Richard Sennett: Form Follows Feedback

Items #4, 2011


Richard Sennett (1943) is a man of many trades, which he connects all. In conversation, he constantly shifts perspective, from sociologist to musician, from urbanist to novelist, from ethnographer to cook. With Sennett's view on craft from the vantage point of the passionate cellist he also is, the Premsela Lecture he gave in Amsterdam on July 26th seemed to touch the lecture's design context only marginally. He studied at the famous Julliard School of Music in New York and if a hand injury wouldn't have prevented it, his career might well have taken a different course. Meanwhile, in the over forty years after his PhD from Harvard, he has published a wide range of studies and essays on urban culture and the social dynamics of cities and work. The past twenty years, he divides his time between two global cities, teaching at New York University and the London School of Economics.

As a social scientist, Sennett essentially has one central theme: openness. Whether addressing labor conditions, class division, urban development, citizenship, architecture or craft, Sennett time and again shows that openness is essential for progress, for development. It is this theme that won him the Spinoza Award last year, named after the founder of the modern idea of tolerance. In his acclaimed book The Craftsman (2008) he sometimes seems to hark back to a more closed system, that of traditional craft. But no, he explains, it's not about the rules of the art, it's about how one makes these – both the art and the rules – by making and experiencing. Here too, openness is key: when head and hand can't engage in an open dialogue, everything stalls.

Richard Sennett: The thing about open design is that it's friendly to noise. When things get to that border condition where they are very ambiguous, and when their seeming irrelevancies start to pop up, that kind of noise is productive in an open system. A closed system tries to eliminate that noise. Its feedback loops are quite selective. Only information that can be dealt with within the system is allowed – it 'hears' selectively. In an open system the unforeseen information can change basic parameters of what you are doing.
Come to think about it, the word 'noise' is not the right word to capture what's happening. Open systems are taking feedback, or what I would call performance, seriously. The center of the system becomes performance rather than enactment, like in musical improvisation: you derive form from all the accidents that are happening during the process, the performance. In an open system, the actual discussion is going to modify the rules. What I'm also not happy with is the distinction between 'formal' and 'informal.' We breed formality out of informality. We derive formal procedures from informal sources, and vice versa. It's a kind of dialectic, dialogic rhythm...

Max Bruinsma: There is a tension in this idea of open systems when you relate it to craft, which is often seen as a rather more closed system. Craftspeople are often considered rather conservative...

RS: I'd say that's looking at craft from outside in. The essence of developing a skill is to learn to expand a repertoire of what we can do. So rather that just having one way to achieve one result, we find many ways of achieving a result. As skills build up – and this is true for higher levels of all technical work, not only in the arts – we make choices among options of how to do something, combine them... One of the interesting things that happen in the development of skills is that often people generate a new skill by putting two adjacent practices next to each other. And then something new comes out of that adjacency. That's noise, if you want to use that inadequate term. It's a kind of lateral thinking that's another way of generating new skills. So, looking at it from the inside, craftwork is a far more plastic and open thing than simply a recipe kit of how to do things.

MB: You have a great fascination for transitory areas, for the difference between an impermeable boundary and a porous borderline...

RS: Yes, the edge. It metaphorically figures in anything where you've got two adjacent practices, and where you've got intuitive leaps. It figures materially in urban communities where you've got two communities next to each other with very different practices. There you want to have some kind of intuitive boundaries at the edge, and interaction. In my Quant essay I describe how we saw that the wrong way, by focusing on what's central in each of the communities separately. The question put to us as urbanisms was where to place a 24/7 market, a place to buy food, in Spanish Harlem, a low-income neighborhood of Manhattan, New York. Since it was selling Spanish food, we projected it in the center of the neighborhood, also from the argument of social cohesion. We should have put it at the edge, though, between Spanish Harlem and the Upper East Side, a super rich part of New York. That would have been a great opportunity for some ambiguity. Just the physical presence of a mink clad woman who becomes accustomed to buy her milk in the morning at La Marquetta, at the other side of the social boundary, and feels good about it! That was a great error, and I learned something from it and so did the planners. Now, elsewhere in Manhattan the attempt is to locate local services at edges.

