On material consciousness

On “The Craftsman” (Richard Sennett) Chapter 4: Material Consciousness

In The Craftsman Richard Sennett explores the the idea of craftsmanship, the desire to do a job well for its own sake – as a template for living. Very broadly speaking the book deals with the integration of thinking and making.

In the chapter about material consciousness he specifically discusses the relationship between a craftsman and his materials and tools. “

“The painter Edgar Degas is once supposed to have remarked to Stephane Mallarme, “I have a wonderful idea for a poem but can’t seem to work it out,” whereupon Mallarme replied, “My dear Edgar, poems are not made with ideas, they are made with words.” (p.119)

Sennett proposes that a craftsman is driven by the ability to change things, and that their thinking revolves around three key issues: metamorphosis, presence and anthropomorphosis.

Through three stories on pottery, brick making and stucco, Sennett argues that these crafts and the thinking about them have developed over the centuries through intimate interaction with the materials, through trial and error. Gradually perfecting techniques, or applying them to a different context. But also identifying themselves in and with the work by leaving makers marks or signing. Sennett uses brick making as an example of how anthropomorphism becomes part of the discourse:

“Honest”brick describes brickwork in which all the bricks laid, say, in a Flemish bond course come from the same kiln, and even more, “honest” brick evokes a building surface in which the brick work is exposed rather than covered over: no cosmetics, no “pots of whore’s rouge” have been applied to its face”. (p.140)

This is in contrast with the developments in stucco, which could be used mimic other materials, or hide any underlying materials. This sparked a modern debate on the virtues of naturalness, and the contrary freedoms of fantasy artifice, with brick embodying the Enlightenment desires to live in harmony with simple things.

The projection of human qualities to materials (anthropomorphism) leads to a philosophical debate on simulated materials or objects, made to look like they were hand-made.

Position of the author

Sennett is not one to take a very explicit position but throughout the book it is clear he is proposing the craftsmans integrated thinking and making as a model for living a productive and meaningful life. On multiple occasions he is critical of the split between thinking and doing that has been central to a lot of western thinking since Plato.

Why is this relevant

Within the last century effects for cinema have moved from physical and photo-chemical to much more metaphorical using digital tools.

My argument is that although digital visual effects may not have as much of the tactile physical interaction that, say, clay has – it can be seen as craftsmanship in that the result is shaped through integrated thinking and making. For most visual effects artists, their craft is part of a way of life, and they are driven by a desire to do great work for its own sake.

Second: I am exploring the issue of material ‘honesty’ and how it relates to digital work. On the ‘surface’  it would be convincing to propose that digital effects are to traditional effects as bricks are to stucco (which according to Sennett renowned historian John Summerson classified as ‘fake material’ p.139). This would imply that for instance brick (and especially hand-made brick) have an intrinsic honesty whereas stucco is actively trying to fool people.

Upon further thinking this concept seems more and more ridiculous. Or better: it is a cultural construct. But nonetheless an important part of my motivation.




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