hard copy available from www.iiiiicolumns.com
I’ve been gnawing on the idea of possibility for some time now— not in abstraction, but more in the way that Henri Lefebvre thought of space: as a concrete social production. Nothing, as far as I can tell, is ever sharply and universally possible or impossible, necessary or contingent. Things are made possible. They are possibilized: conceived, created, diverted, blunted, mixed, nixed, and multiplicitous, hanging on zillions of powers and constraints— and in ways that can only be illuminated concretely. Reflection bears this out. Could humanity live on the Moon? Could a rich man enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Could I live in a department store? Can I get another piece of that cake? Do I actually have to pay for my electricity? Any answer better than “it depends” requires detail and situation, listing pros and cons, checking resources or the weather, consulting the experts and the lessons of history. To be honest, I have trouble grasping the meaning of an “abstract” possibility.
Concrete possibility is also in Lefebvre, if a little obliquely. You find some loose threads running throughout the Critique of Everyday Life, and in works like La Somme et le Reste where he stridently defines a moment as “the attempt at the absolute realization of a possibility.” It’s good stuff, but the problem is, Lefebvre never got around to a concrete investigation of concrete possibility, as he did in The Production of Space. But wouldn’t it be rewarding, I thought, to try something along these lines— some zigzagging notes, a loose sketch, a “possibility analysis” on a very concrete and everyday form… A form like Home Depot, the American hardware and do-it-yourself emporium. Seems like an ideal, hands-on choice for tracing back possibilistic production, a good locus for meandering through the many shades and valences of possibility (and impossibility) as they pop up and possibilize. I can’t catch them all, obviously, and circumscribe the horizon of possibility, but I can get about ten pages deep and see where it goes.
Broadly speaking, Home Depot supplies us with access to three categories of goods:
Being a business, Home Depot brokers— or makes possible— access to raw materials in return for money. A cash-condition rides on nearly every homedepotic possibilization, which also signals that we are no longer living in state of Nature, real or imagined, where raw materials would be accessible through direct labor upon the soil and sea. We city folk can no longer scour the landscape and make huts and wells without forms of social mediation. Oldschool D.I.Y.er Leonardo Da Vinci once said: “Iddio ci vende tutti li beni per prezzo di fatica”— “God sells us all goods for the price of labor.” God, maybe; Home Depot only accepts cash, Visa, or Mastercard. All do-it-yourself-sufficiency is by now thickly mediated by money, regulations, and even by the quirks of local hardware retailers… By the kinds of sheet rock they carry and whether it’s fireshield. By the sizes of their lampposts. By standardization and interchangeability of bolts and pieces. By the stupidity of their ceramic tile selection. These are all conditions.
This pedagogy is not unwitting. It’s well-planned and easy to see why. As tools and raw materials, rather than final products, they require forms of knowledge for their use and therefore purchase. This know-how makes for yet another condition. The way Home Depot works, the immaterial is freely dispensed in order to better move and market the brutely material. Naturally then, Home Depot always aims to embolden, and to a degree empower, the bricoleur. They even host blogs and forums. Very nice of them: “Home Depot. You can do it. We can help.”
Both cash and know-how enter the equation as conditions on our homedepotic possibilizations, and we already see some interweaving of economics and knowledge here in the hardware store— an interweaving that at times comes to interference, distortion, and coercion. I turn the corner and see a box of “DIY Packs” of wooden shims for sale, which look remarkably similar to the pieces of wooden scraps scattered across any work site, or available free of charge two aisles down, next to the Moulding Cutting Center. I could buy the pack, like a sucker, or just fill a plastic bag with as many as I need and call it a day. Contractors might not have time to be slicing shims with a miter saw, or combing a work site, but we see how the cash-strapped might benefit from a little resourcefulness, rather than buying “DIY Packs” of wooden scraps.
This also brings me, theoretically, to the question of circumvention; to questions of short-cutting and corner-cutting (the former usually being more advisable; the latter, more fun). Both short-cutting and corner-cutting are ways in which possibilization circumvents certain presupposed conditions. In the case of in-store shim-scavenging, not only do I sidestep the cash-condition, I slink by the unspoken constraints of “tool-owning” and “store-leaving” as well.
