Interesting post and discussion at 11d on Sandra Tsing Loh’s latest essay in the Atlantic Monthly, which I read on the train this week. I thought the essay was terrible for a variety of reasons, many of them stylistic. There’s some ingredients in it for an interesting commentary on motherhood, domesticity and family but the alternatively accusatory and wheedling tone was really off-putting.
Tone is a complicated issue in evaluating writing of any kind. It matters: writing is rhetoric, not just content. Content is easier to dispute and correct: this is wrong, this is right, this is confused.
It’s hard to write about tone in a review of a book without complaining that the author should have written the book that you would prefer to have read (or even authored), in which you take yourself as an ideal, typical or important reader.
One example in my recent reading is Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I finally got around to finishing. It’s a strange sensation to finish a book where you agree with the basic premise, agree with many of the specific points, acknowledge that the author is quite aware about the history of the ideas that are important to him and still find yourself frequently annoyed as hell with the way he chooses to say it.
I’m all for teaching what Crawford calls “the practical arts”, I’d agree that visceral experience with the material world has a power that abstract knowledge does not have, and that there’s a power in knowing for yourself how things and machines work.
Part of my problem, I guess, is that he oversells his case. There are people who approximate what he calls craftsmen even in knowledge work, for one, who have the agency and ethos that he sees as systematically absent from that world. He often takes material objects, machines and technologies as artifacts which simply exist for the practical, craftmanslike person to work with, showing little interest in the processes by which new technologies are imagined, designed or implemented until or unless they become something he disdains because they are no longer easily accessible to craftsmanlike tinkering. He’s got a fairly shop-worn (pun intended) critique of consumer culture, which is banal but tolerable until you stop to think a bit about the fact that the business that puts bread on his table is maintaining vintage motorcycles that his customers drive for fun down the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hello, 21st Century leisure and consumption! It’s not exactly reshoeing the plow horse for the Widow Stevens so she can plant enough wheat for the coming winter.
Maybe it’s that he complains about erudition but keeps most of his polemic afloat with plenty of readings and citations and some cherrypicking. The best two chapters in the book are his “Education of a Gearhead” about his concrete experiences in motorcycle repair and a small bit of the following chapter on his white-collar discomforts: the rest of it feels, a bit like Sandra Tsing Loh’s essay, like a personal conviction in search of a social narrative, as if his own discoveries and experiences aren’t enough to keep it going. It feels, in that sense, both padded and lacking in confidence, as if he wants his old think tank buddies to think well of him and believes that they won’t unless he speaks their language as well as the new literacy he’s discovered.
Maybe it’s just tone, and personal taste. There was all of what I liked in the book, which was quite a bit. Then I had some more dispassionate questioning of some of his evidence or interpretations. And then there was a growing amount of irritation with the way he chose to say it.
Crawford doesn’t like technologies which automate some aspect of their functioning, which take the manual agency of the user out of the picture. Fine, I guess, but it’s sort of an arbitrary line in a lot of technologies, not to mention a feature of technological history which waxes and wanes rather than moves in a steady line.
What triggered me off, and kept me triggered as I read the rest of the book was a complaint about faucets which have infrared or motion sensors rather than handles.
Crawford writes, “Consider the angry feeling that bubbles up in this person when, in a public bathroom, he finds himself waving his hands under the faucet, trying to elict a few seconds of water from it in a futile rain dance of guessed-at mudras. This man would like to know: Why should there not be a handle? Instead he is asked to supplicate invisible powers. It’s true, some people fail to turn off a manual faucet. With its blanket presumption of irresponsibility, the infrared faucet doesn’t merely respond to this fact, it installs it, giving the status of normalcy. There is a kind of infantilization at work, and it offends the spirited personality.” pp. 55-56
This is like an Andy Rooney monologue that’s gotten in bed with a raging polemic and produced a child more irritating than either. What, a faucet is somehow agency because you turn it? Agency over what? A massive infrastructure which brings the water up through the faucet? Crawford’s got a footnote in which he concedes this very point, as if he read the passage over again and felt sheepish about it. It’s not just the exaggeration of the point itself that annoyed me, however. If you’ve got a first-person point to make, make it with the right pronoun. What’s so hard about, “I find it irritating to wave my hands in front of the infrared sensor”? And seriously, “it offends the spirited personality”? They make spirited personalities pretty fragile where Crawford comes from, I guess.
When the tone is that wrong once, I find I’m much more sensitive to similar off notes and ill graces for the rest of a text. Save for when he’s squarely focused on his own experiences with machinery, Crawford frequently slips into this distanced third-person voice and makes universal and abstract pronouncements on work and agency and human dignity.
It’s not just that I feel a cussed desire to argue with even the statements I’m sympathetic to, but that somehow this voice, this tone, is far away from the substantive argument of the book: not concrete, not practical, not rooted in experience, not visceral. It feels like he’s trying too hard to validate his choices in a sweepingly universal way, as diktat rather than proposition, the same way that Loh feels like she’s writing about anything, everything, that will keep her from having to look too long in the mirror.