Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sick leave

I was sharpening the biggest kanna blade I have when the killer stuck on the stone. Like those japanese guys who leave the blade standing on the stone, holding only by surface tension or electromagnetism, who knows, and go for a coffee.

Anyway, the blade was standing there, I wanted to take a picture so you believe me, then the blade falls, hand goes for it, then I go to the hospital. Fun, fun, fun.

This was last week.

So no woodworking, no sharpening and no work. I could not even properly walk friday.

The finger is fine... no bone was cut and no infection. You don't want the details anyway. Flash forward till today.

Julia was talking with a friend from Germany today, and after finishing she comes to me and asks: "am I getting stupid?" Fair question, since we have been getting rid of books like the military after a coup. The thing is, we don't really read anymore and most of the talk is sewing machine in one room and hammer and plane in the other. We watched yesterday a movie of Godard, but that almost doesn't count as intellectual anymore.

I had the same question a while ago. You know, I'm a post-doc, and I'm supposed to research and learn... they pay me for that. But to be honest, scientifically speaking, last 2 years were an infinite desert. ( I have my reasons for that, not least that I sincerely think that trying to solve global problems with the same method that brought us here is at best wishful thinking a la middle ages, and at worst, a suicidal neurosis.) One year of vacations and one year of doing what I know how to do... not really learning something new in my job.

But the thing is, I don't feel at all that I'm getting dumber. (Save the finger cut that is.) What I've been doing during the last 2 years in my free time is: a) to study parts of the world, b) develop the methods to interact in a proficient way with those parts of the world, and lately thanks to Jason c) communicate in a thoughtful way the invariants I find in the parts of the world I study. Granted, to study the steel of one of my blades and how it interacts with the grain of a stone, and after that how it goes searching the molecules of the wood are not going to get me a nobel prize... but then again, you don't do science for the results, you do it for the sake of it.

What happens when you learn a skill? Say blacksmithing. When you learn to forge a knife, what your body is doing is learning facts about the world. How the blow of the hammer creates a certain deformation on the steel, which is dependent on the temperature, the kind of material, the angle at which you hit... you are learning facts about the world that permit you to move in an assertive way in the domain of hammering metal.

This is a knowledge that cannot be put in a formula, and that's why our modern world seems so poor at times, for we value more the formula than the metaphor. This is a knowledge that has to be embodied, that is, lived. And this is at odds with pretty much the whole of modernity.

And so this plane came to be.

I started it last year in Celle, from some maple Opa had laying around. I finished the fourth wedge today. The first two were crap, the third one made out of spruce and sincerely cheap... This one is nice. I just didn't have the accuracy to make a properly fitting one six months ago. I didn't have the understanding necessary to access the world of plane making and move comfortably there, even with a wounded finger.

She will remain here in Europe, hopefully helping a friend with his bike shop in Leipzig.

And that's it, really. When Benjamin declared the death of the work of art's aura in the age of mechanical reproduction, the only thing you need is to do, is to produce in a non-mechanical way, and you get the aura back. It's that plane with the knot on top, and the ash wedge, and the gouge marks on it. There is an intimacy born from the experience, the experience of the close contact with the material, that you cannot buy, that you cannot exchange.

We knew this, and we can learn it again.

When Rilke sadly wrote that “for our grandparents a ‘house’, a ‘well’, a familiar tower, their very clothes, their coat: were infinitely more, infinitely more intimate; almost everything a vessel in which they found the human and added to the store of the human”, and continued then complaining of the lifeless things imported from America, Marx should have come by and said: "it's the means of production, idiot."


  1. "It is the means of production"......

    My brain is failing me, and for the life of me I can't remember where, but just this morning I was reading of building objects, furniture, and the complaint of mass production. The idea that drives success, profit, is efficiency in production. To improve efficiency, you alter the design to be more efficient to build with machines. It only takes a few of these decisions before you are left with a design that has been optimized *for* machines. For machines, not humans.

    I have been thinking of this all day, and how sad this becomes. We wonder where all of the value and truth of the hand made object has gone. We clamor after the new and unique, then complain bitterly if anything is less than "perfect". We are encouraged to buy quality, but we are no longer able to identify it, except by the value printed on the price tag. Machine manufactured is the stamp of all that surrounds us. We no longer recognize the hand made object because most of us have never SEEN something that was made by hand.

    Your plane is the antithesis of machined design and is a thing of beauty. It shows the makers hand and will be treasured by the many who will use it. I envision,100 years from now, someone will pick up that plane and think, "Wow! Now THIS is something special!".


    1. "We are encouraged to buy quality, but we are no longer able to identify it, except by the value printed on the price tag. " Very well put my friend.

      Reminds me of what a german friend of mine used to write: "Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists for us as capital or when we directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it, etc., in short, when we use it."

      But I have a small disagreement. What you call "efficiency" is not so, even if you measure it in your own economic terms. The evolution of technics is not towards more efficient machines, but rather to bigger and more monstrous organisations.

      Take Ikea furniture. I know it's easy pick but anyway. It takes 4 times more energy to produce 1 cubic meter of OBS than 1 cubic meter of real wood. That's not counting the energy used to produce the big Ikea machines or transportation.

      Now take a japanese carpenter who can plane shavings of 7microns with essentially a piece of steel, some rocks, water, and a square piece of wood. That's the real efficiency. That's also elegance for me.

      Concerning the plane, I actually hope that in 100 years they see it as something completely normal. In my dream future, people work with their hands every day, ride bikes, there is no diabetes type 2. It looks more like a bruegel painting than a blade runner scene.

      I will have to write now about Kant and Marx of the philosophical manuscripts. I think they were talking exactly about this. Well, kinda, they didn't do saw sharpening.

  2. "A Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander describes how and why people who build houses, villages, and cities for people, used to do these things, before the tyranny of Profit. Over the years, I've found it useful in perceiving clearly the relations of spaces and spaces and things, and energys, and what I can make.

    Which reminds me of a Haiku I wrote several years ago:

    Summer clouds in a

    Autumn sky - empty pockets

    Full, of emptyness

    1. The book rings a bell from when I was reading about programming, will put it in the list of to read.

      Your haiku reminds me of Henry Miller btw, I like it.