MB: Coming back to the theme of craft, you see that old-fashioned craftsmen are increasingly immigrants from the lesser developed parts of Central and Eastern Europe and other countries...

RS: That was an interesting phenomenon in Britain. As you may know, Britain was one of the few countries to allow job migration from the newly expanded EU in 2004. We had a huge influx of mostly Polish craftsmen. And everybody agrees they have a better work ethic than British workers – they didn't bear the same scars of old class wars. Sometimes they worked for less, but mostly they were protected, because they were legal. So what happened is that they came and now they've left, because Poland has meanwhile built itself up to the point where the trade-off between going to Britain or working at home works against migration. The point about this is that it generates more complexity, more openness, and it is an economic stimulus. What I want to try and show in my next book is how open systems are much more economically productive in the long term than closed systems. That's why I'm worried about the knock-on effects, the rebound of closing up a society for national, ethnic and religious reasons that you see in Northern Europe today. That has economic consequences. That's what we're researching now here at the London School of Economics, in the LSE Cities project. It's hard-core statistical research; it's not something you can do by uplifting stories... This is not my purview, but the logic of my part in it, as an ethnographer and urbanist, is that there is a Europe of cities. Cities are more important than nation states today, and cities have got to be open for the kind of economic growth they need. That's the founding mantra here. The discussion we have in the arts and humanities about open systems has a parallel, which I hope to nail down, economically. It's an argument I have yet to develop, but I think I can prove it.

MB: In The Craftsman, you extensively dwell on the dangers of computer assisted design (CAD) for the development of creativity and the anchoring of the design in the real world, and you encourage hand-drawing. Still, you work with CAD yourself...

RS: Today we couldn't do without CAD. It's the tool of the trade. The question is, should it be the only tool? This is an intuition on my part: that when you're drawing something, the hand is taking a journey. You're not just connecting two points, it's a process, the hand can slip or there can be an accident or something with the paper, and then the journey gets altered. I work on CAD myself – I can't draw –, but when I look at colleagues who do both I see they use drawing for thinking and CAD for execution. The journey is the reason why: the physical act of drawing the line between one point an another gives you time to think it out.
I think another problem with CAD is that scale and size become meaningless. The objects float in the liminal space of the screen... I know, you can project them into a perfectly scaled digital version of the real site, but that's not all there is to it. It's about the experience coming from actually looking at a building and drawing it. The drawing hand and the eye are in a dialogue, are feeding back to each other. Even when the building is not there yet, the drawing hand draws from that experience. This kind of feedback is filtered out in CAD.
For industrial designers this must be a huge issue: you have to hold things in your hand... Take someone like Jonathan Ive, Apple's lead designer; he glues things together, he carves, he makes clay models, of the iPad for instance... It means you get a sense of picking it up, of weight, of how it feels in the hand and so on. That's one of the reasons why the iPhone is such a wonderful piece of kit – it fits in most human hands brilliantly, much more so than most other mobile phones. What I mean is this tactile dimension to design that's hard to capture when we're working in CAD.

MB: One could also see a moral script behind your criticism of CAD, the kind of moralism that led Ruskin to damn mechanical reproduction and machines...

RS: For Ruskin and Morris, the notion was that the machine was the enemy of the craftsman. That's no longer a tenable view. We have to read them in a different light now. Ruskin in particular knows a great deal about presence, for instance, about paying attention every moment you're doing something... nobody gets better as a craftsman without doing that. The problem starts when machines are doing things which are reductive to our own powers of working. That happens when they become substitutes for us rather than tools. There are Luddites who insist that you shouldn't use CAD at all, which is absurd. But it shouldn't replace other tools for envisioning.

MB: This is how one of the inventors of the computer, Vannevar Bush, envisioned it in the late 1940s; the 'Memex' machine as a tool for enhancing our weak memories and for the benefit of our "awesome" associative powers...

