Monday, September 7, 2009

Thoughts on Knitting Inefficiency

I posted this over here, but also want it here as part of the record of my reading. Sorry for the duplication:

Last summer, I quoted from a BC Bookworld review of Shannon Stratton's essay "Getting Things Done: On Needlecraft and Free Time," published in Volume III of Craft Perception and Practice: A Canadian Discourse, edited by Paula Gustafson, Nisse Gustafson & Amy Gogarty. At that time I ordered the book, later received it, and then laid it on the coffee table from whence it has called me occasionally throughout the year. Finally last week I sat down and read the essay whose excerpts had so impressed me, and I was delighted to find how much relevance it has to my recent musings on my leisure activities.
Stratton places her discussion of knitting within the context of "slow activism" -- as she describes that term, "practices that counter fast-paced, turbo-capitalist culture with life practices that turn back the pace of living to a slow, methodical pace of enjoyment and sensory indulgence . . . privileg[ing] practice over product." To the better-known Slow Food and Slow City movements, she suggests we consider adding knitting, especially in its more public manifestations, as an activity that critiques and resists market forces. Stratton cites Michel de Certau's The Practice of Everyday Life which suggests that tactics arising in the domestic sphere provide opportunity for slow activism.
Perhaps it's merely self-serving of me to suggest that my own insistence on knitting, gardening, playing with my granddaughter, cooking for my family, and reading not-immediately-relevant texts are small gestures exercising agency against the current market rationalization of academe. Perhaps. As Stratton points out, it "is certainly too generous to claim all knitters are engaged in political activity directly through their handicraft." Whether or not the activity is subversive depends on its ability to "subvert hierarchy, specialization, and non-communication" and in "a capitalist culture, subverting that system requires the redirection of energy away from the (direct or indirect) production of capital. . . . public knitting. . . . demonstrates a redirection of energy, action and labour away from sanctioned activities--paid work, capitalist productivity or passive assent--and towards dissent." Similarly, by not only spending some of my time on non-sanctioned activities in a system that rewards only certain kinds of research and publication, but futher, by writing about this choice, worrying about it, and insisting that I'm" not giving up any more of myself to climb arbitrarily-assigned-or-chosen ladders, I like to think I share, to some small degree, the aims of slow activism.
Again, I say, possibly a self-serving rationalization. But serving my self, I suppose, is itself a subversive act. Reading Stratton, knitting, writing blog posts about my life beyond academe, all for myself, rather than reading the latest journal in my field or writing an article for publication. Stealing back bits of my life in a system that insists I "Publish or Perish."
Let me close with Stratton's words, some of which I quoted here last summer:
[Knitters] represent a broad group of people who demonstrate the value of their time and personal agency. Whether or not the popularity of hobby-craft provides widespread evidence of a general, conscious interest in slow-activism is debatable, but the surge of interest in needlecraft as a means to foster community and as a vehicle for political expression is notable.
Perhaps what makes knitting important is its stubbornness. It refuses to be pinned down. It is neither an economically efficient way to clothe people, nor are knitters overtly challenging oppression and stopping war with fuzzy scarves. But what it does undo, one stitch at a time, is the idea that efficiency is a cultural value. In the absence of being able or even remotely wanting, to return to archaic, pastoral time, knitting does reunite the body with the product of its labour and a sense of natural time. It forces the individual to slow down and savour each second in a stitch, watching something grow and evolve, and marking each minute. It makes tangible the actions of our hands in a way the keyboard for the average office worker, accountant, copywriter, lawyer or cashier will never do. As a form of symbolic agency, it points to a burgeoning desire for reconnection with the physical, a reconnection that provides an authentic, inalienable experience, despite being unable to completely transcend the market.
In a culture that expects us to be busy and productive, time is something that we are afraid to waste. Perhaps that is why public knitting has become a prevalent performance: on trains and in coffee shops, on park benches and in classrooms, alone and in groups, the exchange of ideas and patterns, advice and conversation both related--and unrelated--to the hat taking shape on the needles. Public knitting proclaims openly: 'If time has to be spent, why not be thrifty?" Why not increase the value of one's own time by marking and savouring it, changing the terms for and exchange value of our free time. Knitting may be one of the provisional solutions, a gesture for the here-and-now, which, while blatantly slow (or at least inefficient), savours time rather than spends it.

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