And Home Depot certainly does its best to curtail. Personally I’ve never stolen any item larger than a wignut or housekey from Home Depot, but even an innocent man cannot help but sense the cordon of registers, doors, sensors, cameras, and employees discouraging any thief from physically translating an item from the interior to the parking lot without meeting the cash-condition. It’s like a game of football: pure tactics and physical translation. Home Depot has a sharply-defined threshold, with all possibilistics abruptly differing on each side.
For all its vocal empowerment of labor though, our labor is not welcome anywhere on the inside of this threshold. We might be able to sneak in a few cuts and assemblies edgewise, but items sold by Home Depot cannot actually be used at Home Depot. Public labor must cease inside. Visiting a Home Depot in Los Angeles, I noticed a crew of immigrant workers chilling in the wings of the parking lot, waiting for work. I thought: “Seems like a happy arrangement. A meeting of markets— Home Depot and labor— happening organically.”
No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than along came a white security truck to shoo the hopefuls away, onto the friendlier territories of a nearby grocery store. So much for the organic. Programme strictly delimits homedepotic from non-homedepotic space. All liminality is proscribed. In keeping with Lefebvrean conceptions of space, hardware stores and workshops may contain the same objects, themes, and room, but their space is made dramatically different by practice, agenda, and system.
In Home Depot, you can make and do the unexpected, but anything too visibly weird will quickly gather flak from security, store associates— even other shoppers. Scribbling in notebooks, taking photos of light bulb displays, wandering aimlessly, I soon earned some attention myself. Helpful Home Depot associates floated by, pretending to count boxes of nails. “Do you need help finding anything?”
Enter the power tool section and take a good look. What do you see but a large, multifarious display of killing machines? If an ancient army had gotten its hands on an arsenal like this, they could’ve enslaved the Mesopotamian basin. Saws. Drills. Torches. Nailguns. These are all weapons, every last one. What this might remind us of— aside from something like cool Archimedean war-machines repelling the Romans at Syracuse— is the destructive, violent power at work within the ostensibly constructive, ameliorative powers of Home Depot. And, for that matter, within most all tools and material creation. Only, normally, the violence is turned upon trees and earth rather than upon our fellow human beings. But is it no longer a form of violence? Think about what these tools do. Shredding the fiber of trees. Violently puncturing virgin surfaces. Mercilessly pummeling innocent minerals. Mangling copper, iron and aluminum and forcing them to submit to our will. Without getting too psychoanalytic, I guess we can only be too glad this violent energy has sublimated into happier applications— like building patios, or making a new shelf for your girlfriend’s record collection. The sheathed, violent potential of these machines nevertheless remains.
The tool section in Home Depot represents a taming or containment of power and violence. A sleeping arsenal. A set of technics that can make for either a dream home or a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nothing new: tools have always had this violent ambiguity. Iron and knapped stone used on men and women was war; against seed and soil, agriculture, and eventually, against limestone, writing. Tools are multipurpose. This much is obvious. But it’s funny to consider how implements switch between good and evil; how saws today may be used on the human body, but only in surgical and no longer in disciplinary situations. And in revolutionary terms, this makes for something of a reminder. A veiled threat. Who after all has the tools, the lords or the builders?
No tool though, however multipurpose, does it all. I can’t tighten nuts with a ball-peen hammer. I can’t install a dimmer switch with a staple gun. And apparently it takes very special kind of tool to cut vinyl Venetian blinds to size. This is where I still have some confusions and loose ends in terms of tools and possibility. Maybe you can help me. Tools are not as physically pliant as other resources in the store— like raw materials and ingredients— and perhaps this is one way to distinguish a material from a tool. We use material but re-use the tool. The material is the pliant; the tool, the plier— with much of the Home Depot catalogue falling on the large spectrum between. Plumbing fixtures are tools for moving and guiding water; while at the same time, they also are materials in the plumber’s trade requiring wrenches, saws, and several other tools to shape and bind them. Tools work because they’re hard and unyielding; material works by virtue of its very workability. What am I to make, in terms of possibilistics, of the resistance of tools? Not exactly sure.
