Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World

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9780807020128: Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World

The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World Like Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, an exploration of a powerful but often overlooked aspect of the human psyche: our ability and instinct to fix things From clothing that develops holes from long use to fraying relationships, we seem constantly to be repairing in a breakable world.

We fix things around us all the time, without giving it much thought. But looking hard at this work makes us ask why we do it and what we're trying to achieve. When does restoration destroy the value of an object? Who in your
house is more likely to fix the faucet? The relationship? When shouldn't you accept someone's apology? From fixing cars and restoring motorcycles, to women as the menders in our lives, to restorative justice as a way to heal
societies fractured by civil war, Spelman guides us across a fascinating terrain that is both highly personal and common to us all.

Repair illuminates a familiar yet mysterious instinct, and makes us see that our work as Homo reparans is vital, creative, and above all underappreciated.

Elizabeth Spelman is professor of philosophy at Smith College and author of Inessential Woman (Beacon / 6745-8 / $17.00) and Fruits of Sorrow Beacon / 1421-4 / $14.00). She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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About the Author:

Elizabeth V. Spelman is professor of philosophy at Smith College and author of Inessential Woman and Fruits of Sorrow. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Introducing Homo reparans

The Human Being is a repairing animal. Repair is ubiquitous, something we
engage in every day and in almost every dimension of our lives. Homo
sapiens is also Homo reparans.
Perhaps the most obvious kinds of repair are those having to do
with the inanimate objects with which we surround ourselves—the clothes
calling out for mending, the automobiles for fixing, the buildings for
renovating, the works of art for restoring. But our bodies and souls also are
by their very nature subject to fracture and fissure, for which we seek homely
household recipes for healing and consolation, or perhaps the expert
ministrations of surgeons, therapists, and other menders and fixers of all
manner of human woes. Relationships between individuals and among
nations are notoriously subject to fraying and being rent asunder. From
apologies and other informal attempts at patching things up to law courts,
conflict mediation, and truth and reconciliation commissions, we try to
reweave what we revealingly call the social fabric. No wonder, then, that H.
reparans is always and everywhere on call: we, the world we live in, and the
objects and relationships we create are by their very nature things that can
break, decay, unravel, fall to pieces.
Our reparative repertoire is vast, something readily and richly
attested to by sources ranging from Reader's Digest stories about legendary
handymen to essays in professional philosophy journals on the ethics of
environmental restoration; from Dave Barry's send-ups of men's delusions
about their superior repairing skills to legal treatises weighing monetary
reparations against the work of truth and reconciliation commissions;4 from
The You Don't Need a Man to Fix It Book: The Woman's Guide to Confident
Home Repair to Tikkun, the journal emblazoned with the Hebrew phrase
tikkun olam, to repair the world. Newspapers and magazines provide a
steady stream of reports on the vast variety of projects and problems awaiting
H. reparans: former President Bill Clinton has "a reputation to salvage,"
though he and former Vice President Al Gore are said to have "patched up
their tattered relationship."6 Citizens in Cincinnati, Ohio, are working
on "repairing civic morale" in response to heightened racial tensions. A team
of conservators at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has successfully
met "one of the biggest challenges of their profession: how to repair,
seamlessly, a large-format, basically monochromatic canvas" (Barnet
Newman's Cathedra). Consumer Reports regularly offers advice on whether
to "Fix it or nix it," "Fix it or sell it." The wide range of responses to the
horrible wounds inflicted on September 11, 2001, bear solemn witness to the
sheer variety of H. reparans' capacities: The twin towers can neither be
repaired nor restored, but as the president of the Historic Districts Council of
New York City sees it, whatever is done at the site "must reweave the
damaged threads of fabric that terrorism sought to tear apart, and create a
sense of place that fills the void and honors the losses of Sept. 11." In one
issue alone of the New York Times Magazine, there were stories devoted to
the tasks of "mending a psyche" and of figuring out "how to put the family
back together." An op-ed essay by former Secretary of the Treasury Robert
Rubin on September 30 described "A Post-Disaster Economy in Need of
H. reparans also can be found wondering whether sometimes it
isn't the better part of wisdom to leave the flaws, the fragments, the ruins,
alone: Restorers of Gone With the Wind had to decide whether a flaw in the
original should "be fixed or retained as an intrinsic part of the original
masterpiece"; echoing the fate of Humpty-Dumpty, a political columnist
counsels her readers, "You don't have to be abused or betrayed to have a
