The Problem with Kintsugi as a Self-Improvement Metaphor

This week a student in Erik Scollon‘s “Craft as Social Justice” course truly inspired me with her project on the ethics and aesthetics of mending. She used the ceramic gold-mending technique kintsugi as her central inspiration for a call to action that challenges her audience–artists and amateurs alike–to deploy their ingenuity to preserve and hokintsugi-process-ti-the-cleaned-seams-front-by-pomax-flickr-ccbyncsa-04apr2015nor well-worn objects.

I spent much of the afternoon reflecting on ways I could apply this metaphor to my own life, highlighting and respecting inevitable cracks and fissures–in my own body, relationships, possessions, sociopolitical institutions–rather than attempting to conceal, reject, or ignore them. Kintsugi is about fixing things, yes, but it’s also about identifying ruptures and filling them with beauty.

As a digital storytelling activist I help people reclaim personal experiences, often tender ones, remaking them as attentively crafted, durable narratives. The tellers weave together fragments of memory stored in old photographs, crinkled love notes, scuffed boots. We call it storywork but it is also a form of kintsugi. Piecing together the past. Healing an old wound by telling the tale of the scar.

It is so natural, so tempting, to adopt kintsugi as a metaphor for living better in the new year ahead. But there are so many ruptures all around us. If we were to spend each day finding one precious thing and mending it we would never have time to make something new. And most precious things cannot be mended in a day. And mending doesn’t happen just once, especially not if the thing is returned to use. And preservation is about how we use things, not just about how we mend them.

So I wonder if perhaps what kintsugi is teaching me (today at least) is to focus not on the fissures or on the mending but on the gold. Perhaps the metaphor I need is that of beauty–or better yet, craftsmanship itself–as a way to bring people and things together.

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If All You Have is a Hammer . . .

OCU Campus Legends

Mallet

The first day of our Liberal Arts Seminar I said Cardinal Newman’s philosophy of liberal learning boiled down to one thing: his concern that if all we have is a hammer everything will look like a nail.

To make this lesson memorably multimodal I passed around one of my own hammers from home. OK, it wasn’t really a hammer; it was a heavy rubber mallet. (Seemed less freaky for a first day of class.)

As a hardcore do-it-myselfer I get a lot of use from that mallet so I confess I had mixed feelings presenting it as a symbol of limited imagination. In truth, I have done some fairly creative problem-solving with that mallet.

Here’s the thing: if all you have is a hammer, you can potentially become extremely skilled with the hammer. You might hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening, building up your 10,000 hours with…

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Steampunk, Dewey & Schon

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Volume 17 of Make magazine has a steampunk theme and the subtitle: “Rediscover Lost Knowledge.”

Steampunk literature is basically science fiction that takes place during the Industrial Revolution (typically in Victorian England or the U.S.), so this volume is basically Jules Verne Meets MacGyver.
This isn’t a literature journal; it’s a “maker” journal, a journal for people who make stuff, usually with technology (old and new). Its sister journal (gendered pun somewhat intended) is Craft, an equally ingenious journal for people who make stuff that’s (mostly) pretty. Both are brilliant artifacts of the Do It Yourself trend. What makes them brilliant is their editorial vision. And the writing. [Making Stuff] contextualized.
Cory Doctorow‘s essay in Make:17 explains the kinship between today’s Makers and those of the Taylorized/Fordized 19th century. His explanation intrigues me because I’m so accustomed to hearing today’s “post-Fordist” workers described as basically continuing to bear the ironic legacy of faceless specialization–one in which most workers are viewed as replaceable (as replaceable as off-shore customer service reps or as adjunct professors of freshman composition).
Our specialization should make us distinctive, no? We become experts at one thing, highly trained, in-demand. And yet in many ways that narrow and specific expertise becomes our undoing.
Hence the value of liberal arts education.

And yet there too specialization breeds replaceability and anonymity for most.

Anyhoo . . .
Doctorow’s essay, “Love the Machine, Hate the Factory” gives us hope. He says steampunk “celebrates the elaborate inventions of the scientifically managed enterprise but imagines those machines coming from individuals who are their own masters”–people who now have the resources to make complex stuff from start to finish, as artisans.
As artisans.
As artists.
What if the arts-integration movement acknowledged artisans as well as “artists” (i.e., those trained in the Fine Arts tradition)?
What if higher education in general took an artisanal approach? Sure, in some ways it does: graduate students dig deep and write much within their discipline. But few experience a true apprenticeship. RA-ships sometimes achieve this; undergraduate research programs attempt to give this experience to some students. Generally speaking, few scholarly apprenticeships or practica  exist. Experiential education, internships, service-learning–these are ways that a discipline’s craft might be experienced. But “craft” isn’t taught much or discussed much outside of programs in (wait for it . . .) the Arts.
In Art as Experience John Dewey says that the product of any given artistic discipline–the dance, the sculpture, the song–is given so much attention that people utterly misunderstand the work as a work. As a process. As the culmination of training and resources and context and experience.
I see that happening in arts-integrated teaching as well.
I also see that happening in most teaching. And in the assessment of teaching.
But this blog isn’t about the old “product versus process” debate (didn’t I sort of write a dissertation on that?) so much as it is about ways of knowing and about my quest to learn more through and about creative work.
Donald Schon, the guru of critically reflective practitioners, found that students often can’t articulate what they’re learning. When required to reflect upon their learning experience in a pilot practicum, many students did not. Schon concluded that perhaps they could not because they hadn’t done it before; they lacked prior experience reflecting on their own learning (Educating 342). I’ve seen this in my own classes as well, where I ask students to write short reflections on their weekly learning experiences. What I’m coming to hypothesize is that while the assessment-and-accountability movement demands increasing verbalization and quantification of learning, we still need non-verbal methods of expressing what’s been learned and what’s being learned.
This gets tricky in a culture that sees only professional art as worthwhile and amateur art as merely arts-and-craftsy kids’ stuff. Unless the DIY movement manages to change that.
I’ve begun making more things as a way to learn more about material rhetoric and about other things that matter to me. I trust the process and I know enough about cognition to recognize that the associative and imaginative connections I’m making are enabling me to learn deeply from this experience. I want to share this experience with my students but must find ways to ensure they value this process themselves when so much around us sends the message that making stuff is just a trendy or busy-work activity that mimics what “real” artists do but that can’t possibly be as real or as intellectually valid as professional work.
What I want the experience to be is transformative, not peripheral or trendy. I want the work to shift my students’ self-concept to that of a Maker, a Creative. Her own master.
Image source: steampunk-space-helmet by Foxtongue