Saturday, September 12, 2009

Conceptual Framework

In this post I depart from Making things in the physical world (mostly) and throw my hat into the fray of competing ideologies. (That's a dirty lie, I'm sort of an academic and live much of my life in the fray of competing ideologies.) I'm also proposing that Making doesn't have to be brand new fabrication. Working with and altering existing physical things, or ideas, is entirely valid.

For a long time, I have been searching for a conceptual framework which can support, characterize and show the interconnectedness of the great variety of activist work which I support. As a committed anti-fundamentalist I support a lot of activism I don't necessarily fully agree with. Activists who are interested in the same goals fight a lot about which particular goal is the most important and which tactics are the best to use toward that particular end. While that's a good and valid conversation, it often gets far too bitter for the severity of the disagreements. If we can't celebrate diversity of opinion and belief in our activism, how will we celebrate diversity of opinion and belief in the world we seek to create?

Hmmmm. I got a little sidetracked. Hope that's not too onerous.

My point is that I want a framework for what I have seen described simply as "the movement" since we can't seem to agree what movement it is, but we all generally agree with each other. (Unfortunately this is one of those you-either-get-it-or-you-don't things. It should be clear by the end of the post. If you still don't get it I'll try to explain, but you have to tell me you don't get it first.)

Thankfully my friend Michael Tank presented, at the last California Student Sustainability Coalition Conference, an idea that E3, a student group at UCLA which Tank helped found, is based on. (Image left.) This is an elegant framework which I highly admire. It's phrased to have a nice ring to it when you read it out loud. It presents two of the main directions in activism as complimentary, with a single point of immediate contact and direct linkages in other work. It presents a wide variety of activist work as interconnected and complimentary and can allow activists to see each other as engaged in different fronts of a common cause rather than as competing. That's really important so I'm going to say it twice.

This conceptual framework has the potential to help activists working on separate things to see each other as engaged in different fronts of a common cause rather than as comp
eting for support and attention.

As amazing as this framework is, I see real problems with some of it's specifics. Particularly "Economy" as a goal. While some of us in the movement know what we mean by "Economy" we're not using the actual meaning of that word. Almost universally, we mean something very different than what the word 'economy' has been historically used to describe.

The term emerged in the Late 15th Century which corresponds to a significant period of enclosure of the English countryside which, in turn, was the primary accumulation which initiated capitalism in England. From there it spread throughout Europe. The term economy was coined in order to describe the management systems developed around facilitating this primary accumulation and constructing the scarcity necessary to develop a working class. In its most basic form "economy" refers to choice under scarcity.

Ok. Lemme unpack that a little bit. "Primary Accumulation" is the transfer of thing of value which are not privately owned, but rather held as common property, into private ownership. This is the creating of the capital necessary for capitalism to function. The scarcity we all take for granted, that allows the engine of the modern economy to function by requiring that we participate, was initially constructed by depriving the peasant and land tenant classes of their rights to use the land and make a livelihood from it, thereby transforming those who were agriculturalists into a working class. That artificial scarcity is maintained today in things like food and resource distribution inequalities and inconsistencies. What's key here, is that that very scarcity is constructed by a system which only operates when things are scarce. It is entirely possible to have a system in which scarcity is not a primary factor. (I'm drawing much of this from a lecture by a people's historian named Iain Boal. He does not maintain a web presence, but this is an interview he gave that touches on many of these same points.)

What is crucial here for the conceptual framework above is that in makes a system which requires false scarcity a goal. The "Economy" is, in its truest sense, a linchpin of the project of Modernity and conglomerated capitalistic society which those of us in the movement are fighting against. I will go so far as to say that as long as the economy remains, as long as a system of choice under scarcity is how goods and services are transfered, we cannot win.

Therefore, "Economy" cannot be a goal of this movement. But, for those of us who mean by "economy" something different than what economy actually is, what word can we use? What is that goal, and how can it best be described? I suggest "Ample." Ample does not have the advantage of being both a noun and an adjective, but I would much rather live an ample life than an economical life. I would much rather live in an ample world than an economical world. And, "Ample" expresses a clear goal which I think we can agree upon. We want to end the constructed scarcity and provide ample lives for everyone. Not opulent, not frugal, ample.

Also, and this is a much more, to my mind, minor quip, "Regeneration" is not quite right. The word means to recreate what was once there. I think has come too perilously close to romanticizing the past and perhaps slipped a little. I am not aware of any time in the past when people have lead generally equitable, ample and ecological lives. (I am, for the moment, dismissing some primitivist philosophies as excessive romanticization based on in
sufficient information.) Instead of "Regeneration" I am in favor of "Reformation." I recognize that the term reform is thrown around in government and industry too much, but I refuse to let them take words away from my vocabulary! Reformation means, among other things, "a radical change for the better" (SOED6). That is, I believe, what we want. Reasonably few of us want to burn down all of society and try again from a romanticized hunter-gatherer past. We want to root out the evils we see as evils and promote the good we see as good. We don't want to cut something off and regenerate it, we want to take what we have and reform it, radically change it for the better.

