Precision is not perfection and perfection is not precision

Precision is not perfection. In fact (and it really is a fact) man (sic) ends where god begins. God is perfection but god is not precision. I start here not out of some seminary instinct but only to indicate that within the Judeo, Christian and Muslim traditions there is a similar understanding of perfection as against precision at work. We mortals often consider precision to be a hand maidens to perfection. It here where we err time and again. To be precisely blind is not to be perfectly blind. To be perfectly blind one would have to have no imagination; one would have to be incapable of transcending their lack of vision through the imagination to navigate the world (time and space).

Much of what constitutes the central debates within the academy is stuck in the false equivalence between precision and perfection. Nature V Nurture, rationality V irrationality, objective V subjective, materialist V culturalist understandings of things and of course the Daddy long legs of divides the natural V the social sciences.

It is not my intention here to start or finish a debate on ontological and epistemic concerns. Maybe some other time. What got me on to this subject was a blog post written over at the Slackwire in the comments sections we get the following response from Will Boisvert:

Instead of a realistic appraisal of workplace alienation, you have, like Marx, advanced a caricature of musical celebrity as your approved model of labor. This seems like another mystification. Surely Keith Richards is just a glittering cog in the Rolling Stones combine, one whose particular, limited job—the rote cobbling of salacious lyrics to hackneyed blues riffs—strikes me as degraded and unfulfilling. I don’t know, maybe it makes him feel exalted, the master of artistic wholes, but so what? You can’t run an economy on rock concerts. That you hold up the Richards figment, a cooler update of Marx’s composer sweating and straining with genius, shows me once again how deeply imbued Marxism is, for all its pretensions to a collectivist critique of society, with a romantic individualism that it insists must somehow undergird a mass economy.

Alas, that’s not possible: a return to artisanal autonomy and holism would spell economic collapse and die-off. Given that reality, I think the liberal dispensation holds up rather well, if fully realized. Jobs may be–usually, must be–uninspiring, but with high pay and short hours they leave workers with money and time to draw satisfaction from family life, civil society and unalienated hobby labor.

First-off artisans never enjoyed total holism. This is just bullshit. What artisans did enjoy (more precisely put) was control over their contribution to greater projects. Marxism is not against a social division of labour, nor economies of scope or scale. When Marx speaks of socialism he speaks of both collective and individual labour. What Marx destroys is the firm distinction bourgeois political economy wants to draw between the two. And weirdly when Willy pops his head-up to defend liberalism he does so on the basis of the necessity of individual sacrifice to meet collective needs! And I quote:

Mass production–machine processes and mindless-cog specialization ruled by bureaucracy and scientific design–has long since achieved a craftsmanship and efficiency that “meaningful” artisan labor can’t rival. Does that mean that liberal capitalism leaves us no escape from a bifurcated, spiritually meaningless life of work-time alienation and leisure-time bacchanal? Well, no, actually; if people want the satisfying experience of tangible, creative, self-directed labor, liberal capitalism is happy to sell it to them. Such jobs are called “hobbies” and there is a vast industry–hardware and gardening stores, art-supply shops, cookbooks, blog-hosting websites–devoted to marketing them to consumers.

There is much here to send one to the intellectual toilet so let us take them in their measure. The cardinal error here is that no Marxist I know has ever argued against industrialism and the concentration and centralization that entailed. Indeed the question was always about who should have access to the profits earned there from. It was always understood that the key to human liberty was to be realized via the increasing social division and specialization of labour. The sticky wicket was always of two concerns: First, who controls this; and second ,who preforms it?

But then the comment is also irrecoverably tainted by the proposition that precision = perfection. There are some things in life where precision really helps: piston clearances; tire balancing; mother board assembly and the optics in microscopes. None of course are perfection. Scale down far enough and they will all be imprecise. But this level of imprecision can be perfect for the task for which they were designed. Precision is not perfection to repeat the meme.

I was (and still understand myself as) an accomplished artisan and the delicate balance between precision and perfection was always a question. Too precise = dead form, dead design: too slack simply = sloppy work. There is then also a difference to make between relaxed and sloppy. Look go to your local industrial design store an pick out some interesting espresso cups. The most high modernists among you might desire and therefore like the most symmetrical and thus industrial of offerings. But, let me give you a chance. Send me a photo of your favourite industrial form (espresso only) and I will bet you I can make you more comfortable with something hand (directly) made. Precision works against warmth and depth: slopiness makes us crave precision.

Artisanal production is hereticaly about perfection not precision but it is not imprecise. It is exacting. Hear doth end the lesson.


