The Temporal Modes of Maintenance Work
This paper develops a temporal awareness of practices of ‘maintenance’ – practices that seek to sustain the material conditions and the hopes of others, or the belief in anachronistic ideals. It draws on Lauren Berlant’s recent work on ‘cruel optimism’, specifically her analysis of practices such as over-eating that are neither imply acts of resistance to the wearing out of the body brought about by neoliberalism, nor acts of self-destruction, but what Berlant calls ‘suspension’ of the self as a form of self-maintenance. Berlant’s argument is that as the gap between the fantasy of the good life (upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and lively durable intimacy) and the actual lives we lead have got wider and wider, these acts that suspend the self are forms of maintenance of this frayed fantasy. Maintenance, however, has its own temporal dynamics - it a durational practice, one concerned with the time of suspension, of waiting, of bearing the state of nothing happening, of the inability to bring about tangible or obvious forms of change. Rather than characterizing the time of maintenance as ‘dead’ time, I read Berlant alongside the seminal work of the feminist performance and social artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Since the late 1970’s Ukeles has called herself a ‘maintenance artist’, seeking, amongst other things to raise the profile of waste, and also those, such as the City of New York sanitation workers, who work on behalf of the city to process and manage waste. Ukeles links this to a feminist agenda of making visible maintenance work in its temporal dimensions – the ongoing commitment to making the lives of others possible, and to the now ‘anachronistic’ belief in the central role of public institutions in the management of the social fabric. In doing so, Ukeles produces an alternative temporal mode to that of the continuous work time of capitalism, asking us to think again about what has become a degraded object world, and a degraded social system.
Lisa Baraitser joined Birkbeck as a faculty member in 2005, and has been involved in the development of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck since then. Her first degree was in Medical Science and Psychology, followed by a Masters in Counselling and Psychotherapy, and a PhD in Psychology. Between 1995 and 2005 she trained as a psychodynamic counsellor, and worked in NHS and third sector settings, thinking through the psychological ramifications of violence, abuse and poverty in the lives of women. During this time, she was also the Artistic Director of an experimental theatre collective known as PUR. Since taking up an academic position, Lisa has developed research interests in gender and sexuality, motherhood and the maternal, feminist theory, psychoanalysis, and philosophies of ethics, affects, materiality, temporality and event.
from our workshop on Power, Time and Agency held in Manchester, January 2013