And so, I humbly present my change of two words to the model above. I changed the form of the Equity and Ecology to Equitable and Ecological so that all three Reformation words could share the same ring to the word, as they did before. I particularly like this model, and I believe that my tweaks add to it.

Though, my tweaks are not perfect. As my friend Tank mentioned when I first proposed Ample as an alternative to Economy, it looses the E3 meme value that way. To Tank, as a community organizer and designer of memes which will hopefully take hold of the imaginations of large numbers of people, this is a serious loss. To me, saying what I mean more clearly is far worth while, but I certainly see Tank as having a valid point.

In either case, what this framework does is organize disparate arms of the movement into something resembling agreement and mutual interest.

This project is substantially different than the Making I've posted about here before. This is a Making of the mind and of ideas, which is wildly different but no less (nor, I hasten to add, more) valuable than the Making of the hands and of possessions.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Making can be Functional (In fact, it always is.)

Long time no post. Sorry. I went on vacation and then had a mountain of shit to do. Hopefully relative normalcy will resume soonish.

A few weeks ago, just before I went on vacation, I built a dish dryer for my friend May. A wall mounted dish dryer, so his dishes could air dry without taking up precious counter space in his tiny studio. The idea for it came up with May's wishful thinking. We were talking about trying to organize his kitchen, and he exclaimed "If only I could put the dish dryer up here!" and gestured at the wall. Naturally, I said "I think you can." That was the beginning.

My plot for this dish dryer was to mount a rubber washtub to wall brackets and put the standard dish drying rack in that. The plan was simple to imagine and complex to execute, as many are. The most frustrating part came first, the hardware store.

I had to find some way to transition from the rubber tub (which had to be the right size for the dish drying rack available) to a drainage pipe and to attach the tub to brackets, all without leaking. The attachment to brackets was easy - rubber washers. The transition to a drainage pipe was not easy. The problem is that the intake needs to be basically flush with the bottom of the rubber tub, which is problematic, because it also has to lap over the top of the tub, or be welded to the bottom in a strong enough fashion to not pull out over time.

I did not want to fuss with PVC glue or some such, and so, after about an hour of pouring over plumbing parts, picked a vanity drain. That's the drain that goes in the bottom of your bathroom sink. The nice thing about this is that the intake has a top that can be made flush. The problem is that it's not in any way built for going on a thin rubber tub. That manifests in there being a good inch and a half that has to be filled by some sort of material for the vanity drain to be properly tightened (the intake is threaded with a bottom fitting). I decided to span that gap with large, 1 1/2 in, rubber washers. I'm not sure what those washers are supposed to be used for, maybe washing machines?

When I got back to May's place
the first order of business was to prepare the tub for installation. This required marking and drilling holes for bolting it to brackets, and cutting a larger hole for the drain, pictured here.

Naturally, it's never actually that simple. However, when the bolt packaging says "Use 3/8 drill" the hole I make with the 3/8 drill bit should be the right size. That is not asking too much! or, at least, it shouldn't be.

In any case, I eventually got all the holes the right size and got the vanity drain installed. The vanity drain was the hardest part. Cutting a big hole in the rubber tub was nerve wracking - one slip and I would at best cut myself and at worst ruin the tub. Spanning a 1 1/2 inch gap with stacked rubber washers is not exactly best practice, and the bottom of the tub is not the shape that vanity drains are made to fit into. Fortunately, the water coming off May's dishes isn't under pressure, so all this has to do is be the easiest path for water to follow.

Plumber's Putty is my dear friend. The bottom of the tub is curved in all kinds of entertaining ways. There were, after all the tightening I could do without starting to significant distend and abrade the walls of the tub, still a few gaps. Fortunately, I had thought ahead and put a ring of plumber's putty in before I tightened it all (ok, I lie, I took it apart and put plumber's putty in, but next time I'll know better).

Finally, I was ready to put the tube on that would go from the bottom of the vanity drain to the sink itself. This was, again, no easy task. The tube is clear vinyl piping, sized 1 1/2 in exterior 1 1/4 in interior. The outlet of the vanity drain is 1 1/2 in. The trouble is, you want the tube to lap over the outside of the drain. That way water just falls and, because there's no pressure, there's no need for a perfect seal. No such luck. The fix was to force the tubing inside the metal drain. This was quite a tight fit and took a fair amount of pushing and swearing to finally get in deep enough to satisfy me. (Quote me, I dare you.) To be sure the tube wouldn't slowly worm its way out I wrapped some duct tape around the joint. I also, with May's help, wrapped some leak-seal tape, which is basically just super sticky rubber tape, around the harder rubber gaskets that were in the vanity drain.

