The Discipline of Individuality

cowboy boots


I finished reading Matthew Crawford’s, “The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction”. Great book, by a thoughtful person. Crawford writes:

“Our emergence from (what Kant described as) self-imposed immaturity seems to have stalled at an adolescent stage, like a hippie who hasn’t aged very well. The irritants that stand out now are the self-delusions that have sprouted up around a project of liberation that has gone to seed, ushering in a ‘culture of performance’ that makes us depressed.”

He is describing our popular culture’s framework, based within the so-called “open culture” of the internet (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…. take your pick), as compared with what he describes as “the well-ordered ecologies of attention” that are found within fry cookfields that REQUIRE discipline, and in which we are obliged to follow a prescribed order. Carpenters, fry cooks, motorcycle racers, jazz musicians, glassblowers…. all are required to follow established, conventional methods set down by their predecessors before they can fully come into themselves as craftspersons or artists, before they are set free to become truly enlightened individuals.

This open world of digital ecosystems that we live in is seductive. It sets each of us at the center of the universe. It wants us to believe we can havegooglebox 2 it all (knowledge, wisdom, compassion, and enlightenment) without doing the hard yards. We can learn at the feet of masters, over a long weekend, without actually having to spend years living the frugal life of spiritual master. We can google our own reality, without having to plow through Plato and Aristotle and Kant and Nietzsche and all that other boring stuff.


The upshot, according to Crawford, is that individualism (the idea that each of us is unique) arose from the political context of The Enlightenment, and served to liberate us from authority. It elevated each of us to a place that we think we belong: to the status of individual…. moreso, it’s a place each of us thinks we DESERVE to be, whether or not we have earned it.

A jig can be said to be a custom made tool that is used to control the location and/or the movement of another tool or device. Traditions, or “cultural jigs” as Crawford calls them, often create jigcommunities of practice in which true independence is possible. I served a saddlemaker’s apprenticeship, became a master saddlemaker, and apprenticed others under me. I lived for many years (and continue to live) within the saddlemaker’s tradition, or cultural jig. I know what Crawford writes   about. It is not until the apprentice follows the discipline and finally masters its techniques that he is able to become a master himself. And it is not until he becomes a master that he is fully free to become an individual within the discipline, and to finally place his own self within the universe.

Saddle up. It’s a long ride ahead.

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