MR: “Getting Your Hands Dirty”

November 10, 2009 | 9 comments
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Mormon ReviewA new issue of The Mormon Review is available, with Russell Arben Fox’s review of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford. The article is available at:

Russell Arben Fox, “Getting Your Hands Dirty: Notes on How Mormons (and Everyone) Should Work,” The Mormon Review, vol.1 no. 8 [HTML] [PDF]

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9 Responses to MR: “Getting Your Hands Dirty”

  1. Raymond Takashi Swenson on November 10, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    The concept of a philosopher who works with his hands and draws his philosophy from that experience immediately reminded me of Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman who became a prolific author of philosophical musings on the operations of society, including the human motivations that lead to sometimes irrational mass movements like Nazism, Communism and (perhaps now) Jihadism.

    I was hoping that Crawford may have compared his own views with some of those from Hoffer, who came to his work as longshoreman and author of social philosophy without any detours through academia.

    It is interesting that Professor Fox cites Hugh Nibley as one of the few Mormons in the 20th Century who has addressed the question of what kind of work is most supportive of developing a Zion society. While a thorough academic with exemplary credentials, Nibley had also experienced the work of a logging camp (partly owned by his grandfather) and years not far from the front lines as a US Army intelligence analyst who experienced D-Day and operation Market Garden (“A Bridge Too Far”) within range of German machine guns, combining a very practical intellectual activity with serious physical risk and effort.

    There are those of us who make a livelihood in what are considered the thinking professions who are also intimate with hands on craft. In my own case, my work as an attorney has been involved with people who maintain and fly aircraft, manage missiles, demolish old buildings, and dig up nuclear waste. All of these activities have legal aspects that concern mechanisms of government, and so I have acted on the interface between reality and the ideal world of regulations that so seldom reflects the balancing of goals and tradeoffs of cost and benefit that are clear in reality but so seldom adopted in the world of regulation and bureaucracy, where it is more important to explain one’s reason for doing something than to actually accomplish anything.

    Bureacracies are machines that are sustained by eating rationales, and that find the “hunch” and the “best guess” to be indigestible lumps. Better to do nothing than to do something without being able to articulate why it works.

    Over my life in the Church, I have seen an effort by the Brethren leading the Church to push back against the tendency to bureaucratize and make rules for all activities, and teach us to find our decisions in the midst of righteous action, relying on impromptu inspiration from the Holy Ghost. Our lay priesthood, that gives few of us the time to create complex intellectual procedures to govern our Church service, forces us to rely on inspiration, since our own intellectual resources are inadequate to the most important tasks we must perform.

    Our relationships with other Church members, and our own families, are subject to the same kind of individualized creativity and risk of failure that manifests in repair of complex devices like motorcycles. We personify our cars and other complex devices as they approach the kind of intellectual challenge presented by a living person with whom we must maintain a life.

  2. Cameron Nielsen on November 11, 2009 at 12:46 am

    Nice thoughts Raymond. I enjoy my profession – industrial design – as it involves thinking as doing: people watching, sketching ideas, making prototypes, etc. I love both, and I enjoy problem solving that comes from practical observation and empathy for others needs (however small they may be in comparison to spiritual needs). Working with our hands is definitely spiritual, as are all things.

  3. Jonathan Green on November 11, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Russell, I liked your article quite a bit. Does Crawford discuss the possibility of academic labor, apart from his own past history and dissatisfaction? A lot of what Crawford writes accords well with my own preferences in what I work on (with a greater emphasis on books as artifacts of craftsmanship) and how I think about teaching, but Crawford might dismiss the notion of academic labor entirely.

    When you turn to the question of relevance for Mormonism at the end of your essay, one question you might ask is where we as Mormons are most engaged in the kind of work that Crawford promotes. Cleaning up after hurricanes and similar welfare projects are obvious, but I’d propose some elements of full-time missionary work as well. How about ward financial clerks?

  4. Craig H. on November 11, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Does he mention Pirsig’s famous book on Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance, which would seem to touch on a number of the same themes? How does he differ from that, or complement it?

  5. Wm Morris on November 11, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Thanks for translating this to a Mormon context, Russell. I personally think that more American Mormons should give up the meritocratic race to management income in order to support a large family method of career making and focus on the technical trades leading to small business ownership and the millionaire next door method. For one thing, it would be a way for us to recolonize the inner ring suburbs as well as boost wards and branches in rural and mid-size town. For another, it will put more of our solid, educated members in contact with the classes of Americans who are more likely to convert to the Church (I could be wrong on this one — that’s just my anecdotal experience).

