Maintenance and repair as cultural work

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 2.

Fernando Domínguez Rubio

Univ. of California, San Diego

Over the last few years the notions of maintenance and repair have garnered growing attention in fields like media and communication studies, anthropology, social studies of science, and urban studies. So far, however, they have not entered into debates in American cultural sociology. When I received the invitation to curate a small section for this newsletter, I thought it could be a good opportunity to prick sociological curiosities and open up a conversation about maintenance and repair from the perspective of cultural sociology.

 Admittedly, this proposal may not seem a very enticing one, at least at first sight. After all, the kinds of activities that normally fall under the rubric of maintenance and repair are some of the most banal, time-consuming, and pain-in-the-ass things that we have to confront in our daily lives—studying something like, say, pothole repair is probably not very high on most people’s “Great Research Topics!” lists. At the same time, while boring and mundane, maintenance and repair are also some of the most critical activities we engage in on a daily basis. But why is that?

 Maintenance and repair are examples of what I call in my forthcoming book “mimeographic labor”, which is that type labor devoted to creating the same” (Domínguez Rubio, 2020). I emphasize “create” because it is often assumed that the same is what is given and the new is what needs to be created. If that was the case, our lives would certainly be much easier; but unfortunately, it is not. The same is always as created as the new. Moreover, the same is not just created, it is a most fragile creation, as it has to be continually achieved, maintained and repaired. This is why a great deal of daily life is consumed participating in (or suffering from) a myriad of maintenance and repair activities: our cars need their oil, brakes, and tires to be changed periodically; our walls need to be repainted, floors washed, lightbulbs replaced; our hair and nails need to be cut; our computers’ and cellphones’ software needs to be updated; our sidewalks, roads, buildings need to be constantly repaired, and on and on… Much to our regret, these maintenance and repair activities are not optional. Without them all of those objects and systems around which we organize our lives would simply collapse in front of our eyes. So we are stuck in them. Endlessly.

 Interestingly, as pervasive as these mimeographic activities of maintenance and repair are in our daily lives, they have been mostly absent in the writing of social scientists. Theories and narratives of social and cultural life have tended to focus on those who are in charge of imagining and producing the new—e.g., artists, politicians, philosophers, scientists, or architects—since they have been understood to be the ones producing political, economic or social value. Meanwhile, the ordinary labor of the “others of creation”—e.g. housekeepers, cleaners, plumbers, care workers, mechanics, or conservators—has been deemed irrelevant, since it has been deemed to play a “merely” reproductive role and therefore lack any creative (and with it political, economic or cultural) value.

 Only in the last few decades has this neglect of maintenance and repair work begun to change. The insurgence of feminist thought in the 1960s led scholars to question traditional boundaries between production and reproduction by bring to the fore forms of labor which, like women’s domestic labor, had been disdained for being “invisible, repetitive, exhausting, unproductive, uncreative” (Davis 1981, 222). Over the last decade or so, a new wave of scholars has expanded this initial frame to explore all those routine acts of maintenance and repair that keep the architectures, infrastructures, and techno-scientific systems on which our lives depend up and running (e.g. Denis and Pontille 2014; Graham and Thrift 2007; Jackson 2000; Mattern 2018; Russell and Vinsel 2018). The timing of this renewed attention to maintenance and repair is not coincidental. In a world where creativity has been elevated to the status of a cult, and where innovation charlatans are idolized with blind devotion, these approaches are trying to carve out a space for alternative narratives that shift our attention to agents and forms of labor that those hegemonic discourses occlude and forget.

 Now, here you may be rightly asking yourself: Ok, this is all fine and dandy, but why exactly should cultural sociologists care about any of this?

 The answer I would like to offer here is that mimeographic activities of maintenance and repair are crucial forms of cultural labor through which meanings, categories, and values are produced and sustained over time. To see why this is the case, we have to remember that, as Terry McDonnell (2016) has recently written, cultural forms are always subjected to entropic processes that break down and fracture their intended meanings over time. It requires a lot of cultural labor to prevent those meanings from collapsing. Needless to say, there is a venerable tradition in cultural sociology focused on this type of cultural labor. For example, those working in the tradition of ethnomethodology have long studied how meanings, categories and values are constantly “breached” and need to be endlessly repaired through micro-interactions; meanwhile, those in the Bourdieusian tradition have focused on the habitus as mechanism through which meanings, categories, and values are silently reproduced over time. Others, like Michele Lamont, have focused on the symbolic work required to maintain cultural boundaries, while those in the cognitive tradition spearheaded by Paul DiMaggio or Karen Cerulo have focused on the role that mental schemata play in maintaining cultural representations over time.

