A Degree in Repair?

Tom Lee
6 min readJun 3, 2019

A Degree in Repair?

The twentieth century saw the emergence of many new academic disciplines, across fields ranging from design, to business, to environmental science. The emergence of new disciplines is a story of implicit or scattered knowledges coming together as explicit, integrated models of learning. For example, while mercantile and designerly activities have been with humans throughout history, it was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that these practices became formalised as disciplines in business and design.

In this series of short articles, I begin imagining what a new degree in the discipline of Repair might look like. I’m very keen to have suggestions and criticisms offered while the process remains in its formative stages: Are there any subjects you’d imagine would be core to such a degree? What are the implications for existing disciplinary divides? What essential knowledges in medicine, microbiology, engineering, health sciences, architecture, design, literature and the social sciences might be important in such an offering?

Disciplinary precedents: Design and Repair

One might be forgiven for thinking ‘design’ and ‘repair’ were antonyms. The former word has become so bound up with notions of newness, improvement and innovation (think: ‘the latest design’) that it emphatically signals its difference from the seamful, restorative connotations of the repair. If repair is hessian and twine, design is steely uniformity. While repair is ongoing and cyclical, design is about creative genius and finish (here retaining the twin meanings expressed by ‘finish’ as an act of completion and surface). To design is to conceive and complete, to repair is to make do.

In the Australian context, repair evokes the at once fatalistic and hopeful idiom, ‘she’ll be right’, an attitude that Robin Boyd saw as bound up with the aesthetic failures of the nation and its people. As Boyd seems aware, ‘she’ll be right’ is an ambivalent phrase, at once suggesting a laudable lack of pretensions and a certain apathy or indifference, particularly concerning significant insignificance — aka detail — which is so crucial to the values and practice of design.

However, perhaps design and repair are not, or ought not to be, as divergent as I am making out. If we are to believe Bruno Latour’s efforts to advocate for the discipline, design is defined by a certain humility, which is less explicit in notions of construction and building: “In design there is nothing foundational. It seems to me that to say you plan to design something, does not carry the same risk of hubris as saying one is going to build something” (2008, 3). The humility and modesty Latour attributes to design in his rendering of the discipline, is perhaps even more emphatic in practices of repair, which are admired for their ingenuity, but rarely for genius or audacity.

Designers have traditionally played, or were seen to play, a peripheral role in industrial systems of manufacture. However, over the last few decades, design has acquired a considerable degree of cultural, vocational and financial capital. Universities are churning out increasing numbers of people who will refer to themselves and be referred to as designers. Design is a growing concern of business, whether in the traditional realm of product design, or new territories of service and strategic design, where the discipline is applied at a conceptual or systemic level to think differently about problems and structures.

The two speculative subject descriptions adumbrated below are the product and engine of my imagining what the content might be for a degree from which future graduates would emerge and begin referring to themselves as ‘repairers’. There are more subjects that demand inclusion in this curriculum. These two speak to my own, particular preoccupations, and those of some helpful and inspiring allies in the academic fields where I choose to spend my time.

89222: Narratives and notions of repair

Narratives and notions of repair would be one of the core subjects I’d imagine composing degree. It would compare and contrast creation myths from across different cultures with myths of repair and reuse. It would look at the dream of creating ‘something from nothing’, which has been a powerful and often destructive source of fantasy in a great diversity of human settlements over time (right up to recent financial crises), with ideals and aspirations associated with repair. These longer histories would be combined with more recent notions, such as ‘bricolage’, used by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962) to describe the reuse of existing structures to solve problems characteristic of mythical thought, which he opposed to engineering, and the comparable contrast between maintenance and innovation explored in the work of Andrew Russell and Lea Vinsel (2018). The point of invoking such binaries wouldn’t be to reinstate a simple divide, but to open a discussion about the way such differing tensions might be complicated in diverse ways in diverse examples.

The historical and theoretical basis would inform the analysis and exploration of a series of contemporary examples, beginning with the Australian context. The 2001 television documentary series Bush Mechanics, directed by David Batty and produced by the Warlpiri Media Association, would have to be among the examples examined more closely. Bush Mechanics focused on the Nyurulypa (“good tricks”) used by a group of five bush mechanics from Yuendumu in the Central Desert. It’s a remarkable piece of television, not least due to it’s distinctive tone, which is at once humorous and insightful. Batty use different storytelling devices, which destabilise the emphasis on gritty realism and the appearance of objectivity that are the staples of popular documentary in a certain western, quasi-anthropological tradition.

Perhaps the subject might then examine contemporary subcultures such as punk (Hebdige 1979), DIY (Shove and Watson 2008) and the open source movement, in each instance discussing the implications such movements might have for the way cultural knowledge is accumulated and disseminated, both from the perspective of form and content.

89223: Repair across the disciplines

This subject would look at examples taken from a diverse mix of disciplines to fuel synthetic and metaphorical thinking. Beginning with a conceptual exploration of Peter Sloterdijk’s emphasis on modernism as a process of ‘making-explicit’ (2016) and Melanie Klein’s notion of ‘reparation’ (1986), this cross disciplinary exploration of repair would look at different examples where systems are conceived as forces that need to be maintained rather than revolutions that need to originate. Examples include breakthroughs in modern medicine which focus on maintenance rather than curing (late-life care and AIDS treatments, for example), the history of insurance, biomaterials and tissue engineering, automotive and mobile phone repair, bush regeneration and histories of domestic and emotional labour. The point of studying such a motley assortment would be to promote mind-sparking analogies between different, richly understood examples, to open new ways of thought about the way things might be.

(I would like to thank Steven Connor for his helpful suggestions in writing this article)

To be continued…

Latour, B. (2008, September). A cautious Prometheus? A few steps toward a philosophy of design (with special attention to Peter Sloterdijk). In Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society (pp. 1–10). Retrieved from http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/112-DESIGN-CORNWALL-GB.pdf

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture : the meaning of style. London ; New York : Routledge.

Klein, Melanie. 1986. The selected Melanie Klein. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Russell, Andrew L. and Vinsel, Lee. 2018. After Innovation, Turn to Maintenance. Technology and Culture. 59(1). 1–25

Sloterdijk, P. 2016. Spheres: Plural spherology. Vol. III: Foams (W. Hoban, Trans.). South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e).

Watson, M., & Shove, E. 2008. Product, competence, project and practice: DIY and the dynamics of craft consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture, 8(1), 69–89.



Tom Lee

Technology, landscape, narrative, poetics, design. Senior lecturer in Design at UTS, author of Coach Fitz. https://giramondopublishing.com/product/coach-fitz/