Needled reviews: The F-Word. Tuesdays, 9pm, Channel 4
Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (Allen Lane, 2008)
Don’t get me wrong, I do not like The F-Word, but it is worth watching it occasionally for a few cheap laughs. You know the bit I mean: when Gordon tells you how to make his pea and lettuce soup in just one minute, all in words of just one syllable. Riotous! We are somehow meant to see Gordon’s failure to use any adjectives at all as the signature of his virility, “full of balls, energy, and really great food,” as the Channel-4 tag-line puts it. (Full of balls? Sure is. . .) And the gender stereotypes peddled in Gordon’s brisk how-tos are just as strange and crass as those associated with Nigella. Man does not describe. Oh no. Describing words redundant, and unmanly. Man only know how to use imperative. Imperative style of cooking instructions works best with short, firm words. More difficult with two syllables. Very hard to make the word “mushrooms” sound manly. “Mushrooms” does not sound like manly decree. Man quickly mutters “mushrooms” then gets on with real business of shouting Real Man Words. “WHISK! TOSS! STIR!” etc. If Nigella’s mellifluous, adjectival style is supposed to be read in direct relation to her cleavage, then the F-Word’s use of the imperative might be seen as the culinary equivalent of a wanking circle, with wee Gordon in the centre, braying out commands (Shaft! Girth! Beat! Etc)
But I bring the F-word to your attention because of a particular moment in Tuesday’s show. The redoubtable Janet Street Porter appeared on set, fresh from her carefully stage-managed experience of rearing and slaughtering two veal calves. The viewer had already been treated to the money-shot of the poor beasts’ deaths, and what we clearly needed now was Janet to preach at us about our lamentable food-buying habits. We must never buy cheap meat again. No we mustn’t. Instead, we should feast only on luxury meat products humanely reared by media luminaries. While dispensing her new-found farming wisdom, Janet was dressed in a formless top, machine-knit in a vibrant shade of puce. It was a truly hideous garment (sorry, Janet).
“I suppose you knit that yourself?” said Gordon, inferring that Janet’s experience of slaughtering “her boys” had turned her all rustic, or something.
“No I fooking didn’t, Gordon,” retorted Janet, “this is a designer item.”
Now, I know that I’m more sensitive than your average jane to anti-knitting slurs, but this was about so much more than knitting. Janet enthused about how raising the calves, and watching the process of their lives and deaths, had completely transformed her perception of meat. She now knew what was involved with what she put on her plate. And everyone should think about how the meat they eat is raised and killed. Apart from the patronising attitude, and the unavoidable questions Janet did not address about cost, class, and the ethics of raising a niche luxury product like veal, this is sort of fair enough. Yes, Janet. We should all think about process, and production. But, the problem is, that she hadn’t really engaged with process at all. She had merely played a game to camera: a game with a neatly plotted narrative arc, with contrived hooks and encounters, with a particular rhetorical language (that of reluctant maternity—quite bizarre) and with moments of typically ‘direct’ and ‘irreverant’ Street-Porter-like entertainment. “’Oh no, it’s pooing again’, moans Janet,” to quote The F-Word website. Janet had engaged about as much with the slow processes and difficult realities of farming as she had with the making of her sweater, and her quick retort about the obvious superiority of ‘designer’ to ‘hand-made’ spoke volumes.
So is it just me, or does so much of this currently popular moralising about process (particularly as it concerns food) have an incredibly hollow ring? It is just far too easy for Gordon, Janet and their like to preach to the middle classes about the importance of the means of producing edible luxuries, before nipping out to snap up, promote, or sell other commodities with little thought about the process of their making—or the livelihoods of their makers, for that matter.
But one place where such discussions of process are neither hollow or easy is in Richard Sennett’s excellent new book, The Craftsman. If you haven’t read it yet, you definitely should. In a series of radical, lyrical essays, this venerable sociologist makes the case for a reassessment of the idea of work itself. The making of things for use or beauty are never, he argues, a matter of individual brilliance, the romantic imagination, or isolated talent. Rather, for him, excellence lies somewhere between the eye and hand, in material practices and processes, and the slow engagement with them over time. Sennett’s notion of craft is something equally applicable to the design of a mobile-phone or a line of linux code, as much as a Stradivari violin , or a particular recipe for Poulet a la d’Albufera. For him, all these ‘crafts’ involve the same struggle with tools and processes, the same issues of encountering and solving problems, of developing and refining skill and focus, of learning how repetition itself can be creative, and of coming to know the singular pleasure of doing something well for its own sake. It is a book of tremendous breadth and sweep but which is also rich in details. In fact, for me, Sennett’s singularity, both as a writer and a public intellectual, is found in such details: in the bumper that really bothers him in the parking garage of a post-modern building; in his discussion of the symbolic values of bricks; in his thoughtful self-awareness of being an outsider as he watches a group of healthcare professionals transfixed by the image of a troublesome large intestine. And any man who can begin a sentence with the words “consider, for instance, an irregular tomato” and from that opening build an argument about the how an idea of virtue inheres in thing-ness, is OK by me.
Epinglier (pin making) Diderot, Encyclopedie (1762)
Lurking around the back of Sennett’s thesis is a familiar argument about the de-humanising effects of the modern and post-modern division of labour. He is quite explicit about his fondness for the all-encompassing curiosity of the mid-eighteenth century, or the undifferentiated artisanal labour of the medieval workshop. Not for him Adam Smith’s efficiently produced pins. This practical resistance to the division of labour—and the division of knowledge too, perhaps—is something he clearly applies to his own intellectual craft-work. He writes about the way children treat the spaces and equipment of playgrounds just as articulately as he does about Martin Heidegger.
Sennett’s thoughts about process have multiple and resonant contexts for me. For example, his remarks about being-in-the-thing came to my mind very strongly, when I read Mandy’s account of the pleasure of the rhythm of knitting her swallowtail shawl:
“We might think, as did Adam Smith describing industrial labour, of routine as mindless, that a person doing something over and over goes missing mentally; we might equate routine and boredom. For people who develop sophisticated hand skills, it’s nothing like this. Doing something over and over is stimulating when organised as looking ahead. The substance of the routine may change, metapmorhose, improve, but the emptional payoff is one’s experience of doing it again. There’s nothing strange about this experience. We all know it; it is rhythm. Built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled crafsman has extended rhythm to the hand and eye.” (p. 175)
. . .and his section on mess chimes very strongly with Felix’s and Kirsty‘s Messy Tuesdays posts:
“To arrive at that goal [that of being fit-for-purpose] the work process has to do something distasteful to the tidy mind, which is to dwell temporarily in mess—wrong moves, false starts, dead ends. Indeed, the probing craftsman does more than encounter mess; he or she creates it as a means of understanding working procedures.” (p.161)
And what Sennett has to say about the importance of modesty, and the awareness of one’s own inadequacies, while engaging with material processes is very moot too. Perhaps this is something for Janet and Gordon to bear in mind.
*You can hear Richard Sennett talking with Laurie Taylor and Grayson Perry about craftsmanship, and process in this episode of Thinking Allowed.