repair in Mars & Medak 2019
and Revolution’, we interpret that uniquely creative period
as a period of ambivalence toward an ‘unpredictable political future’ that was open to
diverging routes of social development. We situate the later re-emergence of avant-garde
practices in the 1960s as an attempt to subvert the separations that a mature capitalism
imposes on social reality. In the present, we claim, the radicality equivalent to the avantgarde is to divest from the disruptive dynamic of innovation and focus on the repair,
maintenance and care of the broken social world left in techno-capitalism’s wake.
Comparably, the university and the public library should be able to claim the radical
those gesture of slowdown and custodianship too, against the imperative of innovation
imposed on them by policymakers and managers.
Custodians.online, the first letter
On 30 November, 2015 a number of us shadow librarians who advocate, build
and maintain ‘shadow libraries’, i.e. online infrastructures allowing users to
h ever fewer jobs to go around? Can they do it with
less money? Can they shift the cost, risk and responsibility for social challenges
to individual students and patrons, who are now facing the prospect of their
investment in education never working out? Under these circumstances, the
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imperative is that these institutions have to re-invent themselves, that they have
to innovate in order to keep up with the disruptive course and accelerated the
pace of change.
Custodianship and repair
In what follows we will argue against submitting to this imperative of innovation.
Starting from the conditions from which shadow libraries emerge, as laid out in
the first Custodians.online letter, we claim that the historical trajectory of the
university and the library demands that they now embrace a position of
disobedience. They need to go back to their universalizing mission of providing
access to knowledge and education unconditionally to all members of society.
That universalism is a pow
comes the fore.
There’s then the sunken fixed capital that is no longer productive enough.
There’s then technical infrastructures and social institutions that were there
before the innovation and still remain there once its effect tapers off, removed
from view in the productivist mindset, and yet invisibly sustaining that activity of
innovation and any other activity in the social world we inhabit (Hughes, 1993).
What remains then is the maintenance of stagnant infrastructures, the work of
repair to broken structures and of care for resources that we collectively depend
As a number of scholars who have turned their attention to the matters of repair,
maintenance and care suggest, it is the sedimented material infrastructures of
the everyday and their breakdown that in fact condition and drive much of the
innovation process (Graham and Thrift, 2007; Jackson, 2014). As the renowned
historian of technology Thomas Hughes suggested (Hughes, 1993),
technological changes largely address the critical problems of existing
technologies. Earlier still, in the 1980s, David Noble convincingly argued that the
development of forces of production is a func
rns in the contemporary
capitalist technosphere start to collapse, the collective coping strategies have to
rise to the challenge. Industrial disasters, breakdowns of infrastructures and
natural catastrophes have taught us that much.
In an age where a global division of labor is producing a growing precarity for
ever larger segments of the world’s working population and the planetary
systems are about to tip into non-linear changes, a truly radical gesture is that
which takes as its focus the repair of the effects of productivism. Approaching the
library and the university through the optic of social infrastructure allows us to
glimpse a radicality that their supposed inertia, complexity and stability make
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possible. This slowdown enables the processes of learning and the construction
of collective responses to the double crisis of growth and the environment.
In a social world in which precarity is differently experienced between different
groups, these institutions can acc
to study, convenience to do so at home and financial prospects to incur a debt by
enrolling in a university, these institutions should, could and sometimes do
provide sustaining social arrangements and resources – not only to academics,
students and patrons, but also to a general public – that can reduce economic
imperatives and diminish insecurities. While doing this they also create
institutional preconditions that, unlike business-cycle driven institutions, can
support the structural repair that the present double crisis demands.
If the historical avant-garde was birthing of the new, nowadays repeating its
radicalism would seem to imply cutting through the fog of innovation. Its
radicalism would be to inhabit the non-new. The non-new that persists and in the
background sustains the broken social and technological world that the technocapitalist innovation wants to disrupt and transcend. Bullshit jobs and simulating
busyness at work are correlative of the fact that free time and the abundance of
social wealth created by growing productivity have paradoxically resulted in
underemployment and inequality. We’re at a juncture: accelerated crisis of
capitalism, accelerated climate change, accelerated erosion of political systems
are trajectories that leave little space for repair. The full surrender of
technological development into the hands of the market forces leaves even less.
The avant-garde radicalism nowadays is standing with the social institutions that
permit, speaking with Lauren Berlant, the ‘loose convergence’ of social
heterogeneity needed to construct ‘transitional form[s]’ (2016: 394). Unlike the
solutionism of techno-communities (Morozov, 2013) that tend to reduce
uncertainty of situations and conflict of values, social institutions permit
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