Shannon Mattern on Maintenance and Care

“What we really need to study is how the world gets put back together, the everyday work of maintenance, caretaking, and repair… Who gets cared for at home, and who does that tending and mending?”

This piece in Places Journal by New School design anthropologist Shannon Mattern is so essential and restorative. I find myself almost sighing in relief each time I re-read this essay, which reminds us that a world breaking down in so many ways still works: because of the quiet labor of maintenance and care undertaken by countless people.

Rust, Dust, Cracks, Corruption: as we travel with Mattern through these different scales and forms of care, what emerges is something like an everyday ethics of environmental repair, arising not from the commitments of self-identified environmentalists (though many here would certainly think of themselves that way) but instead from the practical demands of daily life in particular contexts.

Mattern rightly insists that the aim is not to romanticize or glorify these practices of care, which are riven with inequality, and often compulsion. Instead, we are reminded of the presence, and the necessity, of an infrastructural ecology: “Maintenance at any particular site, or on any particular body or object, requires the maintenance of an entire ecology: attending to supply chains, instruments, protocols, social infrastructures, and environmental conditions.”

The essay has heady implications for any intended practice of ecological design, which must necessarily enfold some vision of environmental maintenance. From Mattern, “three enduring truths: (1) Maintainers require care; (2) caregiving requires maintenance; and (3) the distinctions between these practices are shaped by race, gender, class, and other political, economic, and cultural forces.”

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This article adopts a phenomenological perspective to show how the everyday reality of keeping objects and structures going is obscured by a larger macroeconomic point of view, but when there is a breakdown of the system, that reveals the underlying mechanism of maintenance, repair and care. Paying special attention not to idealize or romanticize care, it turns to feminist work on domestic labor and non-Western practices of maintenance and care.
In our present situation, crisis made visible a group of “maintenance” or essential workers, especially the invisible essential workers, as maintenance they provided stopped and things started to break down. This piece provides a new perspective when read against the current breakdown of the recycling system (city recycling pick up stopped at least until November) in Baltimore City, especially in terms of how some residents and neighborhoods are trying to maintain recycling, instead of turning to the ease of just throwing recycling out with the trash, as many landlords have suggested we do. One resident started to offer recycling pick up services in exchange for $20 per household, while some other residents have been trying to take turns picking up the recycling of multiple homes and driving it to the community recycling center for free. And some decided to throw recycling out as trash, because it’s more convenient. This can be seen as an instance where breakdown has “world-disclosing properties.” This breakdown in the system puts the individuals in a position of responsibility which requires giving up certain personal conveniences, therefore revealing the overall lack of care invested in the act of recycling before the city stopped its services. Yet, at the same time, it opens up new possibilities of cooperation, and an exercise in thinking through a crisis, albeit minor, as a community, showcasing the “adaptation and improvisation.” For example, neighborhoods with an already existing network of communication can organize much faster in dealing with this situation and distributing the work. On the other hand, this issue also prompted a new effort to create these channels of communication.

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In the corruption section of this piece, Mattern describes the code and data of our daily lives and its need for maintenance. This kind of repair is not as familiar so us as the other methods described earlier in her writing. Besides the relatively recent invention of the internet, AI, and robots, there are other reasons why this maintenance remains largely invisible to us. Cracks in walls, pothole in streets, dust on our shelves, broken appliances, and even the buildup of recycling as Hale mentioned are easy to see. We experience this things in our physical lives. Data and code do not function the same way. The interface we see through our computer screens is a translation of the computer language of 1s and 0s, sophisticated lines of code, and a matrix of electrical signals. All of these things require maintenance as well, even if we don’t recognize it. Mattern describes the rapid burnout of people working to clear the internet of pornographic images, violent videos, and other unseemly media. I never imagined there were actual people adjacent to me yet far away, clearing my path of unwanted data. They see these undesirable images so that I don’t have to. As I think about the people working diligently to provide a safe and productive internet for all of its users, an important question comes to mind. Who is taking care of them?

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In this article, Mattern describes the life cycle of Western e-waste, tracing how some discarded electronics from North America and Europe come to live out a second life after passing through the Ghanian e-waste refurbishment market. Technicians carry out their work in open-air shops, engaging colleagues, novices looking to build technical skills, and random passers-by alike in a collective process of repair. Their task is partly reverse engineering and partly careful reassembly, but it also presents an opportunity to rebuild better. By prying open interfaces that were never meant to be tampered with, repairmen are extending the longevity of these gadgets long past what their developers intended. Sociologist Jenna Burrell describes this secondhand electronics market as being defined by, “‘finding opportunities for agency and innovation’ in their provisioning, repair, and distribution.”

Similarly to Anand, to me reading this piece felt like applying a balm to the some of the unease I feel at living in a world that is dysfunctional and in a constant state of deterioration. More specifically applying this ethos of repair to the practice of ecological design, I find that it it really soothes some of my anxieties about working within built environments and political and socioeconomic systems that were not meant to accommodate ecological thinking. Even if we are operating within complex spaces shaped by oppressive and destructive systems of power, in repairing the damage that these systems have reaped, we also face opportunities to rebuild better.

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Adding the frame and logic of “maintenance” to design projects requires a future-oriented reconsideration of the labor-effects of any intervention. Mattern’s article is indeed essential to accounting for the state of the world around us, and the futures we aim to build.

This piece made me reflect on the entanglements between care, labor, intimacy, and inequality. I thought of my first-generation-born great-aunt, rendered totally blind from diphtheria as a small child, who had a viable career as a telephone repair technician for Bell Telephone. Despite her extreme disability, she found economic valuation by contributing to the maintenance the household equipment that was part of the defining communication technology of the 20th century. I now have a thrift-store-purchased rotary phone as a toy for my children, who somehow instinctively know to put the receiver to their heads and talk. I thought of Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma, which depicts the intimacy and exploitation of an Indigenous housekeeper-nanny for a white family in Mexico City. Uneven cycles of death and life punctuate the racialized servitude of familial maintenance that the film depicts: Roma is love (“amor”) backwards, so out of order, so messy, so unfair. In terms of environmental justice, I thought of the ecological maintenance performed, nearly unpaid, by prisoners: farming, highway cleanup, disaster remediation, fire control. [N.b. California recently approved a bill allowing former prisoners who have been trained at fire camps and fought wildfires to have their criminal records expunged and apply to become firefighters.]

Maintenance and repair are processes that seek to sustain, hold fast, and keep systems across scales operational. I was left thinking about the agents of entropy against which maintainers, caregivers, repairers work: what resists and/or defies maintenance? What succumbs to maintenance? What flourishes with maintenance?

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Fascinating angle but the afterthought of " We should also remember that the preservation of our world — the human one — is sometimes at odds with caring for the ecological context. Perhaps not every road should be repaired. Geographer Caitlin DeSilvey encourages us to embrace entropy within the built world, to ask ourselves for whom we engage in preservation, and to consider cultivating an acceptance of “curated decay” where appropriate." is glaring and screaming at me. This piece is all about humans and their precious built world. The lack of maintainance of anything I think has to do with either apathy and laziness or ignorance. Much of the business world is either apathetic about the environmental repercussions of their actions. Much of the consumer world is ignorant of the environmental repercussions of their actions. We need to rebuild the consumers’ relationships with the environment so they have empathy for the fact that it is a living thing filled with other living things and maybe then they will care for it and take action in defending and healing it.

Building on that idea, I am always drawn to the Japanese practice of repairing things in the way that the imperfections are honoured, because they represent memories or specific events. The repair represents honouring the memory, how a standardized object becomes unique in its pattern of wear the history of the owner or their family. Kintsugi.