5 thoughts on “Precision is not perfection and perfection is not precision

  1. “…as a prototypical bourgeois he [wily Odysseus] is smart enough to have a hobby. It consists in a resumption of the craft work from which, within the framework of differentiated property relations, he has long since been exempted. He enjoys this occupation, as his freedom to perform superfluous tasks confirms his power over those who have to do such work in order to live” (Adorno/Horkheimer, DofE 58)

  2. There’s division of labour and then there’s division of labour. (I won’t get into the question of just what is “efficiency”–since capitalist efficiency tends to be about externalities and minimizing the price of labour)
    It is probably more efficient for one factory to make bicycles and another to make hand mixers, sure. Within that bicycle factory is it more efficient to just assemble it from parts and have the parts sent from the four corners of the world? I would tend to doubt it. And is it more efficient to divide all tasks into tiny Taylorist rote pieces and make sure the workers do and think nothing else? Probably not. That’s a system of control, not productivity. More modern studies suggest alternative arrangements work as well or better. In fact, the Japanese production success story is typically told as involving basically an attempt to have it both ways–maintain tight control, but use the ideas of the shop floor people in improving the production flow; generally it seems to involve teamwork rather than isolation of efforts.
    And is it more efficient to divide the labour between that of managers, thinkers and designers above and physical workers below? I’ve seen no evidence for that. Again, that’s a system of control, not productivity. Factories taken over by workers and run in egalitarian ways seem to work fine; there are enough such to establish a solid track record.

    In that last sense, I think there are lots of Marxists and other leftists who would advocate a reduction in “division of labour”. I would myself. No need to divide labour between bosses and real people, with owners taking profits in return for no labour at all. That’s the division that causes the alienation–the fact that you’re doing all this stuff, but you get no voice in how it’s done or whether it’s done for good or ill ’cause you’re a serf for your workday.

    Finally, the whole division of labour thing depends a good deal on technology. I suspect that, for instance, widespread availability of relatively inexpensive and effective “fabbers” may lead to considerably more and more useful “hobbyist” production. When you can download open source specifications and “print out” the object specified, what need then for specialization? Fabbers have distinct limitations, to be sure, but you see my point: Available technology affects the degrees and ways in which specialization is beneficial.

  3. Yep, CNC points in that direction. Excuse my ignorance but is a fabber just a smaller version of CNC or a more complete machine for fabricating objects. My point though was rather that socialist have never been against collective forms of production and saw the productivity enhancing potential of scope and scale as a way to make more free time available without the need to sacrifice consumption. One of the problems I see with a return to the family unit as the principle economic institution is the problem of transaction and informational costs. In principle technology should be able to mitigate these costs. Their is no particular reason we can’t have a large version of Craigs list.

    It would be good to have dedicated e-journal to exploring what socialist production could look with contemporary technology in terms of production distribution and coordination. We need a realistic animating vision.

  4. A fabber is basically a 3-d printer. It lays down successive layers of a substance. usually a plastic of some sort (although apparently chocolate works well). It squirts the material out in liquid form in a manner not too different from an inkjet printer except that in a succession of passes it will build up a three dimensional object. They can make basically any shape, using computer files such as CAD type files. They are currently limited in terms of materials they can use, combining multiple materials in one object, and making discontinuous things in a single pass. The first article about them I ever saw was actually in the context of archaeology–archaeologists were doing 3d scans of things like delicate skulls and using the fabber to make models of them; these early machines were very expensive.
    They’re no cure-all, but they point in interesting directions and the technology is advancing–the capable ones are getting cheaper and the cheapest ones are getting more capable. There are a couple of cheap (but so far not that effective) fabber designs which are themselves open source like software, allowing hobbyists to put together their own and come up with improvements.

    As to the use of scope and scale, I do take your point. And I agree with it. But it’s easy to look at that point the way you expressed it and take away some extra baggage; socialists have sometimes fallen victim to a knee-jerk “big is better” mentality rather than looking at the advantages and disadvantages carefully and case by case. Localism can have advantages, such as in the nearness of production decision-making to consumption decision-making, in reduced energy spent on transportation, in reduced complexity, reduced need for “middle men”. Depending on just how great the actual economies of scale in production itself are, they may not always be worth it after all is said and done especially once you start accounting for things like environmental externalities.

    I don’t think you’re ignoring these sorts of factors. I just wanted to parse things out explicitly a bit. I definitely agree that we should be looking at how socialist production–and distribution–could make use of modern and emerging technologies or rearrange them to better suit socialist use. For instance, modern “social networks” on the internet tend to be configured largely to enhance people’s capacity for narcissism, but it seems to me it wouldn’t be very hard to rejig them to serve purposes of social decision-making.

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