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REPAIR by Elizabeth V. Spelman


The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World

by Elizabeth V. Spelman

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 2002
ISBN: 0-8070-2012-5
Publisher: Beacon Press

A slender meditation on the human urge to fix things.

Beginning with obvious types of repair to inanimate objects, Spelman (Philosophy/Smith; Fruits of Sorrow, 1997, etc.) muses on the occupational differences between an automobile mechanic, a vintage motorcycle restorer, and three painting conservators. In the first profession, the goal is the resurrection of machinery: an engine that runs, doors and windows that open and close. The motorcycle restorer, however, must replace damaged bits with authentic parts from the same make and model; a good restoration will result in a bike that closely resembles the original as it came off the factory floor. And the painting conservators engage in “invisible mending,” a process that must be reversible, well documented, and approved by both curator and artist. The author next turns to metaphorical repair, citing examples from the criminal-justice system, the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the enslavement of Africans in the US. Unfortunately, Spelman flits away from each example as soon as it is offered. In discussing the gas chambers at Birkenau, for instance, she offers no opinion as to whether the site should be fully restored, partially restored (just enough to halt deterioration), or allowed to fall into complete disrepair. Tackling intangible repairs (can Holocaust survivors be repaired and should they even want to?), Spelman raises a number of questions but examines none of them in depth. She mentions the tantalizing detail that in Japan there exists an aesthetic movement referred to as wabi, in which “visibly repaired teapots can be more beautiful than unbroken ones,” but does not explore this motif further. Another interesting point—that repair is at odds with a capitalist consumer economy—is also swiftly abandoned. Finally, her thesis that the urge to repair is universal constrains the author from meaningful exploration of culture or class.

Best read as an introduction to a more substantial work, would that we had one.