by Facundo Rocca

The destruction of the communatés des métiers, the corporations which for centuries organized the work, life and exchange of trades in the kingdom of France, was undoubtedly a turning point in modern European history. Their dismantlement, which was first unsuccessfully attempted by Louis XVI’s minister Turgot in 1776, was a key element in the abolition of the feudal order during the French Revolution, and was later reinforced with the application of the Le Chapelier law in 1791, which fully banned any association or gathering in the workplace. The end of corporations seemingly enabled the emergence of an individualistic capitalist economy, the birth of modern civil society, but also foregrounded the transformation of the languages of labor that were at the origin of socialism. If its undertaking is intertwined with the revolutionary destruction of privilege, it nonetheless followed a singular trajectory related to the problem of how labor should be organized and governed. This piece explores some of the intellectual preconditions of this process.

Before the royal edicts or the national assembly resolutions that aimed at the political and legal destruction of guilds, labor had to be first comprehensively reimagined in theory. The reshaping of work as something different from its corporate experience (which structured the life of workers inside and outside the workshop through confraternity rites, master-apprentice relations, and social identities) was already enacted in the pages of Diderot and D’alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751-1772). In this major work of modern European thought, both an enlightened critique of corporations and a revalorization of the arts méchaniques, the crafts that turn nature into useful or beautiful things took place. If work has to be reimagined anew, it was also because pure manual labor and the mechanical arts—which were thought as a combination of manual effort and some degree of intellectual competence—were, vis-à-vis the liberal arts—considered the endeavor of pure mind and spirit—usually despised and deemed unbecoming of noble men. In what follows, we seek to understand how these two aspects of Diderot and D’Alembert’s projects are related and to what effects.

The full title of the Encyclopédie is a systematic [raisoné] dictionary of the sciences, arts, and crafts [métiers]. This foregrounds a novel centrality of work and production in an already atypical project that set out to reorder all available knowledge in purely alphabetical order. Its editors explicitly declared the celebration of the mechanical arts’ utility and the unprecedented meticulousness of their study and description as a guiding principle of their endeavor. Even further, the alphabetical classification itself implied a scandalous reordering of things which no longer respected the hierarchies of estate and status. The most diverse crafts thus occupied a place within the undifferentiated progression of the a-b-c, alongside topics which were traditionally considered to be noble or lofty.

Alongside the egalitarian order of the alphabet, however, a system of new hierarchies was also being established—as is not only evident in the depiction of the difference of literacy, but also the theoretical divisions of enlightened thought as shown in the Figurative system of human knowledge (1751) (see figure 1). In this “tree of knowledge,” trimmed and rearranged by the philosophes, work appears under the name of “uses of nature”; as the last sprout of the branch related to memory from which history also springs, and opposed to the branch of reason and philosophy. The latter overcomes the mere reminiscing of what has happened throughout time or the awareness of what is repeated in practice, and starts corresponding to the domain of law and all of the former’s underlying causes. Moreover, experiences—already singular and limited in themselves—are also bespoken in different dialects rather than in the universal language of science. The habits of remembering and the conventions of communicating about experiences vary greatly; they are always idiosyncratic, randomly accumulated through time, and consequently equivocal and confusing. True knowledge—full understanding of the causes and the possession of a language to express it—is thus, for these enlightened intellectuals, always external to the mere recollection of experience, to which the expertise of the métiers (trades) belongs. For the encyclopedists, the knowledge of the gens de métier, tradesmen that lived from the mechanical arts, had to be as poor as their spoken language because of their intrinsic distance from philosophical reason and the universal grammar that should be science’s only idiom.

Fig. 1: Encyclopédietome 1 (A – Azymites) – 1751.

The story of the promising encounter of the philosophes with the artisans, narrated by Diderot himself in the 1750 Prospectus, strikingly dramatizes such differences. He so depicts a scene of an exchange between the intellectuals of reason and the users of nature:

We have approached the most skilled in Paris and in the kingdom. We have taken the trouble to go to their workshops, to interrogate them, to write at their dictation, to develop their ideas, to draw from them the terms proper to their trades, to draw pictures and define them, to converse with those who preserved the best memories, and (an almost indispensable precaution) to rectify, in long and frequent conversations with some, what others had explained in an obscure, imperfect and sometimes not very faithful manner. […] The majority of those who dedicate themselves to the mechanical arts have embraced them out of necessity and operate only by instinct. Among a thousand we shall scarcely find a dozen capable of explaining themselves with any clarity about the objects they employ and the things they manufacture. […] It has been necessary to exercise with them the function of which Socrates prided himself, the painful and delicate function of giving birth to spirits: obstetrix animorum.

For Diderot, even the most skilled artisans work without truly knowing their craft. They do not fully know what they are doing because they move out of necessity rather than reasoned will. To transform their productive instinct into a reflexive practice, in true knowledge, the artisan needs the mediation of philosophes. The latter must thus assume the burden of visiting the dirty workshops so philosophy can, once again, exert the pitiful yet noble function it assigned itself since its ancient origins: to get men to give birth to ideas. The modern philosophe, obstetrician of the productive soul, had to extract a purified knowledge of work from the impure body and the imperfect memory of artisans, translating the confused dialect of the crafts into the clear language of reason.

But why is the guild member not able to achieve true knowledge of their practice? Why is the user of nature doomed to repeat the bad habits of memory without discovering the universal truths beneath them?

First, because, following a persistent western philosophical trope, the encyclopédistes seem to assume that a structural lack of time for anything other than labor itself explains this incapacity. As if the necessary metabolic practice only left enough time for incomplete memories rather than a full scrutiny of the activity to be drawn.

