the call to maintenance

I’m full of ideas after reading this amazing essay by Shannon Mattern, “Maintenance and Care: Fixing a Broken World”:

In many academic disciplines and professional practices — architecture, urban studies, labor history, development economics, and the information sciences, just to name a few — maintenance has taken on new resonance as a theoretical framework, an ethos, a methodology, and a political cause. This is an exciting area of inquiry precisely because the lines between scholarship and practice are blurred. To study maintenance is itself an act of maintenance. To fill in the gaps in this literature, to draw connections among different disciplines, is an act of repair or, simply, of taking care — connecting threads, mending holes, amplifying quiet voices.

Mattern links to the site of The Maintainers, who set themselves in ironic opposition to “the innovators”:

“Innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

The Maintainers is a global, interdisciplinary research network that takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

This converges with David Edgerton’s marvelous book The Shock of the Old, with its account of how familiar technologies get continually renewed and repurposed, but also resonates with the great call of Tikkun olam: the repair, the renewal, the maintenance, of the world.

As a Christian and a professor of humanities, I find all this especially intriguing because it offers a subtle but vital correction to more familiar ideas of “conserving” or “upholding” a tradition. Traditions, seen from the perspective of a Maintainer, need active caring for. They must be kept in constant repair. To put them away in glass cases is to render them useless, so they must be taken out and used, but that exposes them to wear and tear to which the Maintainer must always be sensitive. They must be actively tended to, like an internal combustion engine, or a garden. There’s a whole Theory of Life here. Or my life, anyway.