Lately, I’ve been thinking about broken things.
I thought of broken things when I looked at the concrete block marking the way of a pipeline in North Kenya that might never be built (someone had ruined it with stones); when I saw the guts of a goat spill out in front of me; when my friend one night told me, “I want to end” over, and over, and over, and over again until she fell asleep. I thought of them when the crank of my bike fell off; when I remembered how my arm hung loose in a weird angle after falling down a tree as a child or when my parents broke up. I think of broken things when I remember the stories of a crumbling wall and a uniting country; or how I saw the mushrooms growing from a tree, a fallen giant; or how the tower of rocks I had been carefully stacking on top of each other came tumbling down. And I think of them when I remember how I smashed my friend’s sand castle, its sand running through my fingers; and when I looked through a broken window, through a broken roof at the pristine equatorial sky.
I’ve been thinking about the moment of rupture, because it turns the natural and obvious distinction between thing and relation into a puzzle. There’s this moment, when you suddenly hold your bike’s crank in your hand and what just a second ago presented itself as a solid thing to you suddenly appears as a precarious mesh. It poses an existential question, one about identity. After the thing broke, did its identity shatter as well or merely adapt to its new broken form? With sudden violence, the worn-down inner bearing announces its existence in the moment of its demise, emancipating itself from the meaning-envelopment of the bike. As long as it silently worked as a connector, a relation between subsumed parts, it was invisible – now it is present. Irritatingly so. Karen Barad describes how things are cut into existence, separated as bounded objects rather than a vague and ambiguous meshwork of relations.
What perplexes me is how badly things hold together and how this seems to contradict the circumstance that regardless of their brittleness, things seem to be all there is. I am struck by the awesome but paradoxical relationship between persistence achieved through fluidity and constant disintegration, abstrusely (appropriately so) described by Marianne de Laet and Annemarie Mol in their text about Mechanics of Fluid Technology. It seems to point at something profound about the nature of reality as well as the way we look at it. The contemplation of broken things seems to suggest a world that is held together by the cracks and rifts that cross it; it suggests to look for essence not contained within things but in between them.
I am not sure where these ruminations lead. For one, it makes me look at the scars people carry on their bodies and on their minds in a different way. Thinking about broken things is freeing in a breath-taking way, like the floating moment between cutting your finger and the arrival of the grounding pain. Being broken is then not an inherent quality of things, but rather a way to look at them; the inability to see it as a whole. Some people with a particular kind of agnosia experience this phenomenon constantly: concentrating on any one object immediately tessellates it into its composing parts: A house becomes walls, become stones, become a vertiginous plunge down a scalar abyss that has – horrifyingly! – no bottom.
Luckily for us, we mostly do not notice how precariousness of the ontological ground on which we walk, because we are able to fix the scalar reality to a comfortable sturdy presence. But this scalar fix that enables us to arrange the world clearly into material, whole things and differentiate them easily from ephemeral relations between them is not an essential quality of reality. It is contingent, and a constant struggle to keep it up; a constant display: I am still identical to what I was! I exist! It is contingent, and thus may break down – as easily as a knife cuts skin; as a young boy’s bone breaks; as love is lost; or a sandcastle can be destroyed by a tyrannical child. Terrifying, yes, but only as long as one pretends that all of these things were unbroken from the beginning.
Theo is a PhD student at the School of Global Studies and part of the editorial team of the blog. This is also the only reason why he got away with a meandering stream of consciousness like this. In his work as well as his free time he thinks not only about broken things but also about railways, scales, donkeys, comics, and desire paths. He thinks it's pretty incredible that he actually gets paid for that.