Why making things matters

Professor Trevor Marchand recently gave a talk at SOAS, entitled ‘The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work: an anthropology of crafts and craftspeople’, in which he discussed the many and varied benefits of handcraft – both  individually and communally. Here are the highlights.

“Hands are an important medium for expressing and even shaping ideas and emotions. Hand, too, is the most effective appendage for manipulating objects, and for configuring and modifying our physical environment.”

“My specific concern lies with the nature of skilled hand tool use. Tools are cultural artefacts that possess their own history of use and shared meaning; and through practise we are, so to speak, socialised in the tool. In turn, mastering the tool modifies and expands our cognitive and physical abilities.”

“Skilled handwork involves fast and fluid exchanges of various kinds of sensory information – motor action feedback, semantic knowledge. It also involves reflective thought on the goals, present actions, and tasks completed. Where this exchange of action, information and thought is synchronised, woodworkers experience a sense of unity between what they see, hear, feel and do with tools and materials – like athletes. Body, mind and soul are absorbed in the task. Indeed, recent studies demonstrate that on a physical and neurological level, a hand tool becomes an extension of the forearm, of hands and fingers – and thereby integrated within a brain-hand-tool complex. Our ability to conceptually identify, and understand, the uses of a wide variety of tools, to plan the tools and satisfy goals, and to manipulate the tools with high levels of manual dexterity, is a defining trait of our species.”

“American neurologist Frank Wilson correctly observes that, ‘for a great number of people, the hand becomes the critical instrument of thought, skill, feeling and intention for a lifetime of professional work’. I would add that skilled handwork lends practitioners a vital sense of agency to make, undo, transform and repair their world, and the world of others, in immediate, practical, hands-on ways. The pursuit of pleasurable work is indeed the pursuit of such agency. By relocating the self within an imagined heritage of craft production, and embodying the ethos of a future utopia that promises satisfaction and actualization, vocational migrants are ultimately trying to realize [an] integration of work with life.”

You can also read design author Stephen Bayley writing recently on a similar topic in the Independent: here, he discusses the demise of British manufacturing – and exactly why it matters that we know how to make things, with our hands, on our own.

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Why making things matters