Fix Thyself

The idea of a fixer movement is interesting, but I'm not sure it makes sense. The reason most people don't attempt to fix things is that they have made a reasonable and correct assessment of the costs involved. If my coffeemaker breaks, I have two options: to buy a replacement, or to assemble the parts and the knowledge needed to fix it myself. Life is short, and even if the replacement parts can be procured easily and are somewhat less expensive that the item being fixed (not always the case), the time required to gain the knowledge to fix it makes the whole thing too costly. The availability of an inexpensive replacement is a bonus.

Mostly, though, the framework appears too general. It's not a question of fixing or replacing: I can fix something myself, or pay someone else to fix it, or replace it altogether. Each will be appropriate at different moments, depending on the thing broken and the frequency with which it might break.

The culture of fixing-by-oneself makes sense when replacements are prohibitively expensive, or there is value added by learning how to solve a problem that might arise with some frequency. Cars fall into the former category. I held off purchasing a new car for two or three years after I could have afforded to buy a new one because I had built up a reserve of knowledge about how the old one functioned: I knew which problems I could solve myself, which were minor, and about how much a repair might cost for those that were severe. Buying a new car has meant giving up all that knowledge. But, one tinkers there because fixing a car oneself is much (much) cheaper than having someone else fix it; replacement is not usually an option in these cases. The other end of the spectrum is the example Jacobs gives--replacing outlets in the house. It's worthwhile knowledge to have because it's a problem likely to come up repeatedly, and by picking up the knowledge, one can shift the work away from professionals and save both time and cost.

But there are also situations where replacements are prohibitively expensive but problems arise with such infrequency that it makes sense to have someone else fix it: Jacobs' garage door is one; HVAC problems seem like another (I have a few basic fixes that I know, which might solve low-level problems; if it's July and the air conditioner is out, I'm calling a professional). The person who comes to fix it is going to be (one hopes) a technician who has genuine knowledge of the situation, and has practiced it in a wide variety of contexts, or exactly the sort of person we ostensibly want to support (dignity of manual labor and all that). In these instances, the trade-off in saved time and knowledge makes opting out of fix-it-oneself the sensible move.


Phoebe said...

Exactly! So many repairs are things it makes sense to outsource. I looked at the "fixer" post and manifesto, and am not seeing how others are missing that. And from an environmental perspective, what matters is that things not be needlessly thrown away. Which is more likely to happen if the owner and not an expert has tinkered with the item in question.

The missing piece might be - a gendered reading, bear with me, and allow that I'm thinking both of cultural cliche and anecdotal evidence - that there's some kind of macho pleasure in being able to fix things, or in at least gathering up (sometimes purchasing, which can itself turn out to be wasteful and expensive) various implements, and turning something a professional could deal with quickly and cheaply into a week-long project. This just seems more like an ode to 'manliness' than anything else.

Nicholas said...

I agree on the gender aspect, which seems obvious but I hadn't thought of: there's a deep fuzziness about whether 'we' need to be supporting people for whom manual labor is an expression of deeply learned skill (Shop Class as Soulcraft, etc), or 'we' need to re-learn basic technical competence. But the 'we' is always 'men.'

It's a bit odd coming from Jacobs who is usually sensitive to categories that make some people 'real' and some people inauthentic--he had a whole series on living in cities and suburbs that defended both. Why there's something wrong with having people fix things for you I couldn't say.

Lindsay Lennox said...

1. I know several folks who are deeply into the fixer culture (and am of them one myself, sporadically), and only one of those people cares about fixing things for economic reasons: he's a musician and sound technician, and fixing his own gear saves him money and (more importantly) time. Aside from this one example, the rest of the mindset seems to be about feeling competent, independent, and less powerless in the face of professional fixers of things. This is less about fixing everything yourself, and more about feeling empowered to make an effort at whatever level of difficulty you’re comfortable with. This is a part of the larger, mostly American DIY mentality (which the rest of the world seems to find quite odd).

2. As a female, I can attest to the fact that these feelings of competency and adequacy in dealing with daily obstacles are not limited to men. Most women my age (early thirties) have been indoctrinated with the importance of knowing how to unclog your own garbage disposal, how to fill and repaint your own broken drywall, etc.; most of us have also been confronted with a mindblowing amount of condescension when getting anything (plumbing, car, computer) fixed, so it pays to take a look yourself, google some things, and see if you can fix it or at least develop a clearer idea of what’s broken. I think both men and women hate being held hostage by condescending repairpersons.

3. After a lifetime of lessons from my depression-era grandparents and grade-school activism in Kids for Saving Earth, I’ve found that there’s a unique pleasure in opening something up, peering in, tinkering with what was broken, and thereby saving from the landfill an object that was otherwise too low-value to justify paid repair work.

Phoebe said...

The gender angle here may not be so straightforward after all, as Lindsay's comment demonstrates. I mean, there's this movement asking us to return to home-cooking, by "us," well, men are asked to join in, but realistically far more women are doing this task, so if it becomes more from-scratch-ish, it's women's time and energy going into this. If anything, there's a greater danger in women's time being seen as worth little.

Anyway, I think there's much to be said for competence. But there's a point at which this spills over into an all-out denial of the efficiency of division of labor. And in terms of the waste/frugality issue, it just too often seems that trying to make/fix something one's self leads to various items (ingredients, electronics) going to waste. Obviously, not always. But I wouldn't take it for granted that DIY means less in the landfill. (Sometimes a commitment to DIY means more stuff hanging around the house, lest this be a project some weekend, and then that weekend somehow never comes.)

Nicholas said...

The economic angle is only part of it. 'Fixing' for men is not just a question of technical competency; it's a question of fulfilling the basic conditions of being a man. It's not an idle question, either: the analogue of junior high girls shaming each other into conformity on weight and fashion is junior high boys dividing into shop and academic camps. In Real America in the mid-late 90s, I can assure you that not being interested in shop or cars or fixing would get you beaten up and otherwise harassed.

(The 'independence' and 'less powerless' things brush up against critiques of capitalism that I don't find particularly compelling, but that's a side issue)

I mean, let a thousand flowers bloom. I even like fixing things from time to time. But I think you can never fix anything and be a perfectly normal human being.

Lindsay Lennox said...

I can certainly buy that the fixer culture feels really different to men, in the same way that (as Phoebe says) the home cooking culture feels really different to women. Arguably, learning to cook and feed themselves/their family is an especially enjoyable new area of competency for men (I know a bunch who are super-proud of their newfound abilities) in precisely the same way fixing things is enjoyable for me (a woman): it's optional, and in no way implicated in your gender identity or sense of 'doing it right'.