In conversation: Kathryn Dudley on artisanal guitar makers and the politics of labor

YaleNews recently met with Kathryn Dudley, professor of anthropology and American studies, to talk about her recent book, “Guitar Makers: The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America,” as well as how her upbringing in a working-class community shaped her scholarly research and how studying the humanities can be a “lively, creative” experience.

Photo by Maria Trumpler
Photo by Maria Trumpler

Your research as an anthropologist focuses on “cultures of work that are, by default or design, at odds with contemporary capitalism.” How did you happen to focus on this?

I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, a largely working-class community in the Midwest. By the time I was in graduate school, factories were closing. My grandfather, who had worked in a factory and been an active member of his local union, lost his job in a plant closing. The power of labor in a blue-collar community is huge and I was very much affected by the changes in my hometown. In fact, that was the focus of my dissertation research and the subject of my first book, “The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America.” I was really drawn to tell the story of what was happening in this factory town. The auto industry was king and most of the local industries supported it, so when that plant closed it was a major event. I saw my own high school friends have difficulty finding the kind of work that their parents had done. I became very attuned to the way people’s lives can be affected by shifts in the global economy and the politics of labor.

Most striking to me at the time was the conflict within the community itself. I had thought that in a blue-collar community, where the majority of people were engaged in factory labor, there would be a wellspring of support for the autoworkers and their cause. That was not the case.

White-collar professionals and the local politicians were not supportive. They felt that people who had only a high school education — or worse, had dropped out of high school — should not be earning a middle-class wage. It was that kind of deeply ingrained cultural difference that opened my eyes to how the politics of labor is something that we live and experience very deeply, very intimately. If we are raised to believe that getting a college education is of the utmost importance, we are likely to feel justified in believing that people who don’t pursue a degree don’t deserve to live as well as we do.

Whereas, if you grow up in a working-class environment, a college education may not be as highly valued. Blue-collar workers take pride in what they produce and what they can make themselves. That is a very different cultural orientation and a very different way of valuing labor. Both are legitimate and viable, or at least were viable for a long period of time in our nation’s history. It’s really been only in the last 40 years — and the last 25 years in particular — that the global situation has changed such that embodied, or manual, labor is not valued as highly as mental labor.  

A book by Kathryn Dudley, professor of anthropology and American studies, will be released on Oct. 6, 2014.
A book by Kathryn Dudley, professor of anthropology and American studies, will be released on Oct. 6, 2014.

What led you to write this book?

I play guitar and was in search of a guitar for myself. I was still interested in studying the politics of labor and the lived experience of work in a neoliberal political economy, but I was looking for workers who were able to survive in this new global context. Makers of handmade steel-string guitars who began building in the 1970s — who have dedicated their lives to learning this craft and passing it on to others — have been able to make a living for themselves. My research for the book centered on exploring what artisanal guitar makers were doing that enabled them to continue to enjoy economic self-sufficiency as well as the feeling of craft mastery that autoworkers and others have lost in this historical shift.

What really stood out to me about this group of artisans is their willingness to share information and to teach you their craft. You think of someone who works alone as having a lot of secrets or being competitive with their fellow craftspeople. But that was not true. Artisanal guitar makers realize that what they are doing is socially transformative, and they feel very impassioned and committed to their craft. For them, it is not just a form of work; it is a way of life. This cultural orientation involves a set of values that is shared by people beyond the makers of the instruments themselves. Players who are attracted to handmade instruments and willing to pay high prices for them, and collectors who collect these guitars, realize they are buying a great guitar as well as supporting a particular kind of labor.  This is a community that shares a collective commitment to revaluing manual labor and I tried to communicate that in my book.

How is guitar-making a “social movement with political implications”?

Researching and writing this book helped me recognize a dimension to the politics of labor that I hadn’t appreciated before. How things are made and what they are made with are political issues. Artisanal guitar makers work with rare and exotic woods that are endangered species harvested from tropical rain forests. These prized woods are banned for trade under international treaties, and recent changes to the laws that are on the books now make it very difficult for guitar makers to transport their instruments across international borders. This was a crisis that unfolded over the course of my project. Many makers — especially the established builders who have been in the professions for 25 to 40 years — gathered their wood before the trade bans and recent customs requirements were put into place. Many of these artisans bought collections of wood from older classical luthiers as a form of retirement savings, and those nest eggs are now endangered. Guitar makers’ livelihoods are threatened because their work does not conform to the political regime of contemporary capitalism.

Artisanal guitar making cannot be reproduced in a factory. Building an instrument by hand produces a unique sound quality that connoisseurs are attuned to and value in monetary terms. In the decision to buy a handmade or mass produced guitar, there really is a conflict over how we, as consumers, value not just objects of material culture, but the labor that produces them. And for me, that’s really what is at the heart of my book: trying to understand the criteria by which we value human labor today.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned about artisanal guitar makers when you were writing this book?

I was struck by the way guitar makers — almost to the person — spoke about the wood they work with and the instruments they make as being alive. They will tell you when you string up an instrument and you hear its first sound, it takes on a life of its own. For a while I thought this was just a metaphor, but then I began hearing it so often I thought: What if it is not just a metaphor? What if we are talking about the inherent liveliness of wood, a material that once was alive? The skill that goes into making these instruments — “voicing” the soundboard is the term that is used — gives the guitar a unique and individual voice that is particular to that instrument. There is something intimate happening between the artisan and the wood that has to do with a fundamental recognition that you are not simply imposing your will on the instrument. Instead, there is a two-way interaction between the material and the artisan. I think it comes from the recognition on the part of the artisan that this wood has its own integrity, and the guitar is going to have its own future in the world.

Why is the study of humanities so important?

Fields of study in the humanities are growing and changing, and the humanities of today are not the classical humanities of 50 years ago or before. The humanities can be a very lively, creative place when you start to think across disciplinary boundaries and pose the kinds of questions that can’t be answered narrowly in terms of one discipline or another. The kinds of problems we face with today demand a trans-disciplinary approach that is open to the sciences and social sciences and the ways in which humans interact with nonhumans as well as each other.

In my book, for example, I became very interested in environmental issues in forestry and the illegal logging of wood. I was also steeped in the history of hand craft as well as in the various kinds of music that are played on guitars and how that music drives the innovations that guitar makers make. All of this was relevant to the story I wanted to tell about labor and political economy in the 21st century.

Looking ahead, what will your future scholarly research focus on?

I want to continue to focus on the politics of embodied labor and embodied experience but move back to some of my earlier themes about a changing political economy and the changing ways in which social suffering and other forms of trauma are produced. My next project will use yoga therapy as a way to look at the experience of economic dislocation and social trauma in a variety of different communities. Yoga is now being used in prisons and with at-risk youth as well as with military personnel and veterans who are dealing with one kind of traumatic stress experience or another.  This new treatment modality begins with the assumption that the body knows and remembers things that the mind cannot.

What do you hope your students will learn from you?

A fundamental curiosity about social life and why people do and say the things they do. I want my students to develop an unwillingness to take for granted whatever they have been raised to believe. There is so much more out there to experience than what we have learned in schools and in books. I want them to learn from their own experience as well as from what others have experienced rather than dismiss these ways of knowing as somehow inferior to “expert” knowledge. I think this is really crucial.

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