Maybe another way of thinking about tools in a hardware store, like hammers and saws, is that they help create physical possibilities. Small miracles of mechanical advantage. If someone handed me a nail and a plank of wood, I’d probably never get the one into the other without a hammer or hammer-like object, no matter how many other things I had going for me. The difference is not always so stark. I could feasibly get some drywall screws in, or rewire my bedroom, with just fingers and teeth. The right tool only makes things considerably quicker and easier; it’s a shortcut between possibilities in a technical and physical sense. However— and it’s a big however— just because this hardware is so key in physical possibilization, doesn’t mean that its meanings remain wholly and flatly on a physical or technical plane.
Home Depot sells materials, but what class of materials? What tells us how we should use this stock or this stuff? Materials have qualities, and qualities suggest better and worse applications. Paper works poorly for rain-proofing. Wood warps and iron rusts. So, the materiality of concrete, mulch, acrylic, pine, and lacquer offers some limiting forces that guide their use. Aside from these material suggestions, however, people tend to restrict their usage of Home Depot materials far more than physically or chemically necessary. We get the sense of a widely-accepted distinction between the class of materials you find in Home Depot and those you find in “art supply” stores like Utrecht or Pearl— that Home Depot materials lean closer to Necessity, as architecture has always supposedly been more constrained than the fine arts. But if the fine arts themselves are not constrained, or a matter of materiality or medium-specificity, what possible meaning could there ever be for a thing like an “art supply?” Why would we think that Home Depot should inherently be more bound to Necessity?
Home Depot materials may, more often than not, end up in pretty unsurprising or unimaginative applications. Mulch will, 99% of the time, serve as bedding for flowers and trees. Iron handrails will usually be bolted onto staircases. But no quality or materiality ever fully dictates use; however commonsensical it may seem. Home Depot, in truth, has as much cultural possibility as any art supply store— maybe more. After all, how many more surprises are there in store for aquarelles? As tools and raw materials, rather than finished products, Home Depot stock is as open-ended as any, freely available for poetic and aesthetic employment. And these poetic and aesthetic uses and sensibilities cut across both class and the various subcultures of doing-it-yourself, popping up as frequently among self-proclaimed hillbillies as well-plucked gallerists.
I see an obvious polarity in the aesthetico-poetic sensibilities of Home Depot. On the one hand, you have the clean, no-nonsense, do-it-right approach of the Contractor; an aesthetics of mastery, business, and premeasuring. Contractors strut into Home Depot with their lists, and their fat, white trucks idling in the parking lot. On the other, you have the loose, nonsense-rich, close-enough approach of the Jerryrigger; an aesthetics of cleverness, illegitimacy, and eyeballing. This distinction might remind us, more or less, of the one Levi-Strauss makes in La Pensée Sauvage between the bricoleur and the engineer. The Contractor, like the engineer, is usually someone working with great deal more external resources— like a company footing the bill for the tools, materials and labor. Starting from scratch since they have, so to speak, the scratch to start with. At the same time, the Contractor, for all their external resources, is no freer. Their jobs demand clean, perfect preconceptions; plans, blueprints, construction hats, oversight, straightjacketing specs and regulations.
The Jerryrigger, the bricoleur, may be “preconstrained” to wing it with whatever is at hand— with what they find on a curb or in the mismixed paint bin— but they remain at liberty to get into any hair-brained scheme they please. The possibilities of bricolage, in this sense, are not fully determined by any project. “It is,” as Levi-Strauss puts it, “to be defined only by its potential use, or putting this another way and in the language of the bricoleur himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that ‘they may always come in handy’.” The possibilistics of the Contractor and the Jerryrigger, the engineer and the bricoleur, are not entirely disjunct and incompatible. “The engineer no doubt also cross-examines his resources,” says Levi-Strauss; “he too has to begin by making a catalogue of a previously determined set consisting of theoretical and practical knowledge, of a technical means, which restrict the possible solutions.” The bricoleur just possibilizes more on the ground, on the fly, in the aisles— a possibilistic flavor that I, embarassingly enough, probably know too well.
