Opinions - 05.10.2012 - 00:00 

The charm of imperfection

The consumer world supplies us with ever more perfect things. <br/>A counterweight is provided by the cult of things that are not flawless. HSG sociologist Felix Keller on broken things and the charm of imperfection.
Source: HSG Newsroom


10 October 2012. It was “magical”, we heard, when Steve Jobs presented the shiny, smooth iPad. It promised to banish the accident-prone desktop computer with its noisy ventilators to the museum of technology. This is only the tip of the iceberg: In other areas, too, we are wooed with increasingly perfect things which can do more and more and fit better into our lives. When they are on the market, they are tested with absolute implacability; every flaw becomes public, and a weak test result is tantamount to a coup de grace.

What happens to things when they get broken? Of course this is a nuisance to “users”, as consumers are also called, but it appears to be the natural course of things in the consumer world: Things are disposed of one way or another. Eventually, a new and even better version is already on hand.

Naples: a symbol of imperfection
Amazingly, however, there is something like a cult of things that have long since passed their immaculacy and are often even damaged. The economist Alfred Sohn-Rethel noticed this as early as the 1920s when he stayed in Naples for a lengthy period of time. Basically, he said, everything was broken in Naples. Indeed, in Naples things really only began to work once something had broken down. Conversely, things that were intact struck the natives as sinister and suspect: If something worked perfectly and worked as if of its own accord, then you could ultimately never know “how and where it would end”. Neapolitans loved broken things.

This friendliness towards broken objects and the obsession with fixing them may have shifted in geographical terms. Astonishingly, though, broken things are not only regarded as refuse in this country either; rather, they are also highly esteemed on account of their defects, their imperfection. This does not refer to “antique dealers” who age pieces of furniture with the help of a shotgun in order to manufacture the wormholes of faked antiquity. This refers to objects which are actually so damaged that they have become useless and thus develop a charm all their own.

For decades, discarded cars were rusting away in a car dump near Bürgetal in Berne. Moss coated their bodywork, shrubs grew out of their windows. The car dump was supposed to be closed for environmental reasons. All of a sudden, the Thun artist Heinrich Gartentor discovered the charm of the abandoned vehicles and declared that the dump was an art exhibition.

A higher degree of identification with broken things
The Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne and the Historical Museum of Berne seconded his judgement. The powers that be, however, regarded the cars as scrap that contaminated the ground with heavy metals, lead and mercury. After an auction which attracted several thousand people and at which what had once been a Mercedes in the 1950s was sold at an enormous price, the car dump was destroyed.

It would be easy to find analogous examples in people’s private spheres: Something that others regard as broken, worthless rubbish (“Isn’t it about time you threw this away?!”) suddenly turns out to be something we do not want to lose. Why? Perhaps merely because it is attached to us through our personal history and because its defect has developed a face which distinguishes it from its perfect siblings. There may also be other reasons.

Years ago, the philosopher Günther Anders spoke of a new kind of shame, a shame caused by the embarrassingly high quality of all the things surrounding us. What he meant was that in the face of the perfection and powerfulness of the technical world, people regard themselves as increasingly imperfect and replaceable.

Broken things may reconcile us with a technical world that strikes us as ever more superior. We begin to identify with imperfection since we perceive ourselves as imperfect and exchangeable. Günther Anders’ somewhat forgotten book is entitled “The Outdatedness of Human Beings”.

Picture: Photocase / complize