Tales from the Flexitariat: the sadness of the scientific lamp maker

My current flexi-job in the Land of Cog involves research on an arts project. It's a good gig – my colleagues/managers are old friends, the hourly rate is better than normal here (AUS $27 per hour), and the work interesting. The core of my work is interviewing artists and tradespeople who have been partnered in a professional exchange project.

The interviews are “semi-structured” in that I have some prepared questions, but can take alternative pathways depending on how the conversation plays out. My manager trusts that I will come up with the goods she needs, and so it is fundamentally different from more directed call centre work. It's hardly crushing, and I want the work as my scholarship runs out in a few months, way before the thesis will be ended. And the wings on my feet are beginning to itch, which always is a sign of impending travel and its associated costs.

As the interviews are conducted by phone I can do them at home, wearing a little headset and mike and writing as fast as I can by hand. Since my handwriting is becoming more and more illegible I need to type up the interviews as soon as possible, before those inky scrawls have lost all meaning for me. I make an effort to dress for work, although as it's winter here the never-to-be-seen-in-public ugg boots stay on.

This morning I talked with M, who has recently retired from his trade of scientific lamp making. Thirty years of making precision instruments from pyrex glass, and making the tools to make the objects. He tells me that in his youth he worked as a motor mechanic and sheet metal worker, picking up skills to help him make the tools.

I guess the tools are like custom software. They are hand-coded from scratch to run the glass “programs”. At the same time, these tools have been built upon layers of accreted technical know-how. A nimble imagination is crucial, because the lamp maker must interpret the desires of his clients, desires encoded in the technical drawings of the objects they commission. (But what is it that they really want?)

The fashionable distinction between material and immaterial labour bothers me increasingly, as I bother to think about it. It is true that Moll Flanders and I were initially excited by the concept. Perhaps what engaged us was simply the beauty and poetry of the word 'immaterial'. But to pit the bulls of material and immaterial forms of labour against each other in the ring of binary coupling is making less sense to me, although I can't speak for Moll.

The scientific lamp maker works with his hands. This much is clear. Manual dexterity is absolutely key to this trade. M mentions numerous people have sat down at his bench and tried for an hour to work with the tools, and have given up. Patience and perseverance are required, to get the hands working in synch with the tools. Eventually, if one can pass through this initial stage (six months, he reckons), one is rewarded with not only technical ability but a newly acquired confidence. It's this confidence (an example of affect I think) that enables the apprentice, the learner, to keep moving forward, to make ever more precise material objects.

Communication is surely central to the processes of learning a “manual” trade. The mistress/master crafter not only shows with their hands what is to be done, and how, but must explain. This is not the “mute” labour of the factory (and was labour really ever mute, O Virno?), but an example of audible labour of the workshop, the shed, the studio, the bench. Fingers and lips speaking, singing even, when obstacles are overcome.

M has described scientific lamp making as “a rare trade” and “a dying trade”. I ask how it feels to be the last of a kind of lineage of makers.

“I'm very sad really,” he tells me.

And I can feel his sadness over the copper wires.

“I've always wished to pass on my skills to somebody.”

And I can almost see that invisible child sitting at the work bench next to the scientific lamp maker, listening and watching as he crafts the tiny instruments out of hot glass molasses.

There is material in the immaterial.
And immaterial in the material.
All labour can be spoken, sung, whispered, screamed.

We are not mute, even if we might be barking mad.