral. Without the anchor of the sense of responsibility arising from being held to an objective standard and adhering to a larger ideal, lawyers tend to lose their internal moral compasses.

Till the day I finally reach some sort of congruence between my professed admiration for physical, tangible work and my chosen lawyering path, there remains a blotch of uncertainty and self-conscious hypocrisy confounding my heart and mind.


Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class As Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work

The original essay from the New Atlantis:

Matthew B. Crawford, “The Case for Working with Your Hands” in the NY Times:

Fukuyama’s review of the book:


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