Our cultural heritage – as human beings – has been built on our ability to act on two levels. The first is the material level: on this level, human action shapes the physical world around us in an infinite number of ways, from the grass crushed under our feet to our ability to obliterate the planet we live on.
The countless actions we perform leave a deep mark on each of the different aspects of matter, whether it is the natural world and the way in which our actions have been shaping it, or the products that are the fruit of human industry and that would not have occurred and materialized without it.
The accumulating effect of human activity, the huge megacities that draw ever-increasing resources from the natural space (the story of California) down to the disposable water cup that is thrown away after having served its purpose for a few seconds to end up, like billions of its copies, in the heart of the oceans, is physical and concrete evidence of this.
The second layer in our cultural heritage is our ability to give meaning to those actions that take place in the material medium. Evidence of the first layer is present on the face of the world around us – whether it is its climatic conditions, its surface or the accumulation of the objects made by us that surround and mediate us. The evidence for the second layer is found in the accumulation of the meanings we give to the presence of the things themselves and to the way they affect our overall self-understanding.
It can be said that a deep and fundamental characteristic of human nature, as that nautre has been formed throughout its known history, is that we are productive beings, homo ferax (productive, fruitful man), a concept that I wish to define as a characterization of us, humans. An expression of this is found at all levels of human life, both on the material level and on the abstract-conceptual or spiritual level.
In these two layers there are products, i.e., definite material or abstract objects. These products are the fruit of short and long actions whose qualities shaped the specific modes of those objects, from a chair to God. The nature and quality of human actions have given those objects a certain articulation that can be considered not only as an action that realizes potential but also as an action that gives the object a certain quality. A hand-hewn stone is different in its surface from a machine-hewn stone; an articulation of an emotion or idea is affected and shaped by our conceptual-verbal choices that lend it a certain character and temperament, whether it is a research protocol in the natural sciences, a prayer or a poem.
This essay focuses on the action and proposes to formulate, through attention to the act (of production), an understanding of the effect of the quality and nature of the act on its products. Usually, the meaning we give to an action lies in its context.11 In this essay I ... That is, we understand the action through defining or understanding its purpose. Depending on the goal and the success in attaining it, we understand the action and evaluate it, but if we dwell on the action itself, we see that its value is not only found in its realization under the given conditions, but also in the means by which the action takes place. The nature of the action’s occurrence defines ethical and emotional spaces that should be addressed.
Relating to the actions behind the product is also relevant to the evolving discussion regarding the ability of artificial intelligence to draw, write poetry, compose music, or manufacture physical products. The current technological reality (machine learning and artificial intelligence) makes it possible to produce products in a wide range of fields, whether they are physical and concrete products or conceptual ones. It offers us a process of doing (action) that is completely different from the one that we traditionally use for the making of those products, and it raises the question of the value of those products in relation to their method of production. This situation beckons us to look at the weight and the meaning that the mode of production has for the value of things. In other words, examining the product in isolation from its mode of production does not allow us to recognize all the values and meanings inherent in the product.22 See: ...
Our awareness of the mode of production and its meaning is also the other side of the environmental crisis. We cannot ignore the clear connection between our main ways of production and the environmental catastrophe. The existing ways of production endanger the future of humanity and put it in conflict with the world around us. Such recognition requires that we rethink the existing modes of production. Growing awareness of the impact and value embodied in the production process prompts us to take into account parameters that we hitherto have ignored, and to a large extent still ignore today. Child labor and unfair resource exploitation or an industrialized and alienated action are irrelevant, in most cases, to our assessment of the product. Considering environmental factors in relation to product evaluation is also largely in its infancy. The alienation of production at the industry level is part of a broader position that allows the value inherent in the action itself to be disregarded. The possibility of relating to the products of machine learning (in a completely different power structure) through its success in meeting the product’s quality requirements apparently indicates the possibility of stripping artistic-literary processes, too, from their authenticity. However, this is an observation that is only possible through the assimilation of the alienation of the industrialized production processes into the creative space. This move is perceived by us as reasonable due to our ignorance or blind spot in relation to the modes of creation and the meaning inherent in those modes themselves. A return to the mode of production prepares the ground for the move that this essay proposes.