 The attention to maintenance and repair complements these approaches by inviting us to pay attention to a form of cultural labor that is not adequately captured by the traditional cultural sociologist kit of interactions, habitus, symbolic boundaries, or mental schemata. This is the kind of material labor required to maintain and repair categories, meanings, and value. Such labor is critical because, as cultural sociologists like Claudio Benzecry, Thomas Gieryn, Antoine Hennion, Harvey Molotch, Chandra Mukerji, and Geneviève Zubrzycki have shown, cultural orders are material orders. And as such, they require a lot of mimeographic material labor to be kept alive. Think, for example, of the massive amount of mimeographic labor of maintenance and repair invested in middle- or high-class neighborhoods to sustain the physical décor of class distinction—so poignantly illustrated by the work of the artist Ramiro Gómez. Or think about the vast amount of mimeographic labor invested to prevent cultural objects—e.g. architectures, landscapes, artworks— from losing their intended meanings—and think about what happens when such mimeographic process fails or stops. Or the equally vast amount of mimeographic labor required to sustain categories in our increasingly algorithmic cultures, like the silent work of coders maintaining and fixing search results to make sure they fall within the appropriate cultural categories—think of Google’s and Amazon’s recent fiascos in that area—or the equally massive cultural work invested in practices like content moderation, algorithmic policing or AI recognition to maintain and fix cultural boundaries around “normality” or “deviance”.

 So if we now return to the question of why cultural sociologists should pay attention to these mimeographic practices, we could say that they provide an excellent window into some of the critical, but largely invisible, forms of cultural labor through which the social, political, and symbolic orders that we inhabit are silently produced, negotiated, and maintained over time. Or differently put, if we need to study this type of mimeographic labor of maintenance and repair it is because no social, political, or symbolic order can be fully described, let alone understood, without attending to the forms of duration, boundaries, and sameness that these activities build into those orders.

 This much is evident in the four short notes in this section. All of them are written by scholars operating outside the confines of American cultural sociology, but with a lot to offer to it. Each contribution highlights a specific area in which maintenance and repair is critical and potentially interesting for cultural sociologists. For example, Jérôme Denis and David Pontille focus on how the material and symbolic order of a city like Paris is constructed through two specific forms of maintenance and repair labor: the maintenance of underground signage and graffiti removal. Sarah Pink turns our attention to the maintenance and repair processes required to sustain the digital data on which predictive analytics, big data, and, increasingly our own research depend. Relatedly, Lara Houston, focuses on how maintenance and repair are creating their own social movements, like the “fixer” collectives that have emerged over the last years to claim the “right to repair” against industries producing objects increasingly closed-off in proprietary hardware and software regimes. Finally, Jessica Meyerson, Andrew Russell, and Lee Vinsel focus on The Maintainers—an intellectual community they have created to spearhead the conversation around conversation around repair, to reflect on possible ways this community can intersect with sociological conversations.

 References

Davis, Angela Y. 1981. Women, Race, & Class. Vintage.

Denis, Jérôme, and David Pontille. 2014. “Material Ordering and the Care of Things.” Science, Technology & Human Values 40(3) 338-367

Domínguez Rubio, Fernando. 2020. Still Life. Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum.

Graham, Stephen, and Nigel Thrift. 2007. “Out of Order.” Theory, Culture & Society 24 (3): 1–25.

Jackson, Steven. 2014 “Rethinking Repair,.” In Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society, edited by Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kristen Foot. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press: 221-239

Mattern, Shannon. 2018 “Maintenance and Care.” Places Journal, November. https://placesjournal.org/article/maintenance-and-care/.

McDonnell, Terence E. 2016. Best Laid Plans. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Russell, Andrew L., and Lee Vinsel. 2018. “After Innovation, Turn to Maintenance.” Technology and Culture 59(1): 1–25. 

 

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