Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A capitalist/feminist critique of Matthew Crawford

You might have worried about how there are adverts everywhere, people are always distracted by email and their phones, you can't concentrate on anything for very long, and so on and so on. Matthew Crawford (sympathetic account here) seems to be the thinking man's thinking-and-practical man on this topic: "When he is not thinking about how we ought to live, Crawford works as a motorcycle mechanic, a job he turned to after growing disillusioned with office life in Washington thinktanks."

Instinctively, I have a lot of sympathy for these sorts of worries. But as I read about Crawford and his motorbikes, and saw the pictures of him (pretty manly - he's even holding a big spanner in one of them) and digested his story about how gyms have stopped being places where one big guy decides on the music and have now become full of atomised individuals with headphones and TV screens, a thought crept into my head: are these perhaps a set of male worries? (More below.)

Once you look at this way, I think there is a lot to it. Wouldn't it be great, Crawford is saying, if we could be ice hockey players or motorbike racers: I'd say they are pretty male examples. His story about music in the gym ends like this: "Genuine connection to other people tends to happen in the context of conflict – having a contest of different people’s tastes and working it out". Really? What does his mother think about that (not to be too Freudian about it)?

So I think there is a feminist angle on this. Here's one version of it. Women have always had to deal with distraction and multi-tasking: that is what looking after small children while dealing with household tasks like cooking and cleaning is. Men have had the luxury of retreating to their offices, shed or 'man-caves', or saying "I don't want to be disturbed" to their secretaries. Well, now men have to deal with people (because that's who's behind all those adverts and texts and emails - people) clamouring for their attention. And they don't like it. And being men, they don't react by manning up and dealing with it, but instead they say that it is the end of Western civilisation and a crisis in the Enlightenment and we need "a kind of “attentional commons”: a regulation of noise and distraction in public space" - I don't remember anybody asking for a regulation of noise and distraction in the private space when that's where all the women were.

There's another feminist angle on it, with added capitalist overtones. "Modern cars are being continually upgraded with features that remove the driver from the experience of being on the road. From the Toyota recall in 2008 came the surprising nugget that there are electronics in the brakes, designed to mimic the feeling you get under the pedal when hydraulic brakes start to wear. Mercedes-Benz has a raft of driver aids, such as Attention Assist, that in total serve as what Crawford calls a reassuring “psychic blowjob” to drivers." I quote the last of those sentences only to make it entirely clear that Crawford imagines the driver of a car as a man. But - and here's where capitalism comes in - women drive cars too. The market has developed a lot of things that remove the driver from the experience of having to physically control large amounts of metal - things like power-assisted steering - that are particularly helpful for women (and for men who, unlike Crawford, have not been lifting weights since 1978, partly in the hope of arguing with someone's music choice enough to become friends with him).

More broadly, capitalism has shifted power from men to women. It has provided a huge number of labour-saving devices and products that have reduced the time that needs to spent cleaning and cooking. It (with help from elsewhere) has given jobs to women that don't require them "to deal with material reality" (Crawford's way of talking about skilled physical labour), while killing off motorbike-repair-type man-jobs that do. Crawford doesn't like advertising, but women have had to deal with it for ages (look here for some old pictures of London - note how visually busy it was at eye level on the shopping streets - rather like web pages now) and capitalism has made advertising infiltrate into male domains too (or perhaps it has come in along with the women).

Perhaps what Crawford and his sympathizers don't like is just the modern, female-friendly world?

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