Iza Kavedžija, ‘Repair as Care: Fragments’

A drawing of a chair

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Repair (detail), 2024, by Iza Kavedžija. Charcoal and chalk on paper, tissue, thread. 

Bending backbreaking, struggling sight 

Sagging seat brought back to comfort

Held by string and love

Better than before

In a classic definition of care, Tronto and Fisher include ‘everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair our “world” so we can live in it as well as possible. That would include our bodies, ourselves and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex life-sustaining web’ (Tronto and Fisher 1990: 40). Through such work, worlds are left liveable. On the other hand, disrepair and ruination (Navaro-Yashin 2009) create atmospheres of abandonment and disquiet. In this short essay I would like to consider some of the qualities and affective discharges of the opposite processes: mundane maintenance and humble repair.  

Last summer, writing at my table in the shade, I fidgeted time and again. My old armchair no longer seemed comfortable, so I got up to stretch my legs and make a cup of coffee. When I came back, the chair was upturned like a helpless insect, safe in the hands of my father, who was winding and weaving smooth blue string under the seat, rebuilding its strength. 

If what gets valued in the predominant paradigms of late capitalism is productivity and creativity, it is no wonder that repair holds relatively little appeal. Yet I much prefer the old armchair to any new one that could have been offered to me as a replacement. Traces of the inalienable undergird the seat.

Sitting in the armchair more recently, I was reminded of numerous times when something I liked got broken or damaged – in childhood or just last month (a hairclip, a necklace or the sole of a favourite worn-out boot) – and I was knocking on my father’s study door with the damaged object in tow, knowing he will mend and make things good, one way or another.  These days, I could often do it myself, but I still prefer to ask for help, to be taken care of once again.

Describing the labour of people in a waste sorting facility in Jamshedpur, India, Sanchez (2020) draws attention to the satisfaction they are able to take from their work as they sort waste into still useable objects and useful parts, effecting a transformation of value. Sanchez argues that those activities that entail making something new, some form of creative action – which have long been related to a sense of meaningful work in the literature on craft (Sennett 2008; Marchand 2016) – should best be understood as a part of a broader category of transformative work. This allows him to attend to work satisfaction as a form of transformation of value, and opens up a possibility for understanding the appeal and satisfaction of labour that is less easily presented as creative. Value is a helpful framework for understanding repair as a form of care, and points to the reasons for the relative disregard of the non-transformative labour of maintenance in our social worlds. 

The aesthetics and politics of mending

Neither care nor repair are by default ‘good’ or positive (Graziano and Trogal 2019); both can be unstable and morally ambiguous (Cook and Trundle 2020). But they might also offer a basis for reconfiguring politics and ethics in the Anthropocene (Chatzidakis et al. 2020). How we decide what is worth repairing and maintaining (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017: 44), what can be left to fall into disrepair, and what objects and relationships are best replaced with something different, are all important political and ethical questions. 

At times, by mending things in visible ways (see also Bond et al 2013), objects are given a new lease of life. Good examples include visible stitching, patching and mending, and pottery repair like the Japanese art of kintsugi – fixing broken pottery with gold, not aiming to hide the imperfection. Kintsugi has gained international popularity and recognition in recent years, not least because of what it is taken to signify, in a broader, metaphorical sense, drawing attention to the aesthetics and ethics of repair: ‘breaking and mending can be an important part of the life of an object, adding to its beauty and meaning’ (De Silvey and Ryan 2018). New value is thought to emerge in visible mending, emphasising the creative aspects of repair. 

Not only are there different kinds of repair, ranging from ‘re-making’ or ‘up-cycling’ to the more mundane varieties, repair and maintenance have also been discussed as distinct, particularly with respect to their temporal orientations. ‘Repair is retrospective: it traverses the ground between past and present, seeking to restore order and function in the face of breakdown. Maintenance on the other hand is anticipatory and future oriented. It is concerned with what might go wrong, and what needs to be done so that function is preserved and future disruption is minimised.’ (Carr 2023: 226). I find this temporal distinction interesting and helpful, but at the same time, I find myself most interested in those forms of repair that closely resemble maintenance in their scale and inconspicuousness and intention: to make things as they were; to preserve. 

Humble repair, close to maintenance, is not so transformative, to return to Sanchez’s terms. It is possible, no doubt, to understand the qualities of care and maintenance, in their attempts to keep ‘entropy and chaos at bay’, as a kind of transformation (cf. Sanchez 2020); but I am interested in those cases when they are felt to be restorative, keeping the ‘transformation’ at arm’s length, as it were. Care and repair can be truly creative and transformative, the interventions unusual and outright flamboyant, leading to a sense of satisfaction. But the affective qualities of humble repair processes seem somewhat different. The joy (or relief) of humble repairs is in keeping things as they are, just a little bit longer. 

The value of keeping things going

My fathers’ eyesight has been failing, his retinas repaired several times. As I write this, he just came out of surgery again. His vision has been restored once more. 

For the women in a Mexican village with whom Julia Pauli worked, a key aspiration, particularly for many of the elders, was to keep things as they are a little longer, un poco más, striving to live a tranquil life (Pauli 2023:129, 138). The need to keep things going often feels imperative, urgent, much as care has been described as pressing (Held 2006: 11). Yet the efforts involved in maintaining social worlds are easily overlooked and undervalued. Maintenance ‘reminds us that a state of well-being is not so much accomplished as continually worked at and towards. Put another way, to maintain is not only to keep things as they are but also to keep them going’ (Hall and Smith 2011: 34). Care has long been compared to a form of repair and ‘tinkering’ (Mol, Moser and Pols 2010), requiring constant tweaking and maintenance. Repair, on the other hand, has been described as a ‘regime of practice’ (Graziano and Trogal 2019: 203) with potential for political transformation. It could also be argued that it is a practice which fosters a form of care-ful attunement to the world, based on the understanding that lives and worlds are fragile and in need of our constant attention and maintenance. 

A piece of paper with a hole in it

Description automatically generated
Repair (detail), 2024, by Iza Kavedžija. Charcoal and chalk on paper, tissue, thread. 

Iza Kavedžija is Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She specialises in the anthropology of Japan and has written on topics including meaning in later life, wellbeing and creativity. Recent book publications include Meaning in Life: Tales from Aging Japan (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019); Values of Happiness: Toward an Anthropology of Purpose in Life (University of Chicago Press, 2016); and The Process of Wellbeing: Conviviality, Care, Creativity (Cambridge University Press, 2021).


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