The Disappearing Art Of Maintenance

The way the world is constructed today is no longer legible, politically or technically. Objects come and go under mysterious circumstances. Cars and trains either run or someone else fixes them. The objects in our lives are shipped to us from faraway lands, and they work until they don’t. Discarded, they get hauled away in the early morning by stinky trucks.

Maintenance mostly happens out of sight, mysteriously. If we notice it, it’s a nuisance. When road crews block off sections of highway to fix potholes, we treat it as an obstruction, not a vital and necessary process.

As a type of work that straddles production and consumption, maintenance can help us reckon with both the limits and possibilities of industrial society. ​ Technical and political-economic concerns are perversely entangled. There is the problem of a crumbling bridge, and then there is the problem of coordinating public action to fix a crumbling bridge. There is a technical answer, a set of actions and materials that must be brought to bear, but the political answer is just as important. The follow-up questions pour in: What if it would be better to build a new bridge in a new place, based on changes in demographics? What if the bridge was constructed shoddily from the beginning and should be completely rebuilt? What if society is moving away from automobile travel and requires other bridges built in different ways?

The price mechanism, and the labor system built around it, is fundamentally opposed to maintenance, both in its narrowest practical applications and in its broadest philosophical implications. The fact that the failures of capitalism happened to encourage maintenance practices at the margins is not worth emulating, and we shouldn’t be waiting around for climate change to recreate that austerity at a global scale.