Finally, we were ready to attach the brackets. This was the easy part and was done with bolts, metal washers, hard rubber washers (for a water tight seal) and nuts. Like I said, easy.

It was then tested for water tightness in the bathroom and installed on the wall. I wanted to be sure to get one of the brackets in wood at the corner of the wall, because I REALLY did not want to be responsible for a load of dishes collapsing on May's head. The other bracket went into drywall. I tend to use screw type drywall anchors. The ones I used are rated to 50 lbs each, but I don't trust drywall to hold 50 lbs for long, no matter what you screw into it.

Finally, the tub to hold the dish drying rack was installed, the excess tubing cut off, and my work finished. If you look closely you'll see that the cupboard just to the right of the tub is too close to the tub itself. That cupboard door doesn't open well with the dish drying rack in it. However, if I moved the tub installation left far enough to put the left bracket into a stud he would have trouble opening his microwave. It's an imperfect solution for an imperfect space.

Oh, yeah, that weird looking kid there is me. My hair had about quadrupled in length since then.

So, how is this making? It received all the focus, passion and attention of any other making, was a lot of fun, and is an artefact, in the original sense of the word. It is a product of human art and workmanship. It is beautiful, in that it is well built for what it is and what it is made with, and it is useful, in that it fulfills a legitimate need in an appropriate way. Does that make sense to ya'll?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Trying to Express Making

I went to the Renegade Craft Fair in San Francisco last Sunday. It was a fascinating event. The throngs of consumers, of which I was a part, examining and buying from the booths of ostentatiously handmade, but often simply seller designed, wares was eye opening. First off, there was nothing 'renegade' about this event. (Renegade meaning a person who abandons their religion or principles.) There was an overwhelming abundance of cute ideas repeated ad nauseam until I thought I would have to set fire to the next flirty pop-culture reference t-shirt I saw. There were also a number of genuine artisans there who were selling great works. If I was really together I would publish some highlights. If folks actually care enough about my opinion to ask, I just might. It was a pretty mixed bag, but I was astounded by the amount of traction that some of these salespeople got for nothing more than cute designs. (Yes, a t-shirt you can write on with chalk is pretty cool, but how far do you expect to go on a one trick pony? - And, more to the point, how far will the public follow a one trick pony before they realize they've seen that one before!?) One more reason why I don't hold out much faith in humanity.

The Renegade Craft Fair, and indeed the entire Crafter/Maker/DIY community (I recognize I'm making a horrible overgeneralization. Deal with it.) challenges my ideas of what I'm doing here, particularly my very conscious decision not to try to integrate into one of the many DIY/Maker/Crafter communities out there. I see many examples of what I might consider Making, but not labeled as such by the creators. (Well, naturally, this is language basically nobody else uses.) Yet Making is more than at tool for separating the cute but stupid gimmicks from the work which is truly beautiful and useful.

The copout here is to call Making a "Design and Production Philosophy." This would be easy, and I could delineate many ways in which Making can be differentiated from other forms of creating. I don't need the exercise in ego gratification and I don't need to justify myself to whoever reads this blog. It might even be true to consider Making a kind of philosophy, but it allows, or even encourages, the positioning of Making in the familiar, and overused, realm of intellectuality (different from 'intellectualism' which is not only overused but becoming perverse). As a trained academic, having an intellectually defensible position is important to me. However, the intellect is not the only important tool in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. (Never mind hundreds of years of Western philosophy.)

When I am Making, the decisions and calculations that happen are not intellectual, indeed are hardly conscious. I work to tease out those decisions and the process of making them when I write here, yet the act of Making has almost nothing to do with conscious, intellect based thoughts. Though, in all fairness to my mind, once I decide what to do there is sometimes a fair amount of thought put into how to do it. This isn't the intellect deciding how to build a chair as much as it is the intellect evaluating which glues will hold the wood best after the proverbial gut has decided the design of the cain. Nevertheless, as my sainted grandfather told me, and my father has reminded me time and time again, people can rationalize anything. That is how this writing is made, as much as anything else, it is a process of rationalizing what were almost entirely irrational (here meaning without reasoning) decisions. Yet that need not imply nonsensical. Simply because my intellect was not crucial to my decision making does not mean that it was a poor decision (again, disregard popular Western epistemological beliefs).

The point here is two fold. First, Making, unlike much other work (at least, in my experience), is informed by, not lead by the mind. Second, and less obvious, is that any philosophy of Making will happen in exactly the same way that Making happens. It will emerge as if (or, for the mystic in me, literally) by divine intervention, may require some translation into what can be done, expressed and shared, but will emerge when ready. The language available to talk about our non-intellect based knowledge is impoverished. I am not sure that I do my thesis justice here.

Nevertheless, that struggle is very much of the purpose of this blog. To explore these ideas and present these thoughts as part of the process of Making an expressible understanding of Making.