Of Essence and Maintenance

For about a year I have been wrestling with the question of maintenance as it relates to wabi sabi.  I'd even gone so far as to email a few authors on the subject to get their thoughts on maintenance but they seemed to have struggled with it to an extent as well.

To summarize my dilemma, I go back to the opposed pairs that Leonard Koren puts in his first book on wabi sabi.  He lists maintenance, specifically saying "needs to be well-maintained," among the attributes of the modern and while opposing it with "accommodates degradation and attrition" when listing the characteristics of wabi sabi.  However, whenever I reflected on it or wrote about it, this opposition never aligned neatly.  There remains ambiguity around the topic of maintenance.  There is, after all, a willingness to let things degrade to the end of their life cycles.  We do not maintain a rose as it wilts.  We let this aspect of life unfold without interference.  Maintenance may involve a range of interventions, ranging from the patching of a hole in a pairs of denims to getting a botox injection. The distinction is evident at the extremes, but there is enough grey area to leave maintenance between the concepts of degradation and disposability.

In the 2008 Pixar movie WALL-E, the title character conducts his lonely routine cleaning up the planet and regularly maintaining himself.  As parts break down, "he" replaces them and is able to keep himself running.  "He" is scuffed, rusty, dirty and marked by the passage of time in ways that embody wabi sabi and (whether incidentally or consequently) endear him to the audience. While a robot, "his" mechanical nature and evident moving parts enhance his appeal and the denim-patch level of maintenance is possible and embodies his commitment to his directive.  Despite being solar-powered, sentient enough to make his own repairs, indulge in "his" VHS collection and... fall in love, "he" still has the quirks and foibles of those old TV's and cars that needed to warm up and other appliances that had eccentricities that prompted owners and users to form an attachment.  He's an old clunker, a jalopy.

WALL-E's autonomous repair jobs raise a question, however; is "he" after centuries of changing and replacing parts what "he" always was?  The repairs may have made him different from the robot that was first abandoned when Earth was declared unliveable, but his essence is the same. The repairs that have occurred over the centuries have been like the replenishment of human cells in our bodies.  These changes are also ongoing, and while there may be the philosophical argument that we are no longer the same, our individual essence remains intact.

EVE, however, embodies the modern and its lack of the wabi sabi qualities that win the audience over to WALL-E.  She is slick, smooth, illuminated and has been assembled in such a seamless manner that the replacement of individual parts as she wears down appears unlikely.  Gradually degradation, like that which has occurred to WALL-E, seems unlikely to grace EVE.  Instead, there is a greater chance of disposal upon damage or obsolescence. While WALL-E's mottled appearance indicates his age and the time that he has lived through, EVE's monochrome appearance is not only unblemished, but it also represents a black and white or binary way of perceiving and responding to the world.  This is evident in the quick draw response to the unknowns that WALL-E poses when he first attempts to get to know her and court her.  Her directives are precise and during the time she first explores Earth, she seems far less capable than WALL-E even though the technology is likely newer. Such are the diminishing returns when we pursue this degree of precision.  Considering the task she has been assigned, what is her fate when she accomplishes her work?  The movie focuses on the question of whether and when to return to Earth and her fate is not threatened by this shift in focus.

Perhaps it is in the conflict over the return to Earth that the modernist response to change and impermanence are best illustrated. The technologies that have been adopted over time to keep the Axiom running and its passengers numbed oppose a return to Earth.

Today, many real world responses to changes that threaten status quo look to preserve superficialities and differences that should, by now, be acknowledged for their insignificance and allowed to go through their decline.  In WALL-E, preserving the unhealthy, stagnant and artificial realm of the Axiom, the space-lifeboat that mankind has exiled itself to while Earth is uninhabitable, somehow seems imperative despite its utter lack of authenticity. Its time has come and the ideal move is to turn for home and shed the unhealthy habits that have been fostered in that tech slick paradise/ penitentiary. Still, there is resistance because it is familiar and there is a false belief that the familiar should be eternal and universal.

The environment, however, especially as artificial and superficial as it is, needs to be allowed its due demise.  Maintaining this, by the dubious interventions deployed by the robots that heighten the autonomy of the machines and lowers the autonomy of the humans on board, undermines the humanity of the characters who reside on the Axiom. In the real world as well, the dubious interventions that are used to maintain status quo, to keep tyrants in power, to keep income distribution unequal, and to keep the planet's sustainability in jeopardy are threats, but sadly, more energy continues to be funnelled into these status quos rather than maintaining our planet and supporting one another's survival in a way that recognizes the synergy and coherence in a more natural environment that, among other things, accepts that things are imperfect, incomplete and impermanent.

We have surrounded ourselves with too much of the disposable -- not just objects manufactured in a way that maximizes convenience for us, but also in terms of the value those conveniences and values contribute to our lives and well-being.  When we turn our attention back to surrounding ourselves with things and values that are worth maintaining, preserving and fostering, there will be a much more pleasant environment that we will see the value in maintaining.