Sunday, March 26, 2006

Is Disposability Broken?

Brandon recently pointed to On the Mend by Richard Scruton. The piece raises questions about the practice of nostalgia which I'll sidestep to get to what really matters to my way of thinking, namely what Scruton says about wearing shoes. In Disposable Thinking I challenged the aptness of Mill's analogy of the ill-fitting shoes on the grounds that in the present world hundreds of millions of people do in fact have easy access to virtual warehouses full of shoes. Shoes here illustrate a problem of the customary, of symbolic forms, or of ways of thinking. The choice of example is not fortuituous. Wearing shoes is a common way of relating to symbolic forms, so the thinglike, economic or experiential aspects of wearing shoes are less likely to be glossed over than if we chose to examine, oh, Ravel's "Trio for piano, violin and cello," as performed in Claude Sautet's Un Coeur en Hiver, and all of the issues of character, tempo, feeling, routine, class, convention and expression and so on that are raised by perfomances of that work in that film. (It may be harder to gloss over certain realities than I am imagining--and yet it seems some silences are emphasized harder than others. Oh well.)

Scruton celebrates the culture of repair in contrast to the "throw-away culture" of cheap and shoddy goods. And so he introduces the cobbler in his neck of the woods, the "farming community" of Malmesbury.

In repairing an object you endow it with character; and when repair is the normal response to breakages, the final discarding is like a funeral. We still feel this about shoes, since they are shaped by our use of them, become friendlier with the years and are never seen as quite replaceable. Hence we still have cobblers - a few at least.

Ours, in Malmesbury, is a lover of shoes, who sees the soul in the sole, and the wearer in the worn. Shoes, for Mustafa, are the middle terms in human relations, objects of respect and signs of his own social value. He takes them from you with an intent, preoccupied smile, examines them and then lovingly describes first their defects, then the very great virtues - apparent to his expert eye - which justify the cost of mending them. And because he can live from his skills, and at the same time express himself through them, Mustafa is happy, as comfortable in an English farming community as he was in his Turkish village.

Mr. Mustafa's sense of human relations may in fact be even more nuanced than Scruton lets on. I wonder can Mustafa really live from his skills? I wonder how he feels about competition from K Shoes, or from online vendors, and how much of his business comes from making keys. Do cobblers in Turkey make keys too? But there do seem to be a great many doors in Malmesbury. And I wonder about the social composition of Malmesbury, which I understand to be pricey by comparison with other boroughs in Wiltshire, and yet not without the social tensions one associates with the metropolis. I wonder how much of Malmesbury's economy depends upon tourism? Religious pilgrims, history buffs, nudists, jazz fans, extra terrestials....

I really did mean to sidestep any business of nostalgia, and utopianism too for that matter, so I'll stipulate that Scruton has neighbors who live by farming and who cultivate a friendly relation with things, and that Mustafa repairs shoes for a living, expertly, and that together they all form a community that values harmonious relations between its members and with the Earth. Because there is an insight in this other notion of relating to things that I want to pick up on. "Shoes are shaped by our use of them," Scruton writes. Doesn't that provide firm footing for a healthy rejoinder to my little notion of disposable thinking? More pointedly Scruton writes "There is something ungrateful in the habit of throwing things away." Why, sometimes I feel the same way, and said as much, but that's only telling half the story. My skepticism about the class relations that inform suchlike sensibilities--which I might now broaden to include scepticism--should not be taken as an easy disdain of elite tastes and opinions, or much less an easy way of dismissing ideas I disagree with. These are also my attitudes, my tastes and opinions, or at least ones that I wear from time to time. I am invested in them, so I have an immediate interest in examining them to see if they're really fitting, to see if they need mending, or, indeed, as really does happen, even in farm country, replacing.

