by Alexander Freeling


The machines do not work as intended. They are always on the border of total breakdown, held together more by ingenuity than mechanical integrity. “As time goes by, one begins to have the impression that everything is already broken before it leaves the factory.” Even the handles of doors are chiefly decorative. This is the sketch with which Alfred Sohn-Rethel begins his essay “In Naples.”

Despite the biting sarcasm, the essay is not at all critical; it’s a paean to a different kind of relationship with technology. If all the machines of our lives work predictably, we become the real automatons: servicing the regulated demands of our cars, our computers, our phones. If everything is on the verge of breakdown, then getting it to function demands constant invention and improvisation. Keeping alive a wheezing motorboat is more art than science. Even the mechanical becomes a kind of intuitive handwork. 

While it may be strategic exaggeration from beginning to end, Sohn-Rethel’s essay isn’t supposed to be documentary. Like that of so many northern Europeans, his is a Napoli of the mind, an imaginary counterpart to his native Germany. Yet the national stereotypes only get us so far: if this German initially seems critical, it’s not because he prefers impersonal efficiency. 

Sohn-Rethel visited Naples in 1925, alongside journalist Siegfried Kracauer, philosopher Theodor Adorno and essayist Walter Benjamin. Reports of their holiday conjure an unlikely picture: heavyweights of German intellectual life pausing between debates over Kant or Marx to drink espressos in the sun, or lounge together under a single parasol, toeing the sand and readjusting their bathing suits.

However much he enjoyed the beaches of Capri, Sohn-Rethel also saw in those narrow, crowded streets of Naples another version of modernity. An alternative to the kind of industrial life he and his colleagues spent their day jobs analyzing. Sohn-Rethel’s great intellectual project was an account of the way technology divides mental from manual work, head from hand. This division devalues the wisdom of the artisan and the effort of the theorist. At their worst, one side sees manual labor as nothing more than machine work which hasn’t yet been automated, the other sees intellectual labor as just another way to devalue practical skill.

The Neapolitan, in his essay, is the man who does not accept the division between head and hand. Machines cannot trick him into thinking that all practical work is mindless, because it takes the full measure of his creativity to make the damn things work. And by seeing mental and manual labor as part of the same constant improvisation and play, he suggests a different model of work: one which doesn’t divide us into thinkers and doers, each out-of-touch in their own way.

Whatever the actual state of Naples that summer in the interwar period—whether or not the doors opened and closed with the wind—the allure for Sohn-Rethel is obvious if you’ve handled a good Neapolitan suit. Cutting and sewing by hand in a machine age elevates craft over precision. As you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to hand sew a seam, it’s always an improvisation (especially for an amateur like yours truly). But there’s a kind of understanding at work in all the tiny adjustments, an understanding which can’t be abstracted or automated precisely because it is a pattern of minute errors and recoveries. There’s no border between doing and thinking. And there’s a whisper, at least, of a different kind of society.