Between Technological Utopia and Broken World Thinking: The Elevation of Repair

By Gabriele Oropallo.

In the last five decades the urge to manufacture and consume in a sustainable fashion has acquired an increasingly imperative tone. This period has seen the articulation of a number of recipes for a kind of development with a manageable impact on social structures and nature. The resulting discourse has been phrased mostly in the future tense. Visions are presented as prospective success stories, and their effective impact often goes unscrutinized.

There are calls for a greater share of responsibilities to be placed upon individual behaviour. In 1968 the ecologist Garrett Hardin deplored the individual will to survive, thrive, and breed for what he called the “tragedy of the commons:” the depletion of common resources and overexploitation of the environment. Two years later, in a text called “Everybody’s Guilty,” Hardin explicitly singled out technology and design and blamed them for being too successful, for their very success created the conditions for overpopulation through indiscriminate development. This emphasis on the responsibility of the individual translates into the indictment of uninformed consumption patterns for the radical changes caused by mechanization of creation and consumption to environment and social structures. When the past is closer in time, the impact of change sounds louder. The same emphasis on the individual also informs a number of proposals for alternative design practices. The elevation of repair to a countercultural practise is one of them.

Repair offers a good entry point to those whose agenda has the ambition to critically review the shape of social relations. It is a practice that engages with the existing manmade environment and the very pace at which things emerge in an immediate manner. Repair, understood as the never-ending struggle to make things work, is a universal empirical strategy. Yet there is a difference between the practice of repair by individuals and communities where thrift and austerity is a necessity, and those who are in the position to choose it from a range of alternative solutions to a perceived state of brokenness. Repair as a countercultural practice is mobilization. Mobilization of human and non-human actants. And the requirement for effective mobilization is the state of emergency. Once set in motion, emergency and mobilization are parallel processes that fuel themselves. Their gestation and birth grow less visible as they become more distant in time.

Phrased in a language of emergency, sustainability finds itself now filling that slot. Conceptually it functions in manner similar to that of modernization about a century ago, and the change of paradigm is only superficial. The terms of the relation between humans and their environment are only reasserted, and in both instances it is a case of hubris. The modern man aspired to hold the monopoly on agency, and to be in control of his environment through technology. Modernization was a preemptive narrative of success. The sustainable man now is already assumed to be in control of nature and its future. Otherwise she and he would not even be conceived of as in the position of being able to direct the course of complex phenomena, and ultimately rescue the planet. Like in a theology, failure to follow a set of sanctioned practices is socially frowned upon. Strict adherence instead informs the way subjectivities are shaped – the way through which “bare life” is transformed and validated into “good life,” to use Giorgio Agamben’s terminology. The sustainability imperative tends to eschew scrutiny. Dialectics, which is the very engine of historical change at its most elementary degree, winds up being curbed.

Repair cultures, like object afterlives, have historically received less attention in design culture than other stages of the design process. One tends to read and speak more often about the drawing board, the production line, the building site, or the shop shelf. Meanwhile, in an rhizome-like fashion, repair activism has been growing in the crevices of design culture, until the current, seemingly permanent financial crisis has invested it with new visibility. Worldwide repair networks now exist, and they are vocal in their political ambitions. Repair becomes a metaphor of social renewal. Its conceptual content is lifts it from the workshop and the toolbox into the realms of ethics and moral. There is a genealogical connection between repair activism and those social movements historically associated with enough-ness, sustainability, and self-sufficiency. A marker of this historical relation is the similarity in discourse with Buckminster Fuller’s theory of “comprehensive design,” which urged individuals to learn from industrial technology to tame, highjack and repurpose it, instead of rejecting it.

Besides this technological approach, there is another way to phrase repair activism that one could call anarchic yet conservative. It assumes an idyllic past when people possessed the material knowledge to live in harmony with their material world, and the skills to build their dwellings, and grow their food. William Morris imagined the inhabitants of his Nowhere utopia taking a swim through the crystal clear waters of an urban river, before heading back to their workshops to create and maintain artefacts that could endure the test of time. These are compelling images, but they also assume history to follow a course that goes from a perfect past to imperfect present. The subtext is that the present has to mended because it is imperfect. This nostalgia is fraught with unspoken meanings. This kind of conservatism erases conflicts and problems that were already present in the past. Such an understanding of repair always risks disempowering its world-making quality because it appropriates it into a narrative of reinstating a broken balance. But that stable harmony is the contrary of history. Without dialectics, thesis and antithesis, there would be no development.

There are now enough conceptual grounds to forecast the emancipation and even liberation of any object, regardless of its degree of brokenness. They come from very different directions, such as Graham Harman’s study of the condition of Tool-Being, and Jane Bennett’s invitation to acknowledge the vitality of all matter. In our language and imagination we continuously humanize objects. They possess thing-power. They are the subjects of verbs like working, moving, living and dying. In fact, what we are implicitly admitting through our words is that intentionality is something distributed, because to accomplish a task we need the human and the material elements on equal terms. So to speak, also a door must actually want to let you in to give way when you push it.

There is an empathic approach to repair, comparable to the work done by the designers associated with Slow Technology, or the Broken project at Cornell University. This approach can be also called ethnographic because it engages with the broken subject in a dialogic manner, on a par. The act of repair becomes an occasion to tinker with the material environment one is born into. An occasion to make time instead of silencing it. A broken thing is a chance to design and engage with functions and materiality. If we refuse to engage with design, then we accept design to be imposed upon us in a top-down manner. Brokenness should not be considered a nuisance, a burden to get rid of and consign to the dustbin, an all too fictional oblivion. This tinkering is forward-looking, it is pervasive, it is the fuel to the very engine of history. A never-ending process of trial and error.

The “dispositif,” or apparatus is that concept Michel Foucault and later Giorgio Agamben used to speak about the connection between individuals and their material environment. It literally refers to an arrangement of the parts. Apparatuses are not only objects, they are every thing people assemble, be material or immaterial. From a word to a political system. When in use, the apparatus functions as a mould that creates its subject. But at the same one also continuously struggles with the existent to change that mould and readapt it. The passive subject wants to be an active subject. And a moment of brokenness is exactly the moment when one has the opportunity to rearrange things, and rephrase their interaction with the world. Without brokenness there would be no entropy. It would be the end of history.