On repair

A beautiful short film has been produced by MadeGood films on “The Art of Repair”. It captures the trade and ethos of people who repair various objects – instruments, cars, electricals and upholstery – and reflects traditions of making old items new again and countering built-in obsolescence.

Richard Sennett dedicates a section of his book, Together: the rituals, pleasures & politics of cooperation to repair. He notes there are three ways to perform repair:

  • Restoration: making a damaged object seem just like new
  • Remediation: improving its operation
  • Reconfiguration: altering it altogether

Restoration is relatively straightforward: in making something as it once was; it is the business of the craftsmen of “The Art of Repair”. 

Remediation is far more interesting. Sennett concludes that it

challenges the repairer to consider different means to achieving the same end.

Remediation is therefore a process by which the function of something is maintained whilst the elements of the form it takes can be changed. To do this requires two types of judgment: the first to know what alternatives can replace existing parts, the second to know how resilient the object being repaired is and so how much change it can take before it becomes something different or breaks.

Sennett calls reconfiguration the most “radical” kind of repair. In such cases the breaking of the object presents an opportunity to create a new object, in both form and function. As there are two judgments in undertaking remediation well, so there are two risks in reconfiguration: curtailing the room for exploration by being too specific in what the reconfiguration should achieve, or forgetting what the problem to be solved was in the first place.

Repair – and particularly remediation and reconfiguration – offers a useful frame for considering a range of issues. A natural one to think of is some type of public service.

If a service is subject to remediation, then the purpose and aim of the service may still hold but the means by which this is achieved need to change. In undertaking this change there is a need for knowledge on what alternatives there are, how effective they might and whether, politically and Politically, the location of the change is resilient enough to consider the alternatives and act sufficiently well on them.

If a service is subject to reconfiguration, there is recognition that what currently exists isn’t working, and so there’s a need for something different. In this case, the two general risks of reconfiguration translate as follows. First, too much of what anything new should look like can be specified in advance. Many would argue the commissioning-procurement-provider triangle does precisely this, resulting in rigid contractual relationships that sometimes hit the target but regularly miss the point. Second, forgetting what aim a service exists for can be forgotten in favour of maintaining the service. The service is the means and end in itself, and its aim – and the people it serves – can be forgotten.

To give an example of repair and public services, many engaged in debates on the health reforms of the last 3 years may find meaning in Sennett’s own conclusion on repair:

An incoherent repair can provide the sensation of change but may sacrifice the value of the initial act of creation.

I, too, found much in one of Sennett’s earlier paragraphs – relevant, I think, to social movements and campaigning:

In fighting against resistance we will become more focused on getting rid of the problem than on understanding what it is; by contrast, when working with resistance we want to suspend frustration at being blocked, and instead engage with the problem in its own right.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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