Levi-Strauss borrowed this distinction from the “technical plane” in order to show how it mapped onto the cognitive plane of scientific and mythical thinking. It maps likewise onto the plane of the aesthetic and poetic. Depending on which way a deed or doer leans— either toward serious business or bricolage— the sensibility will tend towards different kinds of beauty. As I said, the Contractor hopes for mastery and craftmanship. Harmony. Decorum. Finish. His work is judged, aesthetically, against the ideal it set out to execute. He plans a patio or a marble countertop and, from then on out, with possibilities more or less fixed, diligently realizes the form. The kind of beauty we appreciate in the Contractor is the same as the beauty we get from a Phidias or Mies Van Der Rohe.
Some corner-cutters, in the rush to fill gaps and make ends meet, may be careless or indifferent about aesthetics. The true bricoleur is not. Bricolage simply has its own rubric of beauty, its own aesthetics and poetics, based on disjuncture, appropriation, ephemerality, implausibility, humor, and invention. It is an aesthetics and poetics you encounter daily moving through warehoused culture-making in every state of the union, a visible though implicit critique of the cash-condition of culture-making. You also encounter it in plenty driving through the mountains of Appalachian Virginia and North Carolina. Houseboats made from school buses. Multicolored sheds fabricated from stolen or discarded billboards. Automobiles fixed with silverware and bungees, and functional but for the grace of God. An outsider might take this as a sign of want or sloth— which, admittedly, it can be— but in many circles, these ways-of-doing, these “redneck repairs,” are in and of themselves works of beauty.
Long spoken of in terms of juryrigs, jerryrigs, or workarounds, contrivance has more recently been rechristened as a “Kludge,” and promoted to an applauded and publicly acknowledged poetic form. You’ll find entire websites dedicated to their documentation. Consider the following masterpieces:
Circumvention was the only hope. I drove to Home Depot and purchased a rubber hose— one normally used for connecting washing machines—with the idea of piping hot water directly from my bathroom sink into the tub. On the advice of an exceedingly helpful Home Depot associate, I picked up the right hose, adaptor, and washers, and made my way tubward to bathe in total triumph. A little while later, relaxing in my little lobster pot and looking up at the rope holding the hose in place, it occurred to me. There had been two approaches to “fixing” my shower. The right way— clearing the block, plugging the leak, calling a professional— would have been, in a sense, the literal way to fix the shower. The other way, my modest kludge, was on the other hand, a more figurative way of fixing. In rhetorical or tropological terms, my redneck repair was a form of circumlocution. De Certeau had had similar thoughts on tropes and making-do, walking through the city.
It seemed to help explain its charm for me, and to be an interesting approach to the poetics of the Kludge, for understanding its forms, tensions, and joys. The internet tells me that the very first citation of the Kludge came in a computer magazine called Datamation, in a light-minded article by Jackson W. Granholm entitled “How to Design a Kludge.” It defined the Kludge as “an ill-sorted collection of poorly-matching parts, forming a distressing whole.” It was a beautiful, almost Hellenistic, definition. Only, for the sake of completeness, it should have added: “that functions nonetheless.” It cut a clearer figure of Kludge poetics, of the myriad ways in which the Kludge combines the unlikely to attain its unnerving forms of triumph— myriad ways that could resemble all manner of rhetorical trope.
They might employ a rhetorical device like polysyndeton— the overuse of conjunctions— to effect:
Or, achieve a kind of catachresis in which one element is used in a brusquely effective but wholly alien and ungrammatical way:
This lone dispenser was the only kludgy fixture in the entire place, the only thing that betrayed any play or human manufacture. Little to nothing in Home Depot is bricolaged. A Fortune 500 mammoth like Home Depot would understandably have trouble openly parading the aesthetic of the ad-hoc; it smacks too much of shoddiness, irresponsibility, unprofessionalism, and the fly-by-night. Home Depot needs another angle. Just look around. The nice white ceilings. Glossy grey flooring made with leveling concrete. Everything in between dipped in the brazen orange of their trademark monochrome. Orange as in safety— a construction zone orange of men-at-work and jobs-done-right. As far as aesthetics go— and here I mean it in the Greek sense of aesthesis, what is visible or available to the senses— Home Depot makes little show of any overtly and overly clever use of materials. This remains mostly unseen, underground, in its shadows.
