Text by Matthew Kiem
[Presented at Making Time in Sydney, 2 March 2013. Part 2 of a split discussion. Read Part 1 by Abby Mellick Lopes here]
Making ourselves at home
Making is fundamental to what we are. We live within and by virtue of an ecology of made things, including buildings, infrastructure, clothing, images, objects, ideas etc. Making is also how we find a way of making ourselves feel at home amidst our world of made things. Making dinner, making the bed, making plans, perhaps even just making sense of things are each examples of how we exist by virtue of what we make.
By making changes within the world we find ourselves in, we also participate in creating the conditions that those who come after us will have to deal with. By looking back at this process we can take stock of our history. In looking forward we can see how our decisions either create or destroy different kinds of futures. Pushing this into philosophical territory, I think it is fair to say that making is also a certain way of both interpreting and creating our way of existing. We might not ordinarily think about it in these terms, but this does not detract from the significant role that making and made things play in our lives.
Making changes our most basic sense of understanding. Here I want to use the term ‘understanding’ in a more technical way than we are ordinarily used to, the meaning of which will hopefully come out with the help of a few examples. As an opening we might say that our understanding is our most ordinary, unremarkable, un-self-conscious sense of what we are, what other things in the world are, what we and other things could become, and what we and other things might already be in the process of becoming. In this sense, to talk about our understanding is the same as talking about how we and other things exist.
We can get a sense of this meaning of understanding if we consider how different epochs had their own distinct understandings. The ancient Greeks, for instance, lived with an understanding of gods, heros, citizens, slaves and barbarians. People in medieval Europe, on the other hand, lived with an understanding of a single God, the devil, saints, sinners, kings, knights, nobles, guilds, heathens and peasants. In contrast, modernity is, on the whole, much more secular and technocratic in its understanding, which we can see in the way we have scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, bureaucrats, consumers, voters, managers, and workers.
Importantly, the understandings of each of these worlds had its own materiality, a materiality that is not simply an afterthought but an active part of that understanding. The understanding of the ancient Greeks was cultivated through the mediums of amphitheatres, temples, stadiums, and wine jars decorated with stories of gods and heros, just as the medieval understanding was situated within a world of castles, churches, and Christian iconography. Equally, our offices, shopping centres, business suits, and televisions are at the same time both the result and the possibility for our understanding.
The connection between understanding and things throws into sharper relief the fundamental significance of making. Making proceeds according to a certain understanding of what is being made, how it is being made, and why. In practice, of course, this is always far more fine-grained and particular than any broad brush epochal description can indicate. Nevertheless, making re-produces the understanding within which it occurs. More importantly, the understanding that is re-produced through making is never a perfect copy of the understanding that initiates the making. Rather, the understanding that follows making will be one that has been changed by what it has learnt through the experience of making.
We can perhaps understand this most easily at the level of the individual maker. If someone builds a chair or cooks a meal, even if for this person these are otherwise mundane, ordinary activities, there is always some sense in which they are testing or refining their ability to manipulate materials and use equipment. Between the understanding that makes building or cooking possible, and whatever minor or major surprises occur in the act of making, there is a certain interpretation going on that leads to a slightly different understanding. This situation is comparable to when we might read a book for the first, second, or third time, and on each occasion observe something we did not notice in a previous reading. If we consider the change that follows from building, cooking or reading an improvement, we might see this as the development of a skill.
What things make
Making, therefore, both expresses and changes the understanding of the maker. Beyond this, however, making also brings things into being. The things that come from making are as significant to our understanding as the act of making itself. We can consider, for instance, how the understanding that makes a certain kind of building or cooking possible must already be an understanding of how to use things within a particular context. Drills, glue, nails, hammers etc. in a workshop, or pots, stoves, refrigerators, and knives in a kitchen. As mentioned above, the medium of our understanding is things, so some kind of thing-connected understanding must already be in play before we could even consider the possibility of making something new.
We can get an immediate sense of how understanding takes shape in relation to things by changing our material environment. In moving between offices, workshops or kitchens, we gain a more intense feeling of what might be possible at any particular moment. Sitting at a computer invites us to click and type. When holding a drill we feel more inclined to put a hole in something. For many of us it is hard to walk past a refrigerator without looking to see if there is something to eat, even if moments before we had no sense of being hungry.
Making occurs in the context of what has been made and proceeds according to the kind of understanding that made things make possible. Electric toasters create a new understanding of what it means to make toast that is very different from toasting bread over a flame. A kitchen with an electric toaster is a kitchen that presents different possibilities from one without an electric toaster, including the possibility of electrocution. Before we had an understanding that includes an assumption about the existence of toasters, a kitchen without a toaster would not just have been unremarkable, it would have been impossible to imagine. Today a kitchen without a toaster is capable of ruining someone’s breakfast plans. When we start to consider how all the things that surround us offers us a certain horizon of possibilities that did not exist before it was made, then we start to see just how much our ordinary sense of how things are, and how things could be, is literally a question of what we do or do not make. Therefore, by bringing a made thing into being, making can be seen as a way of changing the material medium of understanding well beyond the experience of any single maker.
Making, both in terms of how we make and what we make, is, therefore, fundamental to our understanding. But there is another way to think about this condition, one that relates more closely to the question of how we can either make or unmake a future for ourselves.
A made thing does not spontaneously appear out of nothing. Making always involves turning one thing into something else. Making, therefore, is always at the same time an act of unmaking. A simple example is how the making of a wooden table requires the use of timber that was once a tree, or how making a trip in the car uses up fuel. This relation of making to unmaking can also be seen to move in the opposite direction. Waste also can’t appear out of nowhere, meaning that it too has to be made. Waste is made out of the destruction of made stuff.
We have to make, but as a result we must also unmake. An ethical imperative that arises from this observation is to ensure that the things we make are of greater value than whatever is destroyed in the process of their creation. The task of assessing the value of what is made and what is destroyed is of course a question of judgement. But within the context of the destruction of our future, another way of thinking about what unsustainability means, this question of judgement is something that we will have to learn to confront. If we don’t, the horizon of our future will continue to recede towards our present moment.
The problem of unsustainability is that we do not have an understanding that allows us to make good judgements about what should be made and unmade. A response to this condition may be to return our focus to making, but not simply as something we ordinarily do. Rather, we need to rethink making as a practice with the potential to remake our understanding into something futural. We need to see making as part of a conscious cultural project with its own kind of political focus.
If making is a way of interpreting our existence through the use of made things, the quality of what is made should be of key concern. We might compare this with literary culture. A strong literary culture needs both great works and community of skilled readers who are able to disclose to themselves and to others exactly what makes great works great. The works may be difficult. They would probably take a lot of time and experience to write and read. But in the effort that is made to sustain the culture a much richer depth of understanding is potentially developed.
In the same way we need to develop a culture of well-made things, which would also include skilled makers and knowledgable users. We need people who can ‘read’ the materiality of things in an involved way, learning what different things are capable of and using that understanding to disclose the greatness of well made things. These things would not be great in the sense being iconic. They might very well be ordinary, everyday things like hammers, shoes, or cups. They would be great because despite perhaps being more expensive or initially difficult to use, by interacting with them they would teach us to care for and value them, and allow us to achieve a richer understanding of the made world and how it helps to sustain futures. In this way we would not only learn to sustain things themselves, but also an entirely new culture of understanding.