    Oh, sure we’ll still need members going in to public service and the classic professions. But a divesting from the managerial class could aid our self-sufficiency, strengthen our wards, create more family stability across generations (which in turn will, I think, lead to happier women for a whole variety of reasons).

  6. Russell Arben Fox on November 11, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Good responses, everyone; I appreciate them. I think the original piece that I wrote for my blog holds up a little better than this one does (it’s longer, anyway), but it was nice to be able to plug Crawford’s arguments into a Mormon context.

    Raymond, thanks for your thoughts. In regards to your point about your work as a lawyer, though–“my work as an attorney has…acted on the interface between reality and the ideal world of regulations that so seldom reflects the balancing of goals and tradeoffs of cost and benefit that are clear in reality but so seldom adopted in the world of regulation and bureaucracy”–I’m doubtful that Crawford give much credit to your account. As I read his claims, you, like all lawyers, in dealing as an “interface” between tangible reality and ideal-driven articulations and regulations, are essentially doing the sort of work he derides when he mocks the technical writing industry: you are a specialist in finding words that can be read by other specialists which instruct yet other specialists in telling the actual workers of tangible reality what they are and are not allowed to do. Finding a way to express that which is approved and that which isn’t is vitally important, of course, especially in a democracy, where the people have a right to know how nuclear waste is being disposed of, or why a plane crashed. But that doesn’t change the fact that Crawford, at least as I understand him, sees no real virtue-generating “work” being done through such specialized communication. The fact is, he really doesn’t address the problem posed by modern society’s need for such expressions at all, except perhaps to argue that if production and decision-making took place on a small enough scale, specialized “interfacing” such as you perform for your clients wouldn’t be necessary. But I doubt your clients would be interested in, or even capable of, that kind of down-sizing. Which just leads back to my conviction that Crawford’s book is a deeply radical critique of contemporary capitalism, even if he isn’t aware of it.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on November 11, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Jonathan, I don’t think he dismisses academic work entirely, because he does speak very highly of some teachers that he has had, and he thinks the work they do–personal, interactive, hands-on, etc.–is “productive” in the best, virtue-generating sense. I think he has next to no respect for most forms of academic research entirely, though; on my reading, he would conclude that such “work” is all of a piece with the distancing and specializing of our relationship to the productive world, and thus to the real and demanding mental and physical work which objects, as opposed to ideas, require. But I wouldn’t want to claim too much, especially since there is a wide variety of research work being done in academia. In your own case, for example, to the extent that your study of the history of books brings you closer to manuscripts and paper and bookbinders and illuminated pages and other actual stuff, and enables you to have a greater appreciation and respect for the tangible and intellectual structures that those who labored with books generated and responded to, I can’t see how that would fall victim to some of Crawford’s accusations. But it still might though.

    As far as missionary work goes, it seems to me that if we wanted to apply Crawford’s analysis, we’d have to look specifically at the actions performed, and not the “labor” they are part of in the grand scheme of things. I mean, if we say missionaries are “prosletyzing,” through whatever means or method, then really that’s just telling us their motivation, isn’t it? What are they actually doing? If they’re volunteering to clean hopsital floors, that’s one kind of work. If they’re teaching discussions, that’s another. If they’re working in the mission office, compiling data about baptismal rates so to enable church statisticians to determine the proper future allocation of Book of Mormon funds, that’s a third. His analysis would, predictably I suspect, fall hardest on the third type of work, or so I suppose. The same analysis could be extended to the ward, I would guess.

  8. Russell Arben Fox on November 11, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Craig, he only mentions Pirsig in connection with his argument for local and tangible knowledge, and he quotes a couple of passages from Pirsig’s journey in relation to mechanics who don’t know what they’re doing, who only know what they “know” about motorcycles from reading manuals, and, in showing a lack of devotion to their craft, also demonstrate a lack of respect for those participate in it. It’s a pretty harsh part of his overall argument, if I remember correctly. But other than that, not much cross-over. Pirsig is ultimately talking about how we lose ourselves and become wise through the experience of tangible things, while Crawford is talking about how we make ourselves, as free and virtuous human beings, through our engagement with tangible things. Similar points, but different approaches.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on November 11, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    William, I don’t disagree with a single one of your points; indeed, I think they’re all dead-on. Thanks very much for making them! Up with local Mormonism!