bad marriage—a marriage that cannot be fixed, even with the help of all the
therapists on the Upper West Side, or all the preachers in Louisiana." A
sticker on the bottom of a painted floor mat instructs users, "Over time, you
may notice slight yellowing or cracking. These imperfections are consistent
with the nature of hand-made mats and are NOT considered flaws, but rather
a normal part of the life and character of these mats."
The English language is generously stocked with words for the
many preoccupations and occupations of H. reparans: repair, restore,
rehabilitate, renovate, reconcile, redeem, heal, fix, and mend—and that's the
short list. Such linguistic variety is not gratuitous. These are distinctions that
make a difference. Do you want the car repaired, so that you can continue to
commute to work? Or do you want it restored, so that you can display it in
its original glory? Is a patch on that jacket adequate, or do you insist on
invisible mending, on having it look as if there never were a rip to begin with?
Should that work of art be restored, or simply preserved? Why do some
ecologists want to preserve an environment rather than try to repair the
damage done to it? Does forgiveness necessarily restore a ruptured
relationship or simply allow a resumption of it? What does an apology
achieve that monetary reparations cannot—and vice versa? What was
thought to be at stake for citizens of the new South Africa in the contrast
between restorative justice and retributive justice—between the healing
promised by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the punishment
exacted through an adversarial court system?
As crucial as such distinctions are, the family of repair activities
shares the aim of maintaining some kind of continuity with the past in the
face of breaks or ruptures to that continuity. They involve returning in some
manner or other to an earlier state—to the bowl before it was broken, to the
friendship before it began to buckle under the weight of suspicion, to the
nation before it was torn apart by hostility and war. Even though taking
superglue to the bowl repairs it without fully restoring it to its preshattered
condition, both repairer and restorer want to pick up a thread with the past.
Their work appears to involve something distinctly different from the original
creation of the bowl, but also from its accidental or deliberate destruction, its
abandonment, or the serendipitous retrieval of its shards for flowerpot filler. In
a similar fashion, there is a difference between putting a friendship back
together and simply letting it hobble on, decisively ending it, or making a new
friend altogether.
In short, as varied as the activities of H. reparans are, they appear
to be notably different from other kinds of relations to or attitudes toward the
past. Creators start anew, they do not repair what already exists (though we
shall find reason to question too neat a distinction between creating and
repairing); destroyers want to get rid of what's there, not rescue it;
noninterferers neither help nor hinder, simply allowing things to degenerate or
decay; replacers figure it's not possible or worth it to repair; bricoleurs collect
and make use of pieces of the past but do not try to return them to an earlier
Repair wouldn't be necessary if things never broke, never frayed,
never splintered or fell to pieces—or if we didn't care that they did. A world in
which repair was not necessary would either be filled with unchanging
unbreakable eternal objects (a version, perhaps, of Plato's world of Forms) or
a junk heap, things, people, and relationships abandoned when they no
longer functioned in the requisite manner. To repair is to acknowledge and
respond to the fracturability of the world in which we live in a very particular
way—not by simply throwing our hands up in despair at the damage, or
otherwise accepting without question that there is no possibility of or point in
trying to put the pieces back together, but by employing skills of mind, hand,
and heart to recapture an earlier moment in the history of an object or a
relationship in order to allow it to keep existing.
H. reparans has been known to take great satisfaction in
exercising the capacity to repair, and pride in what the result of such
exercise can do for broken-down cars, torn retinas, and frayed partnerships.
Indeed, sometimes we take greater pleasure in having a well-repaired object
than an unbroken one, prefer (if we're lucky enough to have options) living in a
neighborhood of renovated houses to one in which the buildings are all
spanking new, enjoy a friendship that has known apology and forgiveness
more than one protected from the risks of being rent. We seem at least
sometimes to welcome the sentiment that things are stronger in the broken
At the same time, a voracious appetite for fixing can lead to poor
judgment about what is and is not desirable or even possible to repair. Pride
in our repairing abilities may push us into believing that whatever has been
broken can be and ought to be fixed. Recognition of occasions on which
such a belief is wrongheaded can provide, on the one hand, comic relief: "I
was able, thanks to my experience as a homeowner and my natural
mechanical sense, to get pieces of insulation deep into my nose." On the
other hand, tragic grief over irreparable loss—for example, the death of a
child—reminds us of how much there is that cannot be undone, how
thoroughly inappropriate the confidence that there is nothing that can't be
fixed. Indeed, some scholars of ...

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