The past few days have passed in somewhat of a printing frenzy. After a giddy, hands-on letterpress class, I went on a class excursion to ‘a printer’s.’ My graphic design teacher had been raving about this excursion since some time last year, and having read the basics of offset lithography, my classmates and I were somewhat skeptical of the outing, though interested in printing.
We rolled up to one Intech Printing at 6pm, expecting the place to be deserted but for Gary, our friendly neighbourhood printer. Instead we found ourselves gawping in the car park of a white box of significant proportions, and were permitted into a very much alive and bustling factory. We were led from room to room scattered with stacks of paper on pallets, pallet-inverting machines, offset printers, die cutters, folding machines, stitching machines, colour-testing machines, quality control check points, ink pots, tools, rolls of paper, web-fed presses, pallet-stacking robots and coke cans.
Yes, we have engineered fascinatingly complex machinery to put ink onto paper, and have come a long way from the nib of the scribe. But my printer experience was somewhat darkened by the realisation that this remarkable feat of humanity, one that opened the way for literacy, spread music to the masses and led to all-around enlightenment, requires people to be to hand at all hours of the night to act as machine-minders and to perform repetitive tasks of the reparative and not the creative variety.
While I had entered a workshop and worked under the direction of an experienced letterpress printer with a keen eye for detail and a passion for accuracy and precision, and therefore spent a day absorbing both technique and history, the ‘real’ printers, the ones who print the physical printed objects that come into our hands daily and who make a living from the trade rather than an expensive hobby, quite simply looked bored. And any decent human being couldn’t look at the ‘Daddy’ mug next to the ink monitoring controls without thinking that people ought to be able to go home for the night and rest, and partake in normal social interactions.
Is there pride in such work as is produced in a factory? Richard Sennett* writes that ‘pride in one’s work lies at the heart of craftsmanship as the reward for skill and commitment. … Craftsmen take pride most in skills that mature. This is why simple imitation is not a sustaining satisfaction; the skill has to evolve. The slowness of craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination—which the push for quick results cannot’ (p. 294-5).
The very speed of our society pushes this kind of pride in workmanship out of the picture. Humanity finds itself a crutch to the machinery that can largely perform the entire process alone—it is only when paper is jammed and blankets need replacing that people have their time to shine. I watched a very grim-faced Tony expertly and intently repairing the Heidelberg Speedmaster and thought, now I have seen the real craftsmanship of the printer. We had come to witness the Speedmaster in action, in all it’s blue neon, CMYK radiance, and were disappointed when it stalled. But it was only when it failed that we saw Tony rise from a monitor to a problem-solving lateral-thinker, adept with his tools.
The printing industry is what it is, and must meet our demands or collapse, and there is certainly room for a level of ingenuity and pride in one’s trade as a competent repairer, colour-matcher or mechanic. Every job will require some level of repetition, and this repetition underpins facility with tasks that allows for pride in one’s competence. But removing the control and ownership of the process, and making it into a round-the-clock production has made it a hollow shell. There is certainly more to be said on the topic of slowing down and giving tasks their due attention. Sennett notes that craftsmen did not stand up to the machine, but nor did they themselves develop them according to the needs of the workshop: they ‘did not sponsor research or themselves design machines that would keep a large body of skilled operatives necessary. Mechanical change came to the labour force rather than from within the labour movement’ (p. 107-8). It is because of the craftsman’s disinterest in machines that he became dominated by them—‘Technological advance comes in this way to seem inseparable from domination by others’ (p. 108).
Without resorting to some sort of pre-industrial romanticism, I wish to simply say that we ought to be on our guard, taking ownership of our work, using machines but not being driven by them. Scribes have noted their miseries in the margins of their manuscripts and essentially inhabited slow factories, but factories nonetheless. We need to find the line at which we are personally comfortable operating, and think about what we are asking of humanity when we demand express printing, or express production in any sector.
* Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.
One day I was going for a walk and I saw a dead crow. It was like the Cold War Kids song, where he is thinking about his childhood road trips and how he ‘drew a picture of a cat laying dead in the street,’ and how he ‘finally figured out what the cat in the street meant.’ Dead crow–so meta. Mind blown.