Yet what is at stake is not only the undifferentiated amount of time spent in manual efforts, deduced from the free gymnastics of reason. Certain aspects of the life of artisans are also to be blamed: it is the corporate form in which work is carried out that gets in the way of reason. Firstly, because the métier is always something more than a unit of production, it is also a community that does not have sheer fabrication as its only goal. A motley world populated by “irrational” rituals belonging to corporative religion, fraternal rules of conduct, and unproductive festivities and customs reproduced in and outside the workshop. This historical memory of the corporation, its traditions, also takes time away from what is reasonable. Secondly and more importantly, because the corporation has a secretive nature that carries certain mysteries which are directly opposite for the publicity of discourse that is supposed to be the condition for the progress of human understanding.

Ultimately, the enlightened vindication of the crafts as worthy objects of systematic knowledge is oriented less toward a revalorization of the forms of life of the working community organized according to a métier, than to assure the perfectioning of their products through a rationalization that must come from outside. The mechanical arts, charged with producing all essential and luxury goods, are too important to let their progress aloof at the hands of those who are too busy on material matters, too restrained by the narrowness of their experience, and too attached to the prejudices and mysteries of their corporate traditions. The cry against the contempt for the mechanical arts seems sincere, but only as it seems to be directed at the rational and reasonable individuals who must be convinced, once and for all, to direct their lofty gaze to the prosaic objects of production—so the imperfect craftsman will no longer be its only caretaker.

But for the light of reason to shine on what is produced and exchanged, the workshop could no longer be a dark and private corner—elusive and hidden. As is seen for example in the famous plaque dedicated to pin making: it was necessary to open the windows, so light could finally irrupt without obstacles and reveal everything that might be hidden from the gleaming judgment of philosophical reason. The corporate privilege that conserved and regulated the access to the mysteries of the crafts implied subtracting its rules and techniques from the necessary publicity dictated by the courts of reason which sentenced their progress. The volumes of engravings on the mechanical arts, published since 1762, represent how the clear and omnipresent lights of the Enlightenment had to illuminate the nooks of the workshop from which the free concurrence of assets was blocked and where opportunities of profit and progress would sneak out.

Fig. 2: Encyclopédie…, Epinglier, Plate II, 1762

The engravings outline the image of a segmented fabrication carried out in precise, individualized, serialized activities which are discretely associated with a machine or tool. A novel image which implied the pristine and geometrical fantasy of a new workshop: no longer the motley community of rituals, secrets, rites and traditions, but an allayed space where everything is equally touched by reason and is therefore identifiable, quantifiable, and, above all, perfectible. The encyclopedic drive to extract the arts mécaniques from the supposedly celebrated artisans surfaces clearly with the attempt to disassemble their arts analytically and reasonably into useful parts. Craftsmanship should be reduced from a secret and a culture into a mere technical knowledge that is nothing more than reproducible tools, mechanical steps and objects, expressed in the most universal language possible.

The profuse lookout to compile even the last detail of a productive technique is thus explained. After all, the utopia of the Encyclopedia was to aim at a general grammar of the crafts and an overarching vision of the productive world. Once dismantled, it could be offered to the effort of the reasonable individual. The dispositive built by the philosophes sought, in this way, to replace the function that corporations fulfilled as archives of the savoir-faire of production, and mechanism for their transmission. The Encyclopedia is thus, in a sense, the great primitive accumulation of productive knowledge. This was not veiled by the Avertissement des Editeurs of 1753.

The arts, precious monuments of human industry, will no longer have to be lost in oblivion, the facts will no longer be buried in the workshop and in the hands of the craftsmen, they will be revealed to the Philosopher and reflection will finally be able to illuminate and simplify blind practice.

The compendium is thus outlined, from the outset, as a theory built to pass into action. Purifying the workshop with the light of science meant more than compiling descriptions: the Encyclopedia was, indeed, a reasoned dictionary of crafts. It wished not only to list alphabetically what already existed, but also to uncover its underlying laws, its reasons, in order to trace a new regulative model that could ensure progress. The world would thus have to adapt, in one way or the other, to the reality of this ideal space of labor that philosophy claims to discover.

Armed with the encyclopedic volumes, the rational individual will undertake the progressive task of rationalizing production: he will expel, reasonably and with reasons, everything that made labor something other than a productive chain; everything that made the workshop a common world, a community. Once again, Diderot states unequivocally in the entry Arts:

We would like to see a man appear from the bosom of the academies who would descend into the workshops to record all that is remarkable arising from the arts, and who would then pour all this knowledge into a book that would induce artists to read, philosophers to think more usefully, and those who are great to use their authority and their wealth properly.

As its secrets are destroyed by this book that gathers all knowledge deposited in their crafts, the artisans would have to comply to dedicate themselves only to what is useful, according to the science of reason and the rational individuals who bear it: the philosophers that think and the “great” men wanting to invest their fortunes where science points its finger. Craftsmen, in turn, would have to erase from their memory everything—their old rules and institutions, ancient rites and customs mixed with labor: the pleasures, the disgraces, the feast, the grief, the apprenticeship and the care, the morals and leisures. Together with the corporation and its secrets, it is also this form of conceiving the world of labor consequent with a broad conception of work irreducible to rational, useful and gainful labor, which must be sacrificed in the altar of the Lumières to assure the progress of sciences, the markets and laws.

Facundo Rocca is a Postdoctoral fellow at the National University of San Martín (UNSAM), Buenos Aires, Argentina. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from both UNSAM and Université Paris 8. His research focuses on the problems of law, politics and government at the intersection of conceptual history, the history of nineteenth-century socialist thought, Marxism and post-Marxism, as well as contemporary materialism and posthumanism.

Edited and translated by Matias Xerxes Gonzalez Field.

Featured image: Pin manufacturing, Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, plate I, 1762.