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On the Impulse to Fix Things

Elizabeth Spelman is a Smith professor of philosophy and women’s studies who asks a lot of questions and then looks for a lot of answers. She has explored such questions as, How do people perceive the suffering of others? And what are the problems of exclusion in feminist thought?

In her newest book, Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World (Beacon Press 2002), Spelman, the Barbara Richmond 1940 Professor in the Humanities, explores a core aspect of human activity: the impulse to fix things.

“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,” she writes, “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.”

At its core, the book urges its readers to think about the variety of repair that takes place in their own lives -- and how humans, as a species, judge what is possible to repair and what is irreparable.

Over the past several years Elizabeth Spelman has explored many of these topics with students in a first-year seminar called “The Work of Repair.” Selections from her new book follow.

On the Ubiquity and the Variety of Repair

The English language is generously stocked with words for the many preoccupations and occupations of H. reparans [the human being as a repair animal]: who 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?

On the Household as Repair Shop

In thinking about the household as a multipurpose repair shop, it’s important to consider not only the kinds of repair that are undertaken there, but also the kinds of discussions that take place, the lessons handed down, about the varieties of damage there are in the world, what one can or can’t, should or should not do about it. Indeed, there are implicit lessons, in civics, morality, economics, and politics that are passed on in household discussions and decisions about to whom one has and has not to apologize, whether and how one is responsible for damage to the environment, when a marriage or partnership has frayed beyond the point of repair, what kinds of repair it is deemed appropriate for men and women of one’s class or ethnicity to engage in.… Whether households are good or lousy at it, they are places where people are supposed to get prepared for lives as citizens, consumers, workers, moral agents, friends.

On September 11, 2001

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.” [Hal Broom, “Letters,” New York Times, November 10, 2001] 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 Repair.”

On the Irreparable and the Irredeemable

Homo reparans stalks the land. Humans seem everywhere and ceaselessly engaged in projects of repair -- nursing machines back to life, patching up friendships, devising paths of reconciliation for conflicting peoples.

But not everything that breaks can be fixed. The skills we repairing animals have to learn include the self-reflexive one of coming to grips with the limits of those skills and figuring out what to do in the face of the irreparable.…Our coming to grips with the reparable and the irreparable also is the scene of comedy -- of our bumbling attempts to undo damage -- and of tragedy -- of stark and hard-earned realization that the damage cannot be undone.

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