Back to “The Ethics of Doing”: The Object as Ethical Testimony vs. the Action as Ethical Testimony
This essay analyzes the perception of the act of production’s value. The choice of “action” to define and characterize production is intended to emphasize that there is a common denominator for productive actions and actions or deeds in general. The link between the productive space and other spaces – “life” – is a basic and fundamental element in the proposed move. In this essay we focus on the act of production in the context of producing physical, concrete products-objects and through it on the perception of the relationship we have with the material world. The starting point is the perspective from which the act of production can be seen as part of the corporeal context; it offers us an opportunity to think about the mute motions of production and to recognize the differences between different actions of production.
The harnessing of the corporeal dimension for the benefit of industrialized production, and, in its advanced stages, the exclusion of the body (machines/robots) from the production process, is an important aspect of how alienation developed, as part of the productive logic, as a plane that nourishes a deep, broad and fundamental estrangement between humans and their world.
The perception of production as necessitating an industrial system, a capitalist-consumerist economy and a political and constitutional state structure is a bias of thinking. My argument is that production can exist in other economic-social-political frameworks in ways that allow it to be part of an overall fabric of life and not just an engine for capital accumulation.
Referring to the action of production through the corporeal context paves the way to broad thinking about how production also affects the economic, social, and political planes.33 Cruz, Ivonne, ...
Our actions as part of various production processes are part of a much wider scope of operations; the distinction (and separation) between the act of production and “non-productive” operations that are not directly related to the production processes is made possible by examining them only through the parameters of their productive-economic contribution. I argue that the distinction between the productive action and the non-productive ones on the basis of their value or contribution to the economic system is the basis for our disconnection and incapacity to see the production action as something that goes beyond the realization of cost and profit relations within the economic framework.
In a certain way, a fresh examination of the act of production opens up an opportunity for us to rethink the productive value as part of a wider set of values and worldview. On the basis of such a possible idea, it is possible to examine the values behind production and the actions that enable it, and to examine those actions and reevaluate them with the understanding that the alienated thinking of industrialized production is not sustainable and does not offer a solution to the problems that its own logic had created and exacerbated (the climate crisis, among other things).
The position that this essay offers advocates challenging the current productive-economic conventions, with the understanding that without a profound change in these conceptions, the perspective of the current industrial-economic structure hinders our ability to deal with the changing environment in which we live.
The essay “The Ethics of Doing” dealt with the implications of the craft action for the status of the object through reference to the production action, the doing.44 ... That essay offered another layer for evaluating the artistic/design object through the examination of the values related to its production. The proposal to read the layers embodied in the object’s physicality through doing gives it another level of meaning and value. In the present essay I would like to take another step back and reflect on the value of the productive action itself. This essay, therefore, deals with the possibilities of reading the action itself, not through observing its product but the sense that the action carries in its occurrence. My claim is that the very reading of the action itself allows one to recognize some basic assumptions that reflect a world view and values.
These values are the fundamental and deepest basis for the logic that guides our choices and decisions as individuals and as a society. Without a change in these fundamental concepts, we will have difficulty replacing the gallop of capitalist logic into the environmental abyss; therefore, we need a space of alternative values that will enable the existence of a cultural-social-economic system that is different from the current one. Such a system consists of countless aspects and parameters of which the productive aspect is a part. It is important to emphasize that even “non-productive” aspects adopt the capitalist Zeitgeist through its operational logic, as can be seen in the way that capitalist logic has penetrated all areas of our lives, from sports to literature.
Recognizing the enormous power of the (capitalist) system, on the one hand, and the fundamental tension between it and the threats to humanity’s future, on the other hand, requires us to offer general and local alternatives to the possibilities of understanding and thinking about human action in general and production action in particular. In this essay, we will lay the foundations for such a possibility based on the values intrinsic to craft. The understanding that the contemporary economic-cultural structure has brought us to an existential crisis requires us to examine the way in which the understandings that enabled it have developed, and to recognize the potential of what has been tossed aside throughout the development of human society as well as the blind spots strewn along this development, which have allowed us to reach a situation that threatens our survival as a species. We must find possible alternatives to the capitalist logic whose values have created an integral conflict between its internal inertia – of consumerism-based capitalism – and the environmental needs of our survival.