If one half of disposability is throwing things away, the other half is, naturally, using them. Disposability is the capacity to have a disposition towards things, or be disposed towards things, or, alternatively, the capacity of a thing to fit into our usual ways of relating to things, our dispositions. My well-worn Webster's gives as a first definition of "disposable": "free to be used as occasion requires; not assigned to any special use." I myself am too ambiguous of a character to imagine that a disposition must be either friendly or hostile, so Webster's definition suits me well enough. But, again, it's only half the story, the other half being what happens to things you can no longer use.

If friendly relations are better than inimical ones, if friendliness is a virtue and a key to happiness in life, then I'm not so sure disposability isn't at best a secondary kind of concern, insofar as it relates through things rather than directly with persons. I have a similar sense of unease regarding relations through all kinds of symbolic forms.

The symbol is, on its face, thrown together, indexing an originary brokenness. Does it call for repair? Necessarily? Under what circumstances? What significance can we attach to the aphesis that gives us the verb "to mend"? What to take away from the syncope that leads from "aphaeresis" to "aphesis"? How much of morphophonology is reducible to the work of habit, and how would we square such a view with ideas like language drift or simply structuration?

Again, the breakage of the symbol represents the flip side of its thrown-togetherness. Does our customary way of relating to symbols favor one side over the other? How is a symbol broken in? We have symbols. Abstractly, the relation of having is encoded in the phrase "symbolic form." Philosophy may have by and large discarded any connection between σχήμα (schema) and habitus, but in ordinary usage the business of forms is well understood. The form isn't simply a that which is, the shape or figure of an entity; rather the form is the giving and taking of shape, a temporary holding. The symbolic form is an ongoing reciprocity whose intermediary is having. The forgetting of the relational signified by the symbolic form begins with the hypostasization of the intermediary, which allows for the substitution of some other quality or item in place of having. Thus a condition of possibility for ingratitude, and, as well, higher order relations, procedures, typically asymmetrical, as the ability to conceal or reveal havings is put to strategic uses, delayed, stretched out, sprung and the like.

I find it's difficult to speak of what one actually has, and easy to speak of what one wants, so easy that most of the time we speak of wanting much more than we truly want. For instance, Fido's "farm country" is nestled cozily amidst a system of higher education. It conforms to something I might want to call home, not just yet perhaps, but before long. But right at this moment, what do I really have by way of a world?

"Signification precedes givens and illuminates them," Levinas argues (in Humanism of the Other). My awareness of Levinas, my ability to draw from (or draw away from) his thinking seems to be predicated upon my having a certain kind of world. But it's a bit shaky. Were I to separate the absolutely necessary from the contingent, the former might be represented by broad truths like language, the latter by a personal history of experiences, actions, feelings, decisions, moves. The real action takes place in the inbetween, and yet I can't begin to imagine the real as not having been given to possibility by my having a body, or the power of speech, or a world of experience. Going forward, does it really matter how this world has been constituted? Only inasmuch as it impacts what I can do, inasmuch as it gives form to the field of possibilities before me. I reckon "inasmuch" may be much more than I can concieve of, but I can't be rightly sure.

There's an attitude common among some academic disciplinarians that one ought not develop one's thinking on the basis of an uncertainty, that the only proper way to deal with an ambiguity is to clarify it, that imperfections must be perfected, contradictions must be resolved, and that other ways of handling ideas amount to nothing more than wordplay. It's an attitude I find myself adopting at times, but I also seriously value play, both as a method of learning and as an activity in its own right.

The chronotope of the blog gives greater room for play than does the scholarly monograph, but what the play of blogging signifies could have been signified in other ways. Indeed, it has been many times, albeit frequently from the margins of learned discourse. What the blog does is give focus to play, at the cost, perhaps, of rendering the blog peripheral to the culture of learning--for the time being.

Anyway, to answer my initial question, of course disposability is broken--originarily, and perhaps on its face as well. I daresay it isn't quite broken-in, but in a few regards its illuminations are perfectly ordinary, even dull--a terrible quality for the business end of a billhook, but a fine quality to have in shoes.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:20 PM.


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