Sunday, 8 June 2014

Feelings About Woodwork

My family has a long history with woodwork. Both my parents are capable furniture restorers, and my father has created several pieces of Australian history out of railway sleepers combined with his own talent & ingenuity. He makes fancy joints and uses rulers & whatnot. My mother not only restores furniture but has an astounding gift for wood carving, limited only by her refusal to acknowledge it's brilliance. My grandfather made walking sticks, when he was alive, beautiful hand-made things for men & women of assorted sizes. My other grandfather has restored houses in much the same way a very hungry person makes a sandwich - with a kind of desperate vigour, the results of which are usually strange but always reflective of a competent, if disordered, mind.

I've picked up a few things about the nature of working with wood over the years by osmosis, which gives me a profound insight into how little I understand woodworking as an activity. Dad's shown me plenty of wood-related things over the years, but in my childhood I never really understood its significance. As a truly aware child of my age, I was far more interested in computers, which in the early 90s were just starting to become routinely commercially available. My father used to build them out of parts, an activity I was enraptured by but incapable of really understanding. The notion seemed alien; objects were objects, they can't be broken down to components & rebuilt as something else. A pile of chipboards, like a pile of boards, was just stuff. The transformation of stuff into objects was dark sorcery. Still is.

I think about woodworking a lot when I read through job applications. As I peruse what must be one of the thousands of ads for jobs that aren't clear about what they involve, it's stark just how much like woodworking they aren't. There was a person, once, who in an environment made largely out of wood decided to make some of that wood be a flat surface at waist height, and that person took it upon themselves to tear down an entire tree, rip it to pieces, and endeavour to turn it into a table. I wonder often what the world looks like to that person, a world made entirely out of potential, of possible becomings. To see a forest and see an effectively infinite opportunity to create tables, chairs, clubs, rowboats, houses. I imagine what it must be like, to spend a day tearing down a tree and go to bed barely able to contain the possibilities it represents. To wake up the next day halfway out of bed already, warming your hands, ready to strip bark, cut limbs. The next day, plane the damn thing or saw it into boards or whatever other dark rituals are necessary to contort trees into furniture.

My own environment is made of very different stuff. My potentials are amorphous & absent, but nevertheless real. I drag myself out of bed after an hour of idleness, a vague hope that if I wait long enough, I may die for no apparent reason. Having arisen, haunted by the spectre of the disappointment of my society, my parents, my girlfriend, I try to contort my own limbs into a vaguely human shape before sitting at my computer. Still fuzzy from the small death of sleep and my mind slowly clawing its way into a full-blown despair, I begin scouring my environment for opportunities to enhance my own survival chances. Do I want to be an ADVERTISING SUPERSTAR? Am I a BUBBLY PERSONALITY? Do I have WHAT IT TAKES TO CLOSE THE SALE EVERY TIME? Perhaps I have the knack to be the BARISTA OF THE YEAR. Perhaps, if I really suppress my creative instincts, I could be an OFFICE ROCK STAR who TAKES DATA ENTRY TO THE NEXT LEVEL. I read these opportunities in my environment sitting at a desk made of pulped wood, and wonder if that first person to tear down a tree in order to turn it into a way of life for the next however many weeks it takes to make a table out of shit you found growing in your yard, ever woke up wishing he would just fucking die already.

The concept of being alienated from ones labour isn't new. That was Marx's entire schtick, if anyone's not familiar with the man's work. He was concerned that being alienated from labour would destroy the very essence of what it means to be a living being, but that doesn't sound too much like the words of a PUBLIC RELATIONS WHIRLWIND. He didn't know that in 200 years we'd all have essentially unlimited access to cheap furniture made of wood pulp, and that by that time we'd have cut down like 50% of the world's trees. He probably suspected. He was pretty canny about shit like that.

See, my parents aren't woodworkers. My Dad was an electrical engineer with a Ph.D, he worked in research and eventually moved into a management position. My Mum worked in an office at a primary school once my brother and I got the fuck out of her hair. They work on furniture as a hobby. So maybe I shouldn't be comparing my mythic woodsmith's daily grind to a career, maybe I should think instead what activities in my own life reflect this style of living, the simple abstracted action of taking some stuff & transforming into something I can use, with my own hands. Cooking came to mind first, but I don't really do any cooking because like woodwork, it strikes me as confusing sorcery practiced by people who still have their ability to taste things. There IS something, though: smoking.