As human beings, we cannot ignore that, unlike the actions of plants or animals, our actions are linked to a greater or lesser extent with our consciousness. Even actions of the organismic order affect our consciousness and are affected by it. However, the context and motivation of our physical actions are not only immediate – their impact extends beyond the personal consciousness of each of us, and they express and embody a broader worldview. Therefore, a reading of the action will also disclose the modes of organization, control, construal and interpretation through which we understand ourselves and our connections to the world.
Why Can Value Be Attributed to Action?
The act of production is not only a technical operation with a definite purpose designed to manufacture some product; it already carries a whole world of values. There is a difference between swinging a hammer by a woodcarver and by a worker in a furniture factory, even though the action may be similar in gesture, the investment of energy and the material worked upon (wood). The hammer swing of craft is part of a creation context different from the context of the same gesture in the factory – it reflects not only a productive context, that is, a production or industrialization process or an economic system, but it also offers a different context for the way we understand this axis within a broader framework of society-culture-history.
The meaning of the action (e.g., the production of an object) is related to the context in which it takes place, and this essay examines this as these meanings are formulated by the industrial-concept model55 Faulkner, Neil. ... and by the craft-concept model.66 My claim is that ... From determining the differences between these two different forms of understanding of the value attributed to action, we will focus on the values that can be attributed to the craft action and engage in the development of the meanings of the cultural critique and the social, economic and political corollaries that can be drawn from this process. This essay offers a humanistic reading, in the sense that it comes out of the human body, and as part of this move, I will develop the corporeal basis as an ideological starting point.
The Conditions Required to Define the Action as Craft
Within the semantic space of the concept of action, I would like to focus on the unique aspects of craft action. To that end, in the first step, the boundaries of the craft action must be defined, or what are the conditions required for an action to be understood as craft?
A definition of an action as craft consists of its productiveness and context, that is, its characterization is the production of things. In this way, it shares a common space of products – handmade or machine-made. On the material level, this is what art and mass-produced objects (industry, agriculture) have in common. The craft action is a certain expression of the productive characterization of man, being homo ferax. To be more precise, it is worth noting that the craft action always interacts with the world: it is physical and concrete. The craft action shares its productive characterization with the industrial action, but it interweaves the act of production with the space of human action, that is, it is an action that has a common denominator with other actions that are not necessarily production-related, such as games or the social fabric. The fact that the craft action is part of a pool of different human actions, or in other words its being related to the body and, by implication, to the human being in all of its aspects – from the pleasure of doing to the set of its relationships with its surroundings – is a fundamental condition that, together with the meaning of the production of the action, defines the scope of the craft action in the broadest but also most fundamental way. If we translate the meaning of the body into a concept, we can define it as a human scale, meaning the scope, force, range, and time of action fundamentally related to the body.
The scope of this space covers a very large variety of human actions, including craft, but to differentiate the craft action we must add two conditions: experience and unity of action. These two conditions distinguish the craft action more accurately from the web of human actions, on the one hand, and from the production processes, on the other hand.
Experience means the accumulation of knowledge from practice – a deepening understanding of ways of doing things. Acknowledging experience decentralizes the way in which knowledge is accumulated, therefore affecting the power structure of knowledge and the position of the worker.
The unity of action means that there is a connection between the various stages of the production process, whether it is the sequence of operations to produce the object or the social expanse surrounding it (these two conditions will be developed in a separate essay).
Based on the fundamental conditions of the craft action and their grounding, we will analyze the potential implications of these conditions for the different levels of human activity. Each of these fundamental conditions requires a complex and wide-ranging examination, therefore this essay mainly deals with the most elementary condition for characterizing and differentiating the craft action – the human scale. The fact that the action of craft production is always in a corporeal context and is related to a specific body distinguishes it from the action of production in industrial settings. It is not just a matter of differentiation at the level of the action itself – a person versus a machine or a craftsman in a workshop versus a worker in a factory – but rather it affects all the aspects that the production action involves, whether they be the way factories are built, their scale, the way production is concentrated or distributed geographically , and in the manner in which roads and modes of transportation and a global goods economy develop, resulting in a global manufacturing economy. All of these have effects on the concentration of capital and power and the manner in which they harness the social mechanisms at different levels of human existence and shape our lives.
