Our class is setting foot in a pottery studio in Old City Philadelphia to make our very own pottery! In some ways, this is a self-conscious exercise in creating something to help connect us to some of the material cultural theories we’ve discussed in the past month. The actual creation and manufacture of my own object, the Pennsylvania bicentennial license plate, is what intrigues me the most about its history. Who really owns it before, during, and after its production?
Professor of furniture design David Pye offers a framework to help us understand two different kinds of craft and workmanship. Free workmanship is a type of production which Pye associates with risk. There is no predetermined end result, which accounts for the risk that is involved in achieving an imagined final product. This risk, according to Pye, does not exist in regulated workmanship. This is one in which the final result is predetermined and cannot be altered once the process of production is set in motion. Pye also thinks about the idea of quality – things of “best” quality are more expensive in comparison to something of “ordinary quality” (Pye 348). This makes me think of its value, a monetary one in the context in which Pye uses the phrase. I imagine that its value relates to its function – just how well does an object serve its intended purpose? And what cultural markers surround its production and public perception that makes a group determine something as valuable or not?
Evgeny Morozov engages in a conversation about the changes in popular perceptions of “making things” over time. The Arts and Crafts movement, explains Morozov, died out by the end of World War I. It offered an attempt at fostering autonomy in industry, but as critiqued women’s advocate Mary Dennett, the worker has no freedom to toil on crafts, and she considered how this question surrounded around persistent issues of inequality. Morozov thinks about the reemergence of the “maker” movement in the 1960s through today. He argues that this movement serves as a democratizing effect in which people can sidestep a reliance on a larger capitalist system of mass production.
These readings seem to emphasize human agency and the potential that “making” has on expressing choice and individuality. However, in the context of my object, I’m not sure that this necessarily applies at face value. I can’t help but think about Mary Dennett and her critique that mass production and the cost of human labor leaves no time for what Pye is describing as a workmanship of risk. I’ve begun preliminary research on the production of license plates, and I’ve found several newspaper articles that document that Pennsylvania did indeed have license plates manufactured in prisons around the time of the 1976 bicentennial. I cannot say for certain that my particular object was made in a prison, but it does make me contend with this possibility. How do I create a study that examines the agency of those who produced it, when seemingly, bodies are being used as labor to create an object that is largely used as a measure of civilian regulation, surveillance, and control? If in theory, choice is not an option for the makers, then what does it say about the chain of networks I’m trying to understand? I have more questions than answers at the moment, but Pye and Morozov have helped me to think about what can happen when choice and democratization might not necessarily define production.