Sunday, May 1, 2011

Inherent Vice

I'm reading "The Same Ax, Twice" and this little thought came to me during my reading.

"Inherent vice." I've heard and used that expression so often for things like the problems of wood pulp paper - the lignin, the acid, etc. But now, upon reading that phrase, it occurred to me - we are declaring what is naturally appropriate to an object as a vice?

Vices are bad things - things that should be stopped (or done, but with a guilty conscience knowing that you really shouldn't.) The inherent vices of materials, as I understand them, are those things within the materials that cause their own decay.

Is a flower loosing its petals the "inherent vice" of the flower? Is becoming a teenager an "inherent vice" of being a child?

Woodpulp paper decays quickly, because that is the natural life of its chemical and physical construction. Is that bad? I guess it seems bad if we are wanting to keep the woodpulp paper in good condition for a long period of time, but the problem seems to be our high desires or expectations for a material that has no business meeting those high desires and expectations. And because it won't do what we want, we say it is riddled with vice - it must be bad and we must try to reform it.

The language of "inherent vice" seems to have a demonizing-the-enemy quality to it. If we use enough bad language about it, the funders will give us money to fight it. Maybe we should create a new conservation category - "evildoers." "Lignin is an evildoer. It must be eradicated and the cellulose must be liberated." That would get the NEH's attention.

This little reflection is not to imply that I think we should give up on trying to preserving things that are hard to preserve, but just a though about our use of the language of "inherent vice." That said, I'm thinking about adding a sign in my shop that reads "Vice Squad."


  1. I love this post.

    There's actually a Conservation Supply firm called the Inherent Vice Squad. Their stuff is pretty cute too.

    And you're right, there are four definitions of vice that are all about morality before you get to the fifth one which is how we use it in Conservation.

    I see inherent vice more as something that conservators need to accept and/or learn to work around more than it is something to rail against. Metal corrodes, this is something that objects conservators get to deal with in statues as well as library and archives conservators with iron gall ink. It's part of the nature of any object, coupled with entropy, to want to destroy itself over time. That's why we have job security.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post.
    I learned about Inherent Vice Squad after I published this post - otherwise I would have mentioned them. I'm quite envious that I didn't think up that name first.

  3. I like the evildoers idea! There is a an interesting article that does a textual analysis of conservation talks. I will to find the citation, it is British.

    I think just plain inherent is definition enough when describing things...vice is a bit much! Wonder who came up with it...someone in the 80's?

  4. The textual analysis article sounds intriguing. Please share the citation if you find it.