Since the craft action always has a human scale, it defines from the beginning a power structure and a diverse set of relationships between the production action and the economic system, and, in addition, it even “contaminates” the systematic sense of production and binds it with the implications of the human body (a human figure with a family, a value system, needs, desires and social contexts). Industrialized productive thinking seeks to rid itself of the constraints of the human body (relegation of production to countries lacking labor-rights enforcement systems, mechanization, atomization of production processes) in order to increase production and reduce its cost. The logic of industrial efficiency and the resulting increase in production volumes requires an entire set of decisions that are expressed on the most immediate and concrete levels, such as the demand for storage (raw materials and goods) and transportation on a completely different scale than those seen in a system based on production on a human scale, i.e., craft-workshop production. All of these have an effect on countless levels of the mode of organization of society and physical space, and they even affect the levels of finance, law, and so on.
The criticism of the proponents of modernity and industrialization was based on a negative view of the inefficiency, inaccuracy and lack of systematicity of the traditional processes of production, and have always tried to overcome these obstacles on the way to “progress”.
My argument is that the processes of streamlining production, and by implication the entire commodity economy, lead to a double loss of contexts and meanings that existed in the craft production action: first, on the corporeal level, that is, in the disconnection of production from the particular body in favor of an anonymous and disciplined body that is integrated into fragmented, duplicated and serial production processes; second, in the loss of the social-cultural-environmental contexts of those inefficient processes that made the former marginal to the point of irrelevance in the face of the power and transformation with which industrialization came to be. Alienation from the body, i.e., the attempt to overcome the body, its limits and constraints on the way to continuous and infinite production, is the other side of the logic of the consumption culture (consumption as a driving force of efficiency and production capacity as an engine for increasing consumption) and the loss of personal autonomy, i.e., the prevention of the producer (worker) from an inclusive and broader understanding of the process in which he or she are involved and the ability to carry it out. The loss of autonomy of action, whether in its productive and/or consumerist contexts, or in its additional social contexts (identity), is part of the “soft” disciplining that intensifies the dependency of each of us on the capitalist system.
A rigorous examination of the sense of the human scale will reveal to us that it necessarily entails an entire life that interweaves the action of production into the living contexts of the producer – locality, community, family, tradition, and culture – as opposed to the industrial viewpoint that examines production through its economic context.
Turning to the potential hidden in all those production possibilities that have been abandoned due to their inability to deal effectively with the economic efficiency of industrialized production will show that it would be correct to examine them in relation to the issues relevant to contemporary human existence, such as alienation, pollution and dependence.
The urgency is at the same time the opportunity that the environmental crisis gives us to go back and reevaluate the same basic assumptions that laid the conceptual foundations for the way human life is organized today in the frameworks of states, on both the global and intra-state levels. Returning to the human scale and its constraints, as well as to other conditions that define the craft action – such as experience accumulation and the unity of action and an examination of the possibilities they offer to find a solution to contemporary tribulations – may offer us practical alternatives of organization and awaken a renewed and critical thinking about possible directions which we can pursue.
Development of the “Human Scale” Condition
When we deal with the meaning of the action in the context of production, the connection to the body and the human scale is a necessary condition in the perception of the action as craft. This relation distinguishes the action from spaces where the action no longer depends on human abilities and their limited range. This is the extent of the industrialized action. The logic of the industrialized action is expressed on every plane of human existence – political, economic, educational, medical, cultural as well as in all the interfaces between these levels. In other words, the logic of industrialized action and the rationale behind it shape the various spaces of human existence and are not limited to just the space of industrial production itself. We cannot understand and analyze the way other systems and other aspects of human existence are structured and operate without acknowledging the influence of industrial logic on them.
Examining the reality in which we live through the prism of the impact of craft action and the possibilities it offers will allow us to challenge existing concepts and structures and propose alternative systems to those that exist in most of the aforementioned levels. When we examine social, cultural, economic, or political concepts under this condition, possibilities open up to us for models of other symbolic and concrete-practical concepts and systems.
