Doing the dishes

I am on a short holiday and holidays often mean, for practical reasons, that I get to do the dishes by hand. To be sure I actually very much like doing dishes by hand. The water is hot, soothing, you get to play with soap, and there is the instant gratification of a job done at the end. It doesn’t take too much time at all, you can do it together and talk a bit, and you do not have to repeatedly place cold dirty sauce-smeared plates and cups in a machine, which to me is a gruesome activity, while putting those dirty plates into the soapy water and just clean them, is fun.

Why did I ever buy a dish washer

Today I want to write a bit about skills. Doing the dishes is a skill, one my children hardly possess if only in the most clumsiest of prestages. Actually the best part of doing the dishes is that it means exercising a skill, and finding you’re getting better at it along the way. It is fun to see that what you are doing works. A few thoughts on what exercising a skill means to a person, and how in our current age we are witnessing the phenomenon of deskilling, and why this should make us worry, even if we don’t want to romanticise it too much.

I will describe my experience of doing the dishes, as a skill. To begin with, already having the skill of holding the brush, and having done a lot of dishes since childhood, most of doing the dishes unfolds as one says ‘pre-reflectively’: I do not think about what I am doing, I am just doing, mindlessly. At the same time, once you get into it, it can be a very ‘mindful’ activity: your attention is, while not one of deliberation and conscious thinking, at the same time a focused one. If you are not focused, you let the glass slip and break. So you are there, even if you are not ‘thinking’ in the usual sense we call thinking. And so you proceed to do the next thing and the next thing that needs to be done.

Then, however, without exception, there will be a moment that you start thinking about how to do what you do, better. It will almost always be triggered by a small problem. When doing the dishes in a place you don’t know, for example, you will be often having to stop and think where to put the dirty and the cleaned items on the kitchen sink. What goes left, what goes right? Especially if there is not enough space, which if often the case in the small cottages or camp-sites that we enjoy our holidays. And that is where you start to put in a sort of strategy. You think wait: what if I put all the big plates in the water, all at once, this will make space for the clean stuff on the right, there. And that means you have to put in a bit more water in the sink to flood the top plate so you can start cleaning that. Or what if you set the rack of plates sideways, so there is water on the right hand side and you can start cleaning them like that? Before you know it, you have evolved a little routine for yourself. And to see that routine work, gives immediate gratification. It is inherently good to have invented a routine that works. Even though the local, situated objective was to solve a certain problem, or speed up a process that you experienced was slacking and ‘didn’t get anywhere’, the real value of the routine does not actually lie in the quality of the end-result. The real value of the routine lies in the fact that it has quality. A working routine is value.

The thing to realise is that at this point, the little routine that you invented which helps you do the process better is not yet divided into any ‘objective’ result (whether or not the dishes actually get done faster, better, with less effort, less breaking etc), and your own experience of being able to do something: your embodied skill. You and the unfolding process of dishes-being-done, are one. And the quality of that process is both seen in the result and in your own affective state: you feel that you have grip on the process, and the better grip you have on the process, the better this process is going, the more quality it has. So in creating and using those small, bespoke improvements in your routine, you are still there, yourself, and the improvement is one that you do: it is you doing the dishes better, and feeling good about it.

But if we look at very skilled people, in highly specialised areas of practice, things change. I do not know if it is inevitable that they change, but in our history and time, they have always changed in this same way. To see how I need to tell you a bit about my neighbour. He’s an excellent amateur carpenter. He has done many courses, and his skill has reached – at least in my poor perspective – near perfection. This man can make just anything. Part of his skill however increasingly lies in having the right instruments. And, tough luck for Heidegger, we are not talking a hammer in 2020. Sure, he has the traditional tools and he knows how to use him. But he also has the most sophisticated, professional sawing machinery, work benches, and what not. It is not that the task becomes immediately trivial having these machines, in fact, it takes a lot of skill and knowledge and careful judgement to operate these machines and still have all your fingers at the end of the day – but it sure does make life a lot easier. Now what has happened here, is that in creating these machines, designers and manufactorers have prefabricated the definition of the routine that the user will be able to perform in using these machines. You cannot do anything with these machines: you have to use them in a specific way, and using them will give a specific result.

What has happened along the way however is that this means a transition from defining the quality of the process on the basis of the skilful experience itself, to a definition of the quality of the process on the basis of the objective end-result. The plank needs to be sawed straight, and the machine is created to make it go straight. As a result, the having the skill is now defined by your ability to use the machine properly, such that it produces the result – not a result that you have defined, but a result that the machine already embodies in its structure and operation. Of course, you select the machine, and put in the powerplug, in order to get that same result. But this decision is at base a cognitive decision, and instead of reflecting on an ongoing practice to design and develop a new routine for yourself, what happens here is that you take the fast lane: you detect a problem and select, rather than develop, the method to solve the problem, and the method is predefined and embodied in the tool. Furthermore, while a brush, or a traditional hammer, or a violin or a football, are tools that can be used in many many ways, and which can be used to develop new personal routines with, the modern, electrified carpenter’s equipment can only be really used in one particular way – again, that is, if you want to keep all of your ten fingers in the process.

What is wrong with the dishwasher? Well, the dishwasher is the prime example of a machine that, even more so than the sawing machinery of my neighbour friend, is based on an objectification of a skilled task, focusing purely on the result. The human task of operating the dish-washer has no quality in and of itself. It is a dirty, cumbersome, tiresome task. The entire idea of the dishwasher is based on a conceptual frame in which the only thing that matters, apparently, is what the dishes look like after they have been washed. While, as I have experienced and you may have too (try it!), the quality lies of course in the travel, not in the destination.

When you are immersed in doing the dishes, and you are, on the fly, as it were, trying out new routines and ‘perfecting’ your skill, becoming ever more ‘efficient’ and better at your job – it may be that you think you are working on the end-result. It may be that you think that you are in fact just trying to get a better end-result, faster, and with less effort. But the reduction in effort and the increase of quality of the end-result – the dishes done, is not everything there is to it. As any person knows how is in the process of becoming better at a skill, be it car driving, running, playing a musical instrument, playing a computer game – part of the value of that improvement is not in the end-result, it is in you. Or rather, you are part of the end-result too. We forget this and this has to do with the fact that people tend to look outwards not inwards. In improving our performance, we look outwards to the external effect of that performance. In many cases this is precisely what is meant with the term ‘performance’: the amount or quality of stuff generated by your actions. But increasing performance also means you change yourself, you increase your skill. Performance is both these things at the same time: it is exercising your skill and producing a result, not as two separate things but as one. When the circus artist makes a double front flip on the high cord, that is the performance. The output, there, is a fleeting momentary experience in the eyes of the audience. It ends the moment the next trick is performed. In doing the dishes, it’s not much else: the shiny clean dishes will be dirty again by the next day.

Ah, I think it is just about time to set the table for dinner!