When I smoke, I take a filter out of a bag, place it carefully in a paper, awkwardly pull off a pinch of tobacco (try not to spill any! That shit is expensive) and place it in the paper with the filter. Then I carefully roll it up, lick the thing, then finish it off. Ta-da! My own tiny piece of creation, my own small exercise in terraforming my environment, a sense-of-agency hobby kit. Then I set the hateful little thing on fire and absorb it into myself, imagining the essence of it mixing with whatever foul clockwork & steam forces me to keep living, doing imperceptible damage. This is my engagement with creation, what connects me to that one Noble Savage that so obsesses the white male imagination since Rousseau, I guess. That figure of legend who looked at a tree and saw a table. I look at a pile of bagged junk & turn it into a slow, painful death.

This is why, in part, when faced with job listings I desperately want a smoke, even when I've 'quit'. The nonsense of job ads makes me long for that fictional time when your job was clear to you every morning, when you invested in it every ounce of your spirit. When you could look into the eyes of your peers and say "I am a woodworker" and they would nod, the truth of that statement plainly evident from your creations. You would sit at your table, run your hands over it, remember fondly every part of the wood, every notch, every line, every...join, I guess? Whatever woodwork is made of, you'd feel it, and you'd remember the process fondly. Perhaps you'd take some solace in knowing some day your children would sit at it with their family, but even if something happened to it...shit, the whole damn world is practically made of wood! What could possibly go wrong? So long as humans have hands & ingenuity, they'd never run out of tables. I wonder what that fictional person would say to me if I told him in my time, we cut most of it down because people don't like to have to touch their own arseholes with their hands.

In our age, we've alienated ourselves from our environment to such a staggering extent that urban middle class fuckwit might as well be a member of another species. The very concept of wilderness is as an Other, a scary place Somewhere Else where there are Animals and whatnot, a dangerous land where you have to wipe your shit off with your fingers. I don't long for that place, I'm no shoeless hippy, I hate trees and I hate nature. I don't miss the Olden Days, or imagine myself as a Noble Savage, but I do often wonder, when looking at job ads, or waiting in bed hoping for death, or constructing a cigarette out of raw materials I extracted from the environment by handing a bored-looking dude some money, what it must be like to look at the stuff the world is made of in terms of raw creative potential, an opportunity not for communion with the untouched splendour of nature or some other nonsense, but as a raw material for realising the awesome power of human ingenuity. To have a Problem, and cast about yourself for the Stuff to create a Solution. Instead, I live in a world where all objects are designed. Every chair, table, computer, wall, sidewalk, power line, telephone, everything placed with purpose. There's no potential here; the potential is always already realised, there's nothing left to touch. The trees in my neighbourhood were placed there, carefully, with intent. They Belong to someone. Everything, we are told, is as it should be, as it needs to be. Even if for some reason I went out into the wilderness, if I were caught cutting a tree down I'd be arrested and hauled back into my urban origin-story & fined or thrown in jail. You can't just go...fucking with things.

So instead I sit at my computer wondering what sort of SALES GOD I've always wanted to be, how DYNAMIC I am on a scale of WIZARD to PARADIGM-SHIFT, and wonder in bafflement why I feel this compulsion to leave it all behind and destroy something & turn it into something different, something I can use, something that has meaning. Why would I want to go backwards? Do I want to wipe my arsehole with my hand? If the past was so great, why don't I go die of tuberculosis? It's because I don't want to go to the past, I don't want to leave the modern world behind. It's because I'm utterly alienated from everything around me. I didn't earn any of it, none of it reflects my cleverness or ingenuity or even just old-fashioned willpower or brute strength. Everything I own was designed by someone else, built by someone else, intended for someone else, most of it belongs to someone else.

Nothing in my world will suffer my interference with it, like a lover that will service my every need so long as I promise to never touch them.

(Inspiration from @Hoskingc & @Beliael. Thanks guys. Follow them on Twitter dot com!)


  1. For what it's worth, people who work in design industries, engineers, architects, and the like, almost certainly do see our over-manufactured world as a landscape of possibilities and potential solutions to problems. But I think you're right in saying that what is missing is that RAW engagement. To be a modern world-builder is to learn a detailed set of formal framings that break real life down into carefully honed abstractions and formulae, and to accept that the enterprise of 'making' has perminantly divided the tasks of designing and building, for all practical purposes.
    One can't help but wonder what current vocations our decendents will take on as pastoral hobbies when the world continues further down this trajectory. Will our children's children streamline suspension bridges and engine assemblies on the weekend, to feel something more satisfying and hands on that crowd-shifting the civic-consensus algorithms?

    1. There are certainly exceptions to this malais, and to get political on yo ass, this realisation was part of why it was so critical for the neoliberal movement in Australia to court the votes of the noueau-riche tradesman set. These people don't see themselves as meaningfully connected to the post-industrial working class of white collar office drones, middle managers, & permanent casuals. Their work is satisfying spiritually, & their material needs are more than met. The core of the traditional working class is thus effectively bribed into letting the rest of us rot.

      To be honest, I don't think the world can or will continue on this trajectory for very long. We aren't all developing mental illnesses of varying severity because there's something the water these past 50-odd years. Our society is fundamentally toxic & unsustainable.

    2. I for one suspect we're not yet nearing the limits of how alienated-but-functional it is possible to be under the right circumstances, but you're probably right that it at least won't take the form of 'more of the same'.

    3. I hope you're wrong, but I'm fairly confident you're not. :(

  2. This might get weird, and please correct me if I'm misinterpret anything here...

    It seems that you are demanding a place within this 'world of creation and creators', and that you are excluded from it because most of it has been done before.

    In a number of ways, I don't think this a good starting point.
    a) To assume that you should have discovered you're potential as a 'creator' by now is a bit harsh, considering you relatively short life and career (in this case, academic studies)

    b) Why is the physical urge to create so much more important? I've enjoyed our limited philosophical discussions quite a lot, yet they bear no physicality (although perhaps I like them because you think I'm insightful sometimes :3 ).

    c) Who are you to demand a place in creativity anyway? Why does humanity hold this right only? While I do appreciate and marvel at the ingenuity of humanity (cite: I am a programmer), and what it enables me to do, as a geologist, I can see that infinite creation has been done. I can go anywhere and literally see stories of creation in any stone or paver or building cladding I see. This image: tells stories of ancient stream beds, as well as the human work and thought that put it in place. Another inadvertently morbid example here: This rock tells stories of building mountains and their destructive collapse. Actually, in this case it's weirdly laughable that it's been branded by some dude.

    Of course, it comes back to geology... But hey, it's all I know! But essentially for me, it becomes about perspective. My creations are nothing in the scheme of the creation we live in. Considering natural evolution of life, stars being formed, or the geological processes on Earth (which are clearly the most best), any of our creations are meaningless and trivial.
    And that understanding is totally freeing. My creations are for me, and for those I care about, because from my perspective, they can only mean anything to me. Once I die, you may as well skip forward a billion years, and the Earth has continued to do it's thing, and I am nothing. My enjoyment from creation comes from me, and not an abstract addition to humanity as a whole.
    Which, by the way, is a perfect excuse to re-create what has been done before. It enables you to understand how or why it was done in the first place, and to build on it from that.

    Of course, in the practice of my everyday life, I don't constantly go sit and look at rocks when I need perspective, nor do I scoff at the triviality of someone favoriting my github program (in fact I squeal instead). But thinking about it every so often does give me chills of amazement that I am lucky enough to witness what we are able to witness, considering how absolutely minuscule I am.

    Apologies for the preachyness.