To better understand the effect of the human scale and the detachment from this scale on the action in each of the planes I mentioned, we must think of the place of the particular body and the way it exists in each of these spaces. For example, the education of children from kindergarten onwards to a certain way of sitting, setting uniform sizes for school furniture, uniform outfits, or the number of children in a class as starting points for thinking about how these issues shape and build a certain quality of action and how the continued accumulation of such issues construct a certain temperament in the state education system, whether at the class level – such as the organization of the learning space, the manner of sitting in the classroom, the rhythm of learning, and the methods of learning – or at the fundamental level of the meaning of education and the teaching of the meaning of knowledge through the perspective of productivity.
The productivity of the system and the productivity of knowledge, with the above examples and many more, are an expression of an essential element of industrial thinking – standardization. In the logic of industrialized, pre-digital production, standardization has a great impact on costs, and these have great significance in the capitalist logic. One can find the seepage, or rather the inundation, of this logic into all aspects of life, for example, in medicine’s perception of its focus on the disease and not the patient, starting with the appointment at the family doctor’s and ending with the way hospitals are planned, built, and organized. Today, health cannot be grasped other than through its systemic sense. The private component, that is, the patient, the doctor, the paramedic, or the nurse, is deconstructed into quantifiable functions. Preserving humanity is a personal struggle that goes against the logic of the system; these are only certain points in the system and many more can be found, not only in the system of education or healthcare but also in other fields.
In the context of production, reference to the human scale reminds us that action is always a matter of a body in motion. If we were physicists, our goal in understanding the action would be to try to observe these components through their most fundamental aspect, i.e., energy and mass. However, in the “dirty” reality that we inhabit, energy has a source and mass has a name. The possibility of action depends on the specific body and its energy sources; these, therefore, paint the action in a certain color and tell a story that is not merely the story of the action through the evaluation of its purpose and its success in realizing that purpose.77 James, W. (1983). ...
We can relate to the physical dimension of producing the action, through the human body, its empowerment, modification, assimilation or disconnection from the action itself. In addition to the corporeality of the action, we need to consider its energetic sources. Every action requires energy, whether it is mental energy that enables the action or mechanical or electrical energy. These elements of the action tell us a parallel, different, synonym and contradictory story of the understanding of the action in relation to its value in the world, and they invoke opportunities for us to evaluate the action not only in relation to its result but as a realization-expression of qualities, as a presence in the world.
The act of craft production, by virtue of its corporeality and preservation of a human scale, necessarily involves all the aspects of human life that originate in the body. The influence of the entirety of humans’ relationship with their environment on production is evident in every craft creation, through aspects of place or time (place: physical space, climate, materials; time: culture and technology, history).
Since we recognized that the modes of craft action are not only means of realization but also affect its value on levels that are indifferent to assessing its purpose (the beauty of the motion, social, environmental and cultural contexts), relating to these levels as part of the assessment of the action not only establishes a far more complex and richer system than that of measuring efficiency, it also does not allow the various aspects of production to be erased. Such a complex approach to production poses an alternative to the narrow economic way of thinking, and this has implications for the way in which human society determines its values. Thinking about production from within the body is a platform for a different socio-economic model, since it construes the context of the production action as an incredibly intricate web of connections, from the physical level to the socio-political one, that preserves the human scale as a permanent horizon. That is why the development of an alternative set of tools to that of the capitalist horizon and the culture of consumption is called for. The human scale obliges us to understand its meaning in those places where the sense of the industrial-capitalist logic is revealed, and to examine just how radical the move required to bring about change is.
The human scale as a necessary condition for understanding the craft action has implications for many other levels of human production. Considering every individual stage in the chain of production and examining it according to this condition requires a completely different concept of the productive structure.
The Consequences of the Human Scale as a Tool for a Critical Examination of Human Values From Education to Policy
The consequences of the human scale exist at different levels of examination: from the particular case of production, through the connection between the concepts embodied in the basic assumptions of the logic of production, whose influence can be seen on our perceptions in a wide variety of fields, to the way the latter are reduced and refined into our understandings of reality.