RS: Yes, it's a tool. And when CAD is used as a replacement rather than as a tool, a lot of that associative stuff goes out of the door. Associative power is a great deal of what we've been talking about earlier, it's part of making intuitive leaps. Another thing that I'm sensitive to is the role that physical resistance plays in thinking about what you make. CAD is so easy, in a way, that this experience of resistance, learning from resistance, is diminished. The real problem in the next phase of what's going to happen online and on-screen is how virtuality actually becomes virtual to our sensate experience. When we experience resistance, we pay much more attention. In his book 'You are not a gadget' Jaron Lanier talks about building resistance into the tools of surgeons, into the digital interfaces these surgeons use for very fine surgery, like brain surgery and so on. It's very important that these tools have resistance... That's maybe the next frontier for interface design, for designing virtual environments: rather than making it quick and easy, it's about making it really mimic the processes of attention paying, that go on in physical activity. Maybe the machines will become less of a problem then.

MB: That is all about physical performance. What about the performativity of the intellectual act? You suggest a 'craft of thinking' in The Craftsman...

RS: For me as a thinker, the craft is in writing. If I'm writing well, evocatively, without jargon, and write what I think, then I'm thinking well. Writing is the performance of thinking. I've never bought the argument that there's a distinction between understanding and expression. That's an old trope, which I think is completely wrong. In my field, that of the social sciences, people write appallingly, and I'd say that's a kind of failure of thinking.

MB: You're doing this course on 'Visual Investigations' at New York University, set up as an interdisciplinary workshop to especially provide social scientists with more experience in doing research with visual means... What's the purpose of this workshop?

RS: Anthropologists have long made films and used photographs to document their studies, but what happened in sociology in the late 20th century is that it eschewed visual or indeed sensory data. It looked at numbers, at data. It didn't deal with the material world in material terms, whereas anthropologists have always done that. So in a way this course is a kind of catch up where anthropology left off. What is distinctive about this workshop is that it doesn't just train people to document or illustrate but it tries to train them proactively so that they can change what they see. For that, we use a simplified form of CAD called Sketch-up, which is a very intuitive program. The point of it all is to make people really think visually, to interrogate what's in the image. When you start thinking visually, it means you have to dwell in the image, ask questions about it, and when you're proactive, you dwell in the image asking "how could this look different?"
My students only work on real world problems – this year we are redesigning a future New York University superblock in Greenwich Village. So we're investigating scale – contrasting and reconciling this superblock to small street scales. Not to replace architects, but I'd like to see my students have enough tools to not only criticize the wrongs of the urban environment but also to talk about how to set it right. The interesting thing about this project is that this NYU superblock is only in its first stages of planning. So my students will do their research, come up with a plan and then battle it out with the consultants, who are a bit upset about it because they're being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars and than this bunch of kids comes and says "you've got it all wrong, because you didn’t know enough!" [laughs]
There's a very practical end in doing this: I want to get my students out of universities, I want them to go work in the real world, to design and build cities, to actually work in urban development. The goal is to create an interdisciplinary professional practice, with sociologists, urbanists, architects, economists. For that to work, social scientists will have to understand what it's like to make a building, even if it's in the most primitive way.

MB: What is so important about getting students out of university? Academics can do their independent research and leave the application to the practitioners and the market, can't they?

RS: What's always bothered me about academia ... there's some kind of academic pursuits that are self-replicating – if you study Greek, you're going to teach Greek. But if you study cities, you don't have to just teach other people to study cities, you can also be involved in making them. It's a real issue in all of the social sciences – the economy is in its greatest crisis and still a lot of academic economics is based on assumptions that anyone who's worked as a development economist would never make. It's not just a matter of applied knowledge – you just know more when you work on something real – it's about the back-and-forth of embodied experience with the reality you work on. In music this is a much more profound issue, but it applies in my view to other fields as well. You can't be a musicologist if you can't play an instrument, at least I wouldn't recommend it. I'd like to see more of that in social sciences. I think the model should be the MIT media lab, in terms of innovation. That was my model when I set up the Cities program here at LSE. MIT media lab is based on the notion that practice and research go hand in hand, and they do craft work there. I think making and understanding are a seamless process. If you put practice aside, in the end it's the understanding that suffers.


max bruinsma