    1. I'll respond to each point individually (thanks for pre-segmenting it for me):

      a) My contention is that the urge towards affecting our surroundings directly, seeing raw materials become products, is innate in people. We all desire this, to greater or lesser degree. So it isn't a matter of 'finding my urge', it's a matter of realising it through actions. I'm not lamenting the absence of a desire, or even an ability - I resent the absence of opportunity.

      b) This point is reductive. I enjoy philosophical engagement too, obviously; it's what I do, but that doesn't mean I don't have other desires. I enjoy talking to my partner, that doesn't mean I never want to get nasty with her in a more direct sense. I would also contend people need intellectual stimulation, but that's a whole other post.

      c) There's a few things to respond to here, but I'll make my response two-fold: first, it isn't about the finished product, whether it was made 10000 years ago by a collapsing rock wall, or yesterday by my Dad. The end result is nice, but what I'm referring to is the process of manipulation of materials to exercise some end. This isn't a cosmic consideration, it's an embodied one; it's about exercising my own will upon my environment, & seeing my ability to affect my will reflected in that environment. In doing so, I am a part of it in a way that I am not by looking at a rock.

      Now, obviously rocks, and the looking thereupon, has value and carries the potential for a kind of fulfillment, but not the kind I'm referring to here. The creation PROCESS is NOT trivial - it's an important experience for the creator. The temporariness of the end product (particularly in a cosmic sense) is besides the point.

      I've got no interest (for the purposes of this post) in making some lasting contribution to existence, or even humanity. All I want is the ability to be connected to my environment by putting my will upon it, to change it from potential into actual: I see a bunch of planks, which by my desire becomes a table. What matters is the process.

      Staring into the abyss of space or history, while all very well, is not a substitute for this embodied connection. Whether or not disembodied creation like writing or programming fulfills this desire is an open question, better left to someone who actually does those things. I will say, my own writing doesn't fulfill this desire for me. I quite like doing it, but for me a piece of writing is the start of a conversation, not the result of a productive process that results in a final object. That's just me, though. Perhaps lots of programmers feel a true sense of production about their work, and to them I say good for you. Unfortunately, we're not all afforded that opportunity, and I think that's a problem.

  3. I remember as a kid talking about really wanting to *make something* - it didn't matter what it was. Being unable to conceive of anything concrete/meaningful/useful (never mind actually making something) meant I could never really fulfill that need.

    In retrospect, I think that was a huge part of what drew me to software development. It was a new frontier, I could build things that hadn't already been made better/perfectly by someone else. The are no raw materials to reshape, but I could see endless exciting possibilities in the available tools. Plus, I took to those tools far more easily than anything physical I'd tried.

    To me this post seems to be about craftsmanship as creative self-expression. You create something real and put a part of yourself into it - hard work, excellence, unique creative vision. That is how you shape the environment and remake it to your will. You own the process and the end product. The nuanced skills required are passed on through teaching and are uniquely interpreted in the process.

    I've seen my professional work gradually transition from that holistic process to a rigorously specified, controlled and segmented one. I'm not making tables in a small team anymore, I'm describing exactly what is needed from a table. Someone else designs the table. A committee reviews the design against a set of principles. Someone makes the legs. Someone else makes the top. There is no room in this process for self-expression. Are the tables better? They're optimal for the specified purpose, in theory.

    1. That's the goal of any expertise, inevitably you become a theorist & the grunt work gets outsourced to others who can, in turn, learn the theoretical grounding to become theorists themselves. It requires time investment to learn what's possible with your tools, but also a critical mind capable of complex problem solving. Not everyone has both. I only have the latter, unfortunately.

      What you need to be concerned with now, if I'm interpreting correctly, is making sure you make up for that lack of direct creative, uh, creation in other areas, if it's no longer going to be serviced in your work. Ensuring you have the time & resources to pursue that urge independently may prove difficult, from what I understand of the current 'work/life balance', or lack thereof.

  4. The fact that I'm at the theoretical end of the process now is separate to the fact that the structure of the entire process has changed. I could stay in the practical role, building table legs according to a detailed specification, but that is far less satisfying than the holistic table-building was.

    1. Whoops, this was in reply to Sou's comment above ( I can't seem to delete this one.

    2. So both design & production are now done 'by committee' is what you're saying? As in, now NO ONE builds the entire structure, so you've moved into design because designing an entire structure is still preferable to building only part of it?