Friday, April 29, 2005

Bodies of Knowledge

Ann has a wonderful post in her recent archives about how mediated our experience of beauty is, given the prevalence of affordable style, in the form of Target, or Martha Stewart, or Pottery Barn, or wherever. Ann says, "What happens when beauty becomes the norm instead of the ideal? Personally, I turn away from mass-produced and towards as handmade as possible."

Which brings to mind a conversation some of the Friday Night Irregulars had last week. All four of us have, or have significant access to, a multitude of bodies of knowledge--cooking and baking, hunting, making music, sports (playing more than watching), needlework (including embroidery, needlepoint, knitting, and sewing, that I know of), writing, drawing/painting, software design and building, and gardening. We also know people who are farmers, mechanics, carpenters, secretaries, and painters, as well as people who are professors, doctors, and lawyers. S threw out the phrase "embodied knowledge," which made me think of all the ways that we judge how a job has turned out, what needs tweaking or fixing of some kind, how we diagnose what's wrong. S talked about how knowledge gets communicated in a scientific lab. B pointed out (as Kurt Vonnegut did in Player Piano) that mechanization will get you to some places, but also eliminate possible destinations. I talked about how my brother the mechanic often gets called in on the most difficult diagnoses, the ones that require mechanical knowledge and expertise, rather than the problems that the computer can diagnose when you plug the car into it. J, in addition to being an organizer of several sorts, is the embodiment of institutional knowledge at an academic institution--she knows where the bodies are buried, and who put them there, as well as how to get simple (or complex) things accomplished within the sphere of overlapping bureaucracies and little fiefdoms. And then of course, are the other things we all know: J and I both do a lot of needlework; all of us are pretty good cooks, and I'm a good (and, I hope, about to become a better) baker; B goes hunting and actually brings back food; all of us work out in some way; S, B, and I all play sports, and I practice yoga. I've long wanted to learn to weave, and make pottery.

But, increasingly, these arts (or crafts, if you want), these embodied knowledges, are becoming rare. Why bake bread when you can get a crusty loaf from the bakery, or the grocery store? Why hunt your meat when you can get it packaged in cellophane? Why make hundreds of thousands of tiny stitches on a scrim when you can go buy a print? Why make a pie crust when you can buy one from Trader Joe's? Hell, why make a pie at all? (I realize, in some ways, I'm arguing against myself: If I'm going to open my own bakery, I'd damn well better hope that everyone doesn't learn to make their own.)

You (or I, anyway) can't really argue against the quality of the product, just as Ann doesn't really argue against the beauty of the items--many high-quality, beautiful things are available, at least in our society, and many are broadly affordable, at least to the (shrinking but still sizeable) middle classes. (Here's another thought: Who makes things by hand? Poor people, who can't afford to do anything else, and very rich people, who can get other people to make things for them.) So what's the value of these things, of this embodied knowledge?

Some of it, for me, is the intrinsic pleasure I take in the actual making, and I've tried (and actually succeeded) in communicating some of that pleasure to the stepkid. Some kinds of knowledge really have to be embodied, really cannot be mechanized--think of some of the building craftspeople, the stonemasons and the like, whose arts are dying out as the last practitioners die--and I like to think that I'm engaging in a little preservation effort of my own. But Ann touches on some of it, too: "Problem is, the eye's thought process has itself been influenced--one might say mediated--by contemporary culture all over the place. It's what makes a knit scarf from the Gap appear beautiful, even perfect, while a scarf knit by your friend is full of gaps and twisted stitches and is therefore amateurish. The surface becomes more important than anything holding it up."

And that's exactly the point. If we let it, if we don't allow ourselves to embody knowledge, then the surface does become more important, even as we struggle, individually, and, perhaps, collectively, to not be ONLY surface. We--or, at least, I--want to have something holding us up, I want us to be able to hold ourselves up, with something other than shiny pretty things.


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