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The Cultural Studies PhD Program’s student/faculty Colloquium series features regular presentations by prominent interdisciplinary scholars. CS student Lindsey Macdonald interviewed Ben Brewer who talked about his work on global commodity chains, taking hand crafted bikes as his object. Check out the interview transcript below.
The title of your upcoming talk at George Mason University is “Craft Economies and Global Commodity Chains,” and I understand that you’ll be speaking about handmade bicycle builders within the broader context of the global bike trade. For the readers of Edges, could you talk a bit about what drew you to handbuilt bikes as a research object?
BB: I should be honest and say that my own long-time experience as a cyclist provided me with a base of technical and historical knowledge of the bike business and culture, along with a set of personal connections within the bike biz. So, part of the draw was simply learning more - and more systematically - about an object and field I already found engaging. However, in light of the growing popular and scholarly interest over the past 10 years in craft, artisanal, hand built, maker or small batch economies, I think handmade bike builders are also an interesting and potentially instructive case. Their work straddles both the “craft” and the “industry”/fabrication domains and the bicycle is a highly refined technical object that has been produced and sold as a commodity product for over 100 years. Handmade bicycle builders are at least partially situated within the interstices of this larger profit-maximizing global bicycle trade, so you get these interesting comparisons and tensions between their methods and goals and that of the larger industry. Finally, the bicycle as a functional form of transit and alternative means of navigating and organizing the human built environment has clearly attracted more attention because of climate change and the need for low-carbon futures. While I think that the conditions of usage of bicycles is the most central concern from a transportation perspective, it also seemed intriguing to me to think about the conditions of production of bicycles in this regard.
How does your previous work on world systems theory and what you've identified as the new cultural economy inform your research on the handbuilt bike segment?
BB: While my previous - and far more “macro” work - certainly informs this newer work on bicycle builders, this new project is for me, quite frankly, also a chance to just do something new! I am very fortunate to have the stability in my career where I can take on something new, from scratch. With this project I was excited to start from a far lower level of abstraction and in an empirical context with more direct interaction. All that having been said, this is not a total rupture, and my goal with the bike builder project is actually to build up and out from this “layer” of the global bike trade to a better understanding of the mass market bicycle industry. And, to my mind, one of the true hallmarks of the world-systems tradition is the attention paid to world-historical analysis - looking for patterns and cycles that can only become apparent when we look over larger scales and longer periods of time. Given that comparatively long history of bicycle building, I am keen to look at historical changes in the organization of the bike trade, where I expect to find cycles of handmade bicycle building over time rather than a simple linear trend.
On your blog, Handbuilding Value, you connect your work on the handbuilt bike segment to broader socio-ecological concerns about present configurations of production, distribution, and consumption. Based on your research thus far, do you see artisanal modes and spaces as informing potential alternatives? Or rather, could you speak a bit to the potentialities and limitations of craft economies as a kind of template for scalable alternatives?
BB: Thus far - and I’m not that far into the larger project I have in mind - I remain fundamentally skeptical about, as you say, the potentialities of craft economies for scalable alternatives - even if I remain enthusiastic about the utility of looking into this! Without doubt, there has been a great deal of hyperbole about the transformative power of artisanal and maker culture and production, and the growing backlash of satire and snark about “hipster” culture and style probably indicates that an inevitable backlash is setting in. But, I do think there is something underneath the buzz that is important and worthy of attention, not least of which is that the artisanal/craft layer does contain many people who are fundamentally interested in business/commerce as a means to an end of livelihood rather than as the end itself (as in a profit-maximizing or growth-oriented firm). What is more, the old question of the appropriate scale of production seems to be back in discussion these days - like with distributed production models, additive/3D printing and digital fabrication - and handmade bike builders definitely struggle with the tensions between economies of scale and this pursuit of livelihood.
I have in mind here anessay by Erik Olin WrightinJacobina few months ago in which he sketched out a typology of forms of resistance to capitalism with four basic strategies: smashing, taming, eroding and escaping. Whether you agree with Wright’s own preferences for “eroding” strategies or not, it provides an interesting way to think about “alternatives” and the potentiality of different practices. Much of the craft and artisanal discourse and culture these days is often dismissed as being an “escapist” tactic - trying to find personal fulfillment and escape from the constraints of wage labor by “being your own boss” and such, and this is a fair assessment much of the time. What I am interested in, though, is the potential for how these artisanal spaces might be restructured by those within them to address some of the individualist limitations of that tactic and to shift their organizations in the direction of “eroding” capitalism. Only by building up empirical analyses of these artisanal spaces (that is, by taking them seriously) will be we able to also see how they might be reorganized in ways that might offer more a true alternative than others.
I find your answer to this last question especially interesting. In addition to questions of scale, there’s also been something of an uptick in literature calling for a fundamental rethinking of our relation to work as such. As you point out, perspectives in this area include, but are by no means limited to, somewhat uncritical celebrations of maker culture, which seem to rest on the demand for “better” or “more fulfilling” work. But capital also has a long history of systematically deskilling and dispossessing workers of craft knowledges (a history which Harry Braverman, for example, analyzed so productively in Labor and Monopoly Capital). To what extent, if any, might we understand these niche segments and artisanal cultures in relation to that history?
BB: I think you are correct that a big source of current interest in artisanal and/or small-shop production is connected to a general sense of alienation with “conventional” work practices and conditions and the desire to build skills more holistically with more autonomy and self-directedness. Historically, many U.S. builders built their skill through larger-scale shops and then moved on to their own facilities, but much of the skill building now comes, in a sense, through "self-exploitation" of a sort as new builders have to find ways to fund their own skill building or training period. What I’m personally intrigued by - which is not to project this goal on the builders I am studying, who may not share these interests at all - is what sort of mid-size handmade bike production facilities and strategies might emerge from the current U.S. handmade bike world, which is definitely dominated by small, 1-2 person shops. There are a number of builders experimenting with ways of “scaling up” their shops to do more production and batch-built work, oftentimes collaboratively with other builders. I’m curious whether these attempts might show ways of maintaining the sense of self-directedness and work control that is the appeal of craft/artisanal work but with more business stability that would reduce the stress and anxiety of running a one-person shop.
One final question. From looking over your blog, it would seem that determining the contours of the handbuilt bike segment and how it figures into the "bigger picture" poses a number of problems, not least of which is identifying who or what counts. Can you speak a bit to your methodology?
BB: Identifying what - and who - counts in the handbuilt bike world is indeed challenging, as it is with many forms of comparatively informal activity. There is no centralized “industry” organization for hand built bike producers in the U.S. that might collect and disseminate information and do advocacy or promotion work on behalf of bike builders. Builders do not need to register or be recognized with any industry-level authority, nor is there any kind of licensing or accreditation program. And, despite some interesting efforts in this direction, there is no self-organized and broadly inclusive “guild” or trade organization. So, even compared with other craft or artisanal “trades” with guilds, unions or other advocacy groups, there is very little in the way of standardized information. What is also interesting here are the ways in which builders themselves have tried to establish boundaries for who “counts” as a professional member of the trade, in the absence of these formal qualifications and boundaries.
My methodological approach has been distinctly pragmatic! A good deal of it involves interviews with key players in the trade for both historical analysis and current tensions combined with attending trade events and reading archives of online discussions, blogs and other online publications. I am also doing preliminary work to field a comprehensive survey of builders in the U.S. which will not only measure dimensions of motivation and business orientation but should also provide a better estimate of their total productive output and, therefore, of the industry size. While this would certainly advance my work, I would hope this could be helpful to those working in the field as well.
Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. I'm very much looking forward to following your work on this project as it develops.