Perhaps the central figure for theorizing the aesthetics of maintenance is Kierkegaard. He investigates three modes of existence which he identifies as the aesthetic, ethical, and religious. Each of these forms of life require a type of repetition which renews the form of life. In the case of the aesthetic life, the repetition is needed to maintain the degree of pleasure derivable from that kind of life. On the flip side, repetition is also what depreciates the pleasure of the aesthetic.
Some of my posts, like this one, will simply be notes to be developed further. Aristotle gets us thinking about friendship in terms of maintenance. He says in Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 8, that complete friendship is good as an activity and as a state. True friends can remain friends at a distance or while asleep; the substance of their bond is their mutual state, not their active engagement. The relationship as relation, then, is not the condition: the mutually occuring states of virtue–two separate virtuous characters–is the condition. And since character endures, the friendship endures, even in the absence of maintenance. But, as Aristotle says, even a strong friendship does not hold up with the total lack of maintenance. A long absence tends to dissolve the bond. Not the condition of the bond, but the bond itself. So, there is a double maintenance at play: the maintenance performed by each individual on his or her character and the maintenance of the bond which unites these characters. This bond is unconditionally good and unconditionally pleasant. It would seem that the good cannot fade, but the recognition of the good may. By contrast, it is easy to see how the pleasure derived from the bond of friendship could easily diminish in the absence of friendly contact.
I’ve always been fond of Xavier Bichat’s definition of life from Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort: ‘Life is the collection of functions that resist death’. This simple definition contains echoes of Spinozan conatus, and it can be modified to yield a general theory of life as maintenance. Life is the maintenance which resists decay. This is of course true at the level of the organism, which does whatever it needs to in order to avoid malnourishment, fatigue, vulnerability, and whatever else will lead to its demise. The same thing can be seen at the level of social movements, trends, and events in general. By contrast, there are events that persist without maintenance–happenings. These must be accounted for without appeal to their maintenance. In the latter case the aleatory is opposed to the maintained. The aleatory event dies a death without resisting; it dissipates on its own terms, which means that it has nothing to do with life as Bichat understands it. The maintained event, on the other hand, assumes a certain conservatism that may or may not become a burden to itself. Here, life becomes an obstacle to life, as Nietzsche discerned.
None of you have heard me say anything about this before, but I’d like to write a short book about maintenance. By putting my thoughts down here and getting feedback from readers, I think I can make some headway in this direction and produce a book which is richer than any one I could produce in isolation.
Maintenance is an undertheorized element of the everyday. It’s pervasiveness calls for exploration. Right away its ethical and aesthetic valence are apparent, hence it’s philosophical potential. The ethical feature ties in closely with the notion of cultivation (of habit, character, virtue, self). The obvious points of reference here are Aristotle, Hellenistic philosophy, and Foucault. Perhaps Eastern philosophy would also be helpful, but it’s not something I know much about. On the aesthetic side, we can cite the countless ways in which we rely on one form of maintenance or another to ‘keep up appearances’. Our websites, lawns, cars, faces, wardrobes, and communications require constant maintenance to save them from disintegration and decay. But the interesting point is that we so often judge the beautiful according to how well it is maintained, not for its intrinsic nature or composition. Yet, we often also find beautiful what is tastefully unkempt or neglected. This helps explain the common attraction to dishevelment, and why we find it unattractive when dishevelment is obviously cultivated–the affectation is easy to spot and unbecoming.
On this view, beauty would have to be judged according to a set of principles which value its autonomy, simplicity, and capacity to endure aging. The meticulously manicured lawn would then fall at the ‘ugly’ end of the spectrum.