Thursday, August 04, 2005

By Hand

Today's petits fours: apricot almond tarts (with a linzer dough); blueberry tarts (on a sweet dough, topped with streusel); and pistachio creme brulee on a little circle baked from extra-fine sweet dough (a.k.a. sable, pronounced sah-blee). The apricot-almond tarts were pretty good, though fragile (probably could have baked a teeny bit longer); the blueberry tarts were too sweet for my taste--I'd leave some of the sugar out of the filling and might even add some lemon zest to the filling or the dough; and the creme brulee was quite nice, even if I need practice with the caramelizing torch. I still haven't finished the puff pastry turnovers at home; I must do that tonight before everything rots in the fridge. I also have to drink beer tonight, I think, rather than play handball, but if that happens, it should happen early. (An ex-coworker is back in town for a few days--his dad had heart surgery of some kind--and he has to be somewhere at 7:30 or 8:00, so we'll meet before that.)

I've been thinking for a week now about a conversation that B and S and I had last week about embodied knowledge. That's a common bit of conversation these days, not least because S is writing about it at great (i.e., dissertation) length; it's also a subject that has fascinated me for a very long time. Because so many of my family members are craftspeople of one kind or another, and because I, too, make things, it's easy to forget that not everyone has that experience. Even though my sister-in-law cooks a fair amount of food from boxes, she has a big garden, and my brother kills the meat they eat. My brother also makes things--a curved pirate sword, out of wood, for my older nephew; targets for archery practice; my nephew's first bow--so my nephews get some exposure to that.

In general, though, we live in a world--and, in particular, in a country--that absolutely does not value those kinds of skills. Yes, I've said it here before and I'm saying it again. One of our chefs has earned the title of MOF, or Meilleur Ouvrier de France (here's a description in French; you can Google m.o.f. France and ask Google to translate for the English), and a second will be trying to earn that title the next time it comes around. The title is available in about 200 arenas, I think, not just pastry; once you earn the title, you hold it for life. It is similar to the Japanese "living national treasure" designation, and it acknowledges expertise. In particular, it acknowledges what S has been calling (in a phrase I have stolen) "embodied knowledge." I would argue that there have been similar levels of expertise in a number of craft unions in this country (e.g., the progression from apprentice to journeyman to craftsman in at least a few craft unions).

The powers that be in this country have long been as suspicious of "craft"-based expertise as it has been of intellectual pursuits and labor unions--all of those things apparently impede capitalism in ways that are detrimental to, um, capitalists, I guess. How has this happened, you wonder? Well, how many of you have heard of Frederick Taylor? You'll notice, if you click through on that link, that the second paragraph refers to "skilled craftsmen" but the rest of the discussion assumes that (a) the skills workers possess are minimal, (b) skilled craftwork can be reduced to simplified (and, perhaps, mechanized) tasks that can be performed by minimally skilled (and, presumably, cheaper-to-hire; certainly more replaceable) people, and (c) workers don't really want to be productive; all things considered, they'd rather slack. My personal favorite part of that page is Taylor's four principles:
  1. Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.
  2. Scientifically select, train, and develop each worker rather than passively leaving them to train themselves.
  3. Cooperate with the workers to ensure that the scientifically developed methods are being followed.
  4. Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks.
Let's look at that third one again: "Cooperate with the workers to ensure that the scientifically developed methods are being followed." Because, you know, craftspeople's methods aren't scientific and couldn't possibly embody any relevant knowledge whatsoever, at least not compared to science, and, you know, workers LOVE to have the "cooperation" of their overseers to make sure those new methods are being followed. However did they manage to work without such oversight?

And how about that last one? How, exactly, is managers applying scientific management principles and "planning" the work while the workers actually do the tasks an "equal" division of the work? It's not a surprise that I found this little page on an MBA-related site: Taylor extolled the virtue of "management," and, one might argue, almost single-handedly created the perceived need for the MBA. (Sorry; had to wipe some scorn off the screen there.)

Seriously, though, this attitude is opposed in just about every way possible with the notions that, for example, craftspeople (broadly understood, for the moment; I'd argue that many areas of expertise have these qualities, even the ones we habitually call "professions") have, can utilize and manage, and can communicate skill sets that are specialized. It is opposed to the notion that doing and thinking about one's doing are not mutually exclusive. It is the basis of classically marxist alienation from one's labor. It is dehumanizing, in so many ways. It is primarily concerned with profit for the owners--hence the emphasis, when you scratch the surface, on "efficiency." The efficiency that was the hallmark of Taylorism was designed to increase the profits in the pockets of the owners--at first by getting more work out of people for the same amount of money, and not too much later, by mechanizing expertise out of existence. (As I've mentioned before, Kurt Vonnegut's "Player Piano" is one of the best evocations of this I've ever read; he was working at GE when he wrote it, I believe.)

If a machine-made croissant satisfies you, then don't bother coming to my bakery; you'll wonder what the fuss is about, and you'll probably roll your eyes at the price, especially when you can get bigger, cheaper ones at Wal-Mart. But if you want a hand-made croissant, then come on by.


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