And what about all those free consultations? What aesthetic advice do the helpful Home Depot associates have for you and your home-making? Color palettes going from light to dark beige. Cardboard lifestyle-samples set behind triply-insulated windows. Neighbor appeasements. I can only imagine that the free consultations would most likely end with flocking, faux grapevines, and a quick commission for the consultant. An aesthetics of total quaintification— that is, of possibilistic timidity.
This is an added reason why I wanted to speak in terms of poetics rather than aesthetics when approaching Home Depot: the better possibilities are for the most part, not fully visible, advertised, or readily available to the senses and sitting on the shelf. They require added intellectual energies, an added playfulness, or a ten-acre backyard and a mountain of spare parts. Nor are they wholly invisible. About a quarter of the aisles are full of weird, little, standardly recombinant parts— PVC, electrical fixtures and conduits, strange joints and hosing, metal pipes and elbows— which easily adapt to an open-ended, Lego-like logic. There they lie, yearning to be yanked from the shelves and used as sculptural elements. The packaging may look official, but nothing about them, as formants, locks them into the great matrix of Necessity. All materials— all things— are equally susceptible to cultural possibility and use, again, whatever that may mean for us. I usually think this is popularly understood, but then again, I’m not so sure.
What puts screwdrivers, bubble wrapping, Venetian blinds, programmable thermostats, riding lawnmowers, and ceiling tiles into play as cultural objects or materials? Precisely their— or our— refusal to submit to a matrix of Necessity, our willingness to question the very premise of Necessity. Who says tools are only for work? Who says water pipes must be hidden rather than formed into big ridiculous loops? Who says that walls and floors must be at orthogonal angles? The short answer to these questions is usually “local government,” but the larger answer is that Home Depot is very much a deep resource of cultural possibility in that, through it, and often despite Home Depot itself, we might come to question how we make and remake our lives and living spaces, on every level, down to the last screw and plastic nub. This is the making of culture.
And if we turn to the caverns of American secret culture, what do we find? Many of the same cash-strapped, kludge-intensive ways-of-doing as our bricoleur brethren in the hillbilly avant-garde. I’ve been waiting years for a great and wholly unironic rapprochement between these two cultures, with each giving a little in their own way. The Kludge seems as good a keystone as any. Not a redneck myself, but a great admirer of their arts.
Back in the Northeast again, visiting a friend, Luke, in his dark, overwarm, undisclosed location, the parallels are very evident. An indoor skate ramp converted into a dining room, or dining set. A sauna made from an electric oven and neatly-taped planks of foam insulation. Luke’s own room: more or less a tool shed with a bed lofted over top. Then another room— three feet tall— hanging from the rafters above the dining ramp. Then yet another, this time under the ramp. I feel at home again. What happens in these quarters is pretty out of reach for most tastes, possibilistically speaking— too stripped of niceties, of final products— but left with just the kind of the allthewayness necessary for a ground-up assessment of the moral order of Man.
Shower (from my old space in the same building)
Upon exiting Home Depot one day, I noticed a little suburb of pre-fab sheds, going from baby-bear sheds up to a two-story papa-bear barn. I walked into the barn and up its staircase. I could live here, I thought, this is a home. In fact, if it weren’t for the social strictures against it, I could live exactly here, in the Home Depot parking lot. A creek in the backyard. Facilities nearby. A Kroger next door. Probably even wifi. I looked at the price tag. $8,724— not bad for a house, but steep once I priced and considered the materials. And, besides, who wouldn’t prefer the pleasure of building their own barn and possibilizing their world from the ground up and the inside out? It’s a serious— perhaps even sociological— question.
It’s an air conditioner, with a flexible hose running to a free-standing window. When it runs, hot and cold air shoot from opposite sides with equal force, mixing in the homedepotic atmosphere, annihilating their difference.
I call this piece Equilibrium: