On crafts and the past

I think most people think about the past the wrong way. At least, shortly before writing the first draft of this blog post, I was running into a lot of bad ideas.

Incorrect ideas about the past

One is the progressive arrow of history. The past is literally backwards, ignorant, dirty, cruel, and the future inevitably gets better. But people in the past mostly did things that made sense with the resources and knowledge they had; so-called primitive technology is often very sophisticated and requires a high level of skill1. If you suddenly found yourself in the past, you would not have the skills you would need to live in those times. You could learn them, but you would be starting as if you were a child. Most of your modern knowledge would be useless, as well, without modern infrastructure or supply chains.

Another is conservatism. This has been popular since the Ancient Greeks. There are a few variations; one is that society was coincidentally perfect when you were about 10 years old and had no responsibilities, and has been going downhill ever since. There’s a second version some time in the past Men were Men but They Took It From You and if we rewind time your wife will love you again and your children will return your calls.2 I assume I don’t need to bother refuting either of these, except to point out that even relatively left wing people are prone to falling into the first, milder, nostalgia-based type.

The last is anarcho-primitivism, and several types of adjacent but not explicitly anarchist ideas on the left, such as myths that medieval peasants generally did not have to work hard, or that growing plants remains fun if you are literally going to die if it doesn’t rain enough this year. A big source of this misconception is that a lot of the work done by medieval peasants have become leisure activities. But fun things become work if you have to do them when you don’t feel like it. Many people enjoy cooking at home, even though working in a restaurant is not considered a low-stress job. This also causes people to think they are easy, and don’t take a lot of skill to develop. Any knitter can tell you about a frustrating experience with someone who assumes a sweater is just something you do in a weekend.

Why crafts matter anyway

Aside from the fact that many people enjoy them and they’re fun.

First of all, making something by hand, from scratch, is a good way to stop incorrectly thinking it’s easy and annoying your friends who knit.

Second, in the worst case, who knows what the future will hold? The collapse of industrial society isn’t impossible, and it would be good for someone to know what to do if that happens. We don’t all have to know everything - there will still be a society as long as there are humans, there won’t be zombies eating people’s brains - but someone should know. If some people know how to spin wool, they can teach others.

More realistically, if the world gets a bit shakier, we might need some of the skills some of the time. Maybe you can still buy mass produced things, but there are periodic shortages, or they get a lot more expensive, and you need to know how to fix or alter them, or remake them into something else. Maybe you can’t get some foods all year any more and learning how to preserve them is useful. Maybe making certain things yourself becomes more economical. It’s already the case worldwide that in many places people do continue to use pre-industrial skills, because not everyone has access, financially or otherwise, to the international industrial economy we have today.

Practicing crafts also maintains a repository of knowledge. One way people tend to implicitly buy into the progressive arrow of history is through the idea that we can develop the next new thing and forget everything behind it. By doing so, though, we are commiting ourselves entirely to our current course. What if we realize we’ve been going in the wrong direction - perhaps, for instance, we realize that relying on fossil fuels was a bad idea? We won’t be able to rewind time, that is simply impossible, the past is gone and the problems of tomorrow will be completely different. But we might need the tools of the past to find a way forward.

We don’t need to think of the knowledge of the past as something to discard and replace. Instead, we have a body of human knowledge that we are continuously adding to, and as time passes, our wealth of human knowledge grows. And for crafts, just reading about it isn’t enough. You need to learn and practice the skills, and pass them down. The people of the past knew a lot, they were smart, they have things to teach us. We need to take their knowledge seriously.

But they lived in their world and we live in ours. It is impossible to go back in time in the hopes we can hide from today’s problems. The world has irrecovably changed in many ways, great and small, and the world we are moving towards will be totally unfamiliar. The past only offers us tools we can use on this unknowable journey.

  1. A related wrong idea here is that technology is about killing people, and so people who were better at killing people are “more advanced”. This idea was invented some time in the last couple centuries by the sorts of people who had killed a lot of people, as far as I can tell. But most people spend little to no time killing people, and only die once in their whole lives, though, so I don’t think it’s a terribly useful metric. This idea is discussed a lot more in Ursula K LeGuin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. ↩︎

  2. While this has generally just been popular among a certain type of cis straight man, there are some women who are convinced the past was like the one decade around the 50s where upper middle class white women in the US maybe didn’t have to do any work, rather than that being a weird historical anomaly due to the invention of the laundry machine and the supermarket. In fact, “women’s work” was historically both essential and extremely time-consuming. For more on the subject I’d recommend the book “Women’s Work: the first 20,000 years”. ↩︎


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On crafts and the past