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Last night, while ironing my work shirts, myself, by hand, I caught TVNZ’s programme The New Old and its episode ‘The Artisan’. The blurb:

Presenter Wallace Chapman looks at the trend against mass-produced goods and the growing market for handcrafted objects.

Chapman interviewed several people who were somehow involved with hand-crafting. One couple were rescuing old bits of machinery, one woman effused about her hand-made leather couch, another woman talked about how she hand-designed embroidery patterns and then digitised them for mass production.

The show was clearly trying to position the narrative as the counter-argument to mass production. Hand-crafted items were superior because they lasted longer, showed the personality of the producer, or gave you a personal relationship with the artisan. But this narrative is false.

Economically, there is no outside of mass production. We live in an industrial world in which mass production provides. There are many examples that make this point: I, Pencil; The Toaster Project (via Tim Harford); Rivoli’s T-shirt. The examples provided in ‘The Artisan’ paper over the contribution of mass production and industrialisation in each example. The couch, for example, may have been assembled by hand. Where did the leather, wood, and filling come from? How were the hides stripped from the carcasses, tanned, dyed, and shipped? The machines that sewed the leather, where did their parts come from? The steel for the needles?

The economic value of the hand-crafted component is minor. If you toted up each person’s spending, the amount they spend on artisanal goods is minimal. Most spending, like most production, is on mass-produced products.

Hand-crafted goods are not economically important; they are psychologically important. They are fetishes. First, it is important to realise that they do not exist by themselves. They exist only in opposition to mass-produced goods. Each time we point to them — name them — we are singling out that important characteristic of them: they are the not-mass-produced goods. When we refer to them, we are also referring to their opposite. They therefore safely contain all the power of mass production.

Hand-crafted goods also keep a little distance between us and mass production. This is the other function of fetishes — providing some distance from the Real to provide a space for jouissance. These goods provide a little opening that mass production has not already filled (even though it has, because these specific hand-crafted goods could not exist without mass production).

The fetishisation of the hand-crafted is a way to live with mass production, to enjoy it while maintaining a psychological distance. If only I could convince myself that ironing shirts provided the same benefits.