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An Introduction to the Labours of Repair and Maintenance in South Asia
America can put a rover on Mars, but it can’t keep the lights on and water running in the city that birthed the modern space program. It can develop vaccines, in record time, to combat a world-altering illness, but suffers one of the developed world’s highest death rates due to lack of prevention and care. It spins out endless entertainment to keep millions preoccupied during lockdown — and keep tech shares riding high on Wall Street — but leaves kids disconnected from the access they need to do their schoolwork.
We are called, as always, to “build a new world in the shell of the old”. The price and fetish of novelty, in ideas as in technical systems, is a blind ahistoricism and wasteful obsolescence that may have gotten us into “this mess” in the first place. Can we come instead in the name of repair and maintenance, and not to make or originate? There is much work to be done, dear readers. Let us begin, again.
Our paradigm for value is production. But if you think about it, most work is not productive. Most work is actually about maintaining things, it’s about care. Whenever I talk to a Marxist theorist, and they try to explain value, which is…what they always like to do, they always take the example of a teacup. They’ll say like…usually they’re sitting there with a glass, a bottle, a cup. They say, “Well, look at this bottle. You know, it takes a certain amount of socially-necessary labor time to produce this. Say it takes you know, this much time, this much resources.” They’re always talking about production of stuff.
But a teacup or a bottle, well you know, you produce a cup once. You wash it like ten thousand times. Most work isn’t actually about producing new things, it’s about maintaining things.
Those who maintain the U.S. electrical grid are enacting emergency measures to minimize the chance that Americans’ electrical service will be interrupted.
As I continued my Right to Repair research, I noticed that Apple kept coming up. Initially, I thought advocates used Apple as an example because the company is famous and iconic and because its use of repair restrictions is clear and communicable. But the deeper I went into research and writing, the more I realized that the champions of Right to Repair weren’t just picking on Apple because it is an easy target (let’s face it, Apple has always had its haters). People kept bringing up Apple because Apple was what the regulatory and legal worlds call a bad actor — a company with a known and established pattern of unethical behavior.
Written a year after the birth of her first child, Ukeles' Manifesto calls for a readdressing of the status of maintenance work both in the private, domestic space, and in public. Through this she attempts to break down the barriers between what we think of as 'work' and what can be labeled 'artwork'.