Pure Maintenance

by Marina Vishmidt


Why it’s not wise to throw the baby of maintenance out with the dirty bathwaters of capitalist social life. 

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Inside, 22 July 1973
Part of Maintenance Art performance series, 1973–1974. Performance at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT
Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York


It is long past time to start dismantling the opposition of novelty and maintenance in order to develop a feminist politics of creativity which does not dissociate care from the capacity to engage in worldmaking. Instead of Schumpeter’s creative destruction, there is the little explored possibility of transformative repair, of creative maintenance. As the architectural theorist Maria Giudici has written, we can reimagine maintenance as a radicalisation of, and at the same time a rejection of, ideas of management as an approach to the world, in favour of “the idea that creating a future does not mean necessarily to impose a form, but rather to imagine a set of relationships that can change, shift, readjust.”1 This starts to give us some of the tools to reimagine maintenance not just as reproduction—that is, as maintaining what already exists in a state as self-similar as possible, cut off from any idea of novelty or disruption—but rather as resistance. 

This line of thinking envisions a maintenance praxis beyond any straightforward articulation of the politics of reproduction, seeking to elaborate the negative dimension of maintenance. Maintenance becomes a genre of struggle, in the sense that Isabelle Stengers puts forward—a planetary struggle against the totality of the capital relation as a ‘negative universality’ that sets the conditions for its own reproduction as well as for the reproduction of our lives.2 This imbrication means that reproduction can only gain an affirmative valence in its political expression at the cost of ‘reproducing’ and ‘maintaining’ many of the brutalisms, archaisms and ‘primitivisms’ that define these conditions.3 It is in the passage from invisibility to visibility, from work to strike, that the political creativity of maintenance praxis comes forward; a practical critique that shares many features with the human strike in its capacity to undermine and defunctionalise the normativities of subjectivity, agency and organisation. 

We could begin by looking at this as a relation grounded in the seeming opposition of maintenance to production, or to ‘production proper’. Discussions of maintenance and reproduction, often under the aegis of care, have featured prominently in recent feminist art-theoretical and political discourse. The artwork of Mierle Laderman Ukeles in particular, with its conceptual clarity and accessible form, has been examined from a variety of angles. The register of maintenance