The human scale has many aspects. It is not only about the average height of people, but also about qualities such as motor skills, strength, flexibility, or weight. Likewise, when we place the human scale as a reference point for examining and relating to processes, we must understand the complexity of this scale and expand it beyond the immediate physical plane. We can find an example of this in the way the average life span is regarded, the sequence of generations and the evolution of human needs as parameters that require a different understanding of the design processes. Architecture can be taken as an example of a field where the design dimension is tied to a process whose level of pollution and environmental damage is very significant – from the choice of raw materials, through the location of the building and the environmental consequences of the architectural solutions, to the manner and time of the building’s expiry. Today, real engagement with issues like the level of pollution and the construction’s burden on the environment remains local, at the level of the single structure, or limited territorially as to dealing with the ensuing problems (green regulations). In order to deal profoundly with the implications of construction for the environment, fundamental questions must be asked about human needs and their methods of organization, and solutions must be found based on a different social-economic-spatial-political conception. A different perception of space and historical time based on the human scale offers a different understanding of the role of the structure and the demands from it. These affect the architectural conception – instead of regarding the structure as a monument, understanding it as temporary, flexible, and recyclable (from functions to materials). All of these are related to the way we understand cultural heritage and history. Between the historical moment of building the pyramids as an act of human defiance against temporality, and the urban reality today, the power relations between man and his world have completely changed. We cannot think about these historical cultural achievements today separately from current reality and the awareness of the future that awaits us.
In the past, the constraints of the body, such as the walking speed, defined the conception of place. The release from the shackles of human locomotion defines for us a completely different sense of space and belonging. It is impossible to ignore the way in which the technological developments have influenced the human conception of identity and space. The consciousness of belonging to a social group is affected by this; the formation of tribal, ethnic and national groups is related to the scale of human movement and so is the sense of belonging as an outcome of human physiology. Similarly, contemporary production and consumption also have a different meaning than what they previously had within the framework of traditional economies.88 Kuthiala, S. K. ... Efficiency as the central ethos of the modern era is expressed in a certain understanding of production processes, the perception of the environment as potential raw material, mining and transportation, the centralization of the production forces and the transportation of products. The consequences of these basic principles are the physical configurations of the production and their effect on the entire region (for example, Haifa Bay). The intensification of the efficiency processes could not be guaranteed without the assimilation of the capitalist, consumption-based logic. Any real and honest move in relation to the future reality should recognize, as part of the reflection, the connection between the logic of consumption and the pursuit of comfort and the environmental crisis. The craft model, for example, the development of workshop-scale production, offers ways of production whose logic is not reduced to compliance with the principles of industrial efficiency. To a certain extent, precisely this model and its way of communal production can be thought of as an alternative for industrial efficiency and even as a new concept of the physical-geographical space (alternative organization and distribution of the modes of production and the way they affect the growth of an alternative socio-economic-political system). Moreover, a different conception of the production action that sees it as part of a fabric of social-economic-political life offers a more complex systemic observation of the meaning of production and the way in which it directly and indirectly affects the fabric of life of both producers and consumers.
The digital reality in which we live and the completely different status of knowledge today – the platforms and digital tools for transmitting information, the different self-perception of professional fields as part of their internationalization, international collaborations and professional and social networks – can provide a completely different context for the conception of locality, community and production on a human scale, not as an anachronism that cannot compete with industry but as a viable and valid alternative that can transform other levels, in the way human society is organized at the beginning of the 21st century. This is about the decentralization of production and a completely different construction of the production system and everything derived from it, including relating to the immediate environment and an overall thinking about raw materials and how they are mined and exploited, the methods of supply and transportation of materials and products, and as a result of changing the concept of production – changing the economic organization of society and the effects of this change on the social and political system.
The possibility of organizing the human space on the human scale conflicts with political-economic concepts whose guiding principle is systematicity, whether it is the concept of centralization (as in China) or that of the market economy. These two concepts are based on a disconnection from the human scale vis-à-vis the horizon of solutions and moves they offer for dealing with the environmental crisis. The combination of thinking that grows out of the values derived from craft with the contemporary technological reality can offer us a whole gamut of concrete and practical steps and be a prism for observation and effective criticism even beyond the production itself.