Monday, September 7, 2009

For the Value of INefficiency -- hurrah!

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.


  1. How interesting to read this after a conversation I had yesterday with a friend who has taken up knitting as an antidote to the crazed, work-driven life she'd been experiencing for the last year or so. She also loves the sociability of knitting, hanging out at the LYS with other knitters.

    I think one thing that's often missing in our fast, throwaway lives is a sense of connectedness with our world, and I can see how practices like knitting, slow food, etc. would help restore some of that connection.

  2. I love the concept of savouring time rather than spending it ... Although my knitting has been sporadic at best recently, I've always taken this approach to food and cooking. It's true that I could cook faster, 'more efficient' meals a lot of the time - but what FOR? So I can spend more time in front of the television? And apart from the cultural and political aspects of these 'slow' activities, there's also the meditative aspect - something we get so little of in daily life, but which is so essential to my sanity.

    Keep knitting, I say!

  3. Pseu: I "met" your friend on Ravelry -- the social network/project database for knitters. She seems to be quickly discovering the great community of knitters and the joys of creativity that knitting brings -- and yes, connectedness, above all, a knitting-together.
    Tiffany: Yes, it is soooo meditative, knitting, as it insists in us occupying the present, physically. I have a neighbour who is a big advocate for labyrinths as spiritual/meditative practice, and I am interested, but don't feel the same need, I think, because I get much of that in my knitting.

  4. I just love walking by The Purple Purl and seeing all the 20-something knitters. Definitely see them enjoying the "off the treadmill" aspect. But does it that it "subverts the capitalist system" when most are not raising the sheep, shearing and spinning? The knitters' boutiques look pretty late-capitalist to me, and I say this with affection and respect for knitters and vendors alike. No different from me buying yoga classes, another form of leisure that has had a resurgence.

    I laugh at myself sometimes when I think how much I spend just to slow down.

  5. Sorry- intended to write "does it mean that they are "subvert(ing) the capitalist system"...

  6. Duchesse: More and more, knitters are asking for, and getting, yarns that are spun closer and closer to home, produced in environmentally friendlier manners, from sheep (and other animals)that are grown in animal-friendly conditions.
    And I think Stratton's point, with which I agree, is that knitting is one among many possible activities that makes us more aware of the labour associated with the production of fabric rather than effacing that labour. Subversion, in my books anyway, can be a tweaking, a consciousness-raising to use a good old feminist term, as much as an actual overturning.

  7. This post very neatly voices why I have so little in common with Emin. Anyone who can ask “what have you done all day” is missing the point of life. He measures everything that others do, but is more mercurial at measuring himself, much of what he does is less quantifiable than knitting (watching television, going to the gym) but because they have a place value in his life they are deemed worthwhile.
    This is fine, but he is the first to sneer at anyone drawing or being creative and yet to me they are of equal worth to any of his chosen activities he does or that does not generate an income. For that is what he appears to measure the success of others by.
    Your post is particularly pertinent in today’s society. I grew up making most of what I played with. Be it clothes for my dolls or furniture for my dolls house. I am as guilty as the next person when I succumb to buying the very same things I made as a child. I now see that the value I placed on them was so much greater than my children place on the toys they had.
    We live in a society that is increasingly driven by instant gratification and this book is a good reminder of why we should not just slow down, but enjoy all that gives us pleasure, rather than feel guilty for doing it because something more vocational should take precedent.
    Something beautifully crafted is of so much greater value and worth in a generation that sees clothing as deposable. This book should be trumpeted from the rooftops.
    We knit therefore we are!

  8. I love this quote. I copied it down the last time you wrote it out. After handing in the final, final draft of my MA thesis I thought that NOW I could practice my slow activism, I could save my time rather than spend it, but I'm finding their is something insidious about modernity; it demands attension in a way that exhausts almost any stillness. The linear thrust of modern narratives force us to view our lives as a sequence of endless deadlines looming upon the horizon. If only the circularity of knitting could be viewed as an alternative narrative where cycles, relationships and interconnection could be just as revered as the insatiable lines of progress that culturally and politcally we hold so dear.

  9. Alison: There is so much in our society that encourages us to measure by the chequebook, by the hourly wage. But what was it Wordsworth said? "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers" -- still true!
    Anon: Yes! I used to imagine getting past the series of deadlines confronting me, but as I've grown older, I've realized the best I can hope for is an ability to ignore the deadlines or to re-contextualize them. Your phrase about modernity demanding attention so as to "exhaust almost any stillness" has a powerful cautionary effect. Hard to resist this demand for attention, but stillness is worth striving for. I suspect that all religions have some form of that invitation, "Be still and know that I am God" -- and I still find it a powerful one, no matter how God or spirituality might be defined.


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...