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Anthropological Quarterly 77.3 (2004) 595-609

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Work, Labor, and Artisans in the Modern World

Haverford College
Michael Herzfeld, The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, 256 pp.

In a recent article in the New York Times (June 7, 2004), Howard French interviewed Mr. Yu, a craftsman in Guangzhou, China ("the modern industrial equivalent of 19th century Manchester, England") who makes shoes by hand. His business is thriving despite the availability of some 2.7 billion pairs of Nikes and Rockports produced every year in a nearby town. The only thing he fears, it seems, is competition from someone just like himself: "Obsessed with his craft and suspicious of others, he has never even given serious thought to training apprentices, or hiring employees to relieve the burden or even to assure a successor." Mr. Yu, who apparently learned his trade from his father but worked at a textile mill for some years until he was laid off, put the matter bluntly: "We have a local saying here that says: teach someone your craft and then starve." Howard French calls Mr. Wu a "throwback," living in a world "where the industrial revolution has gone into reverse;" but Mr. Wu—though not rich—is happy with his situation, "at ease with his station in life."

This is far from the case with the craftsman who are the subject of Michael Herzfeld's ethnography The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value, set in the town of Rethymno on the island of Crete, in Greece. The Body Impolitic is the most recent in a series of studies by Michael [End Page 595] Herzfeld (1985, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1997) exploring the social circulation of value in the European periphery. The product of more than twenty years reflection on the structural conditions of national culture in Greece, the ethnography is a compelling study of the origins of a manifest and troubling dis-ease with the artisan's station in life. Yet the Cretan artisans would find Mr. Wu's proverb about apprenticeship completely on the mark: the public devaluation of their skills aside, for craftsmen, nothing is a greater subject of anxiety than the social relations of production. Herzfeld has gone right to the heart of the condition of the artisan in the modern world by examining the conflicted relationship of artisan and apprentice, and his ethnography insists that we look without romantic blinders at the brutal realities of craft work.

In reflecting on this skillful and impassioned ethnography, it seems to me that both issues—the problem of living in a "reverse world" and the problem of training within it—have a good deal to do with an argument over the philosophical and pragmatic-cultural distinctions between work and labor. Hannah Arendt's writings on classical political philosophy are a useful resource, I suggest, in conceptualizing the nature of work. The status of the moral universe of the artisan has been the subject of polemics since antiquity, and Herzfeld's contributions to a modern theory of value in The Body Impolitic thoughtfully opens up a discussion of work, culture, modernity, and domination of broad significance to contemporary anthropology.

A Hungry Dog Follows His Nose

One of the pleasures of the city of Athens for both natives and visitors (traffic jams aside) is the longevity of its bazaar-like commercial patterns. Not only do similar trades still cluster together in neighborhoods (and in a last minute emergency you can easily buy a single needle and a single length of thread) but the street is still a place of production. Carpenters, plumbers, metal workers and leather workers still have their storefronts. Of course this is a fading pattern: as studies of the bazaar in Nepal (Liechty 2003), for example, emphasize, this pattern of clustering depends on a secure system of patronage that relies less on competitive pricing than on competitive social relations within networks of kin and kin-like clients. As customers are driven by new forms of...


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