Despicable Me – A Sennettian Interpretation

Since Despicable Me was shamefully ignored in the Academy Awards nominations, I decided to dedicate a post to it, putting together a few thoughts I had while reading Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman.

In the book, Sennett describes craftsmanship as such (Kindle edition):

“Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labor.

(…)

Craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing in itself. Social and economic conditions, however, often stand in the way of the craftsman’s discipline and commitment: schools may fail to provide the tools to do good work, and workplaces may not truly value the aspiration for quality.” (Loc. 101-10)

For Sennett, craftsmanship involves dedication to work for the sake of work itself, the production of quality. For the craftsman, there is no separation between intellectual and manual labor, with one valued over the other.But the labor process is not simply a means to an end. It is valued in and of itself, as perpetual training in skill as well as opportunity to resolve problems and improve one’s craft. The work of the craftsman is the work of constantly problem-finding and problem-solving.

Craftsmanship is therefore a lifelong process of complete engagement with one’s craft. The craftsman does not wing it, or phone it in. The constant problem-finding / problem-solving dynamic challenges one’s skills to evolve, building on experience, obedience to rules of one’s craft and personal answer to the challenges. That takes time and patience. But this is also why the craftsman does not find repetition boring. Boredom and ennui, as demonstrated in several plates in Diderot’s Encyclopedia, are traits of the idle (and unskilled and useless) aristocratic classes.

The craftsman is not a virtuoso. A virtuoso is an isolated individual, interested in drawing attention to himself through displays of showmanship. The craftsman is a man of the workshop, a collective environment. The quality of the work is driven by his skills, as they are embedded in the collective work of his workers (Sennett uses the example, among others, of Stradivari’s workshop).  Cooperation is at the core of craftsmanship. And, as Sennett notes, the medieval workshop joined family and work under one roof. Apprentices lived in the master’s house. And the medieval guilds were organized under a mode of family hierarchy, albeit not based on blood ties.

And that is why, for Sennett, this is no longer a craftsman’s world:

“The corporate system that once organized careers is now a maze of fragmented jobs. In principle, many new economy firms subscribe to the doctrines of teamwork and cooperation, but unlike the actual practices of Nokia and Motorola, these principles are often a charade. We found that people made a show of friendliness and cooperation under the watchful eyes of boss-minders.

(…)

Sheer service to a company was, in an earlier generation, another reward for work, set in bureaucratic stone through automatic seniority increases in pay. In the new economy, such rewards for service have diminished or disappeared; companies now have a short-term focus, preferring younger, fresher workers to older, supposedly more ingrown employees-which means for the worker that, as his or her experience accumulates, it loses institutional value.

(…)

But craft does not protect them. In today’s globalized marketplace, middle-level skilled workers risk the prospect of losing employment to a peer in India or China who has the same skills but works for lower pay; job loss is no longer merely a working-class problem. Again, many firms tend not to make long-term investments in an employee’s skills, preferring to make new hires of people who already have the new skills needed rather than to engage in the more expensive process of retraining.

(…)

Those firms that show little loyalty to their employees elicit little commitment in return-Internet companies that ran into trouble in the early 2000S learned a bitter lesson, their employees jumping ship rather than making efforts to help the imperiled companies survive. Skeptical of institutions, new economy workers have lower rates of voting and political participation than technical workers two generations ago; although many are joiners of voluntary organizations, few are active participants.” (Loc. 356 – 71)

In this social and economic context, there are no real rewards for doing good work for its own sake. Pride in one’s work, as craftsman trait, has limited value in the current socio-economic system.

Ok, by now, you’re either wondering what this has to do with Despicable Me or you’ve seen me coming from miles away. So, here goes: Gru (and his acolyte, Doctor Nefario) is a craftsman. His craft is villainy.

He comes up with elaborate plans (intellectual labor) and Doctor Nefario comes up with technological solutions, manufactured by the army of now-world-famous minions in what is truly a workshop and a family (see the countless instances of minions behaving like children, under the authority of the Gru/Nefario parental pair. And even though it is mentioned that the minions have families, they obviously live in the workshop (in quite luxurious conditions… they have a gym where they do step aerobics, for Pete’s sake!).

Like any craftsman, Gru cares about the quality of the work, for its own sake. He does not seem to care about setting up plans to get a lot of money (he’s apparently constantly in debt with the bank), and his plans are not the most prestigious. But he does take pride in his work.

However, being a craftsman does not get him any favors from the Bank of Evil (“formerly Lehman Brothers”). Mr Perkins (the banker) finds him old and washed up. He is only interested in getting his money back fast (along with other more sinister plans).

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the worker of the new economy: Vector.

Vector is a dilettante who believes himself to be a virtuoso rather than an overprivileged, bored spoiled brat. Vector is the individualized worker: no workshop (you wanna bet his piranha / squid guns are made in China? And what lousy ideas are these anyway), no minions. Vector is a show-off, engaging in conspicuous consumption (shark, anyone?) whose success is due to his father (Mr Perkins) stealing ideas and funding them for him.

Vector does not really care about the quality of the work, except for the publicity it gets him (and money). After all, after having stolen the shrink ray from Gru, all he can think of doing with it is play at shrinking his toiletries (“you’ve been shrunk, tiny mouthwash!”). The idea of the shrink ray as a tool in service of a well-crafted plan does not come to him.

Indeed, the contrast could not be greater between Vector’s home and Gru’s. Gru’s home shows years of working on his craft, marking his identity as a villain (a guild in itself!). Vector’s home contains no such history. It is bare, except for the objects of his dilettantism and teenage boredom (Wii, popcorn and soda) and some conspicuous elements that are supposed to mark him as a villain.

No wonder Gru instantly dislikes him the first time they meet. Vector, like any pretend-virtuoso wants attention and engages in showy plans that are quick gigs. Gru and Nefario spend time working on their plans, working out problems and glitches (“boogie robots”!). And because appearance does not really matter, Gru is ok wearing a pink astronaut suit.

Oh, and as Sennett notes, parenting is also a craft, so, it is no wonder that it takes a little time, but Gru does not find it too difficult to become one, the same way he became a craftsman at villainy. It is no coincidence that his first “break-through” with the girls occurs because his sense of justice and respect for a job well-done is offended (Agnese did hit the spaceship). And he dispenses justice with one of his well-crafted weapons:

3 thoughts on “Despicable Me – A Sennettian Interpretation

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Despicable Me – A Sennettian Interpretation | The Global Sociology Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: The Sociology Source Manifesto – A Response | The Global Sociology Blog

  3. Pingback: Uber Marianne » Blog Archive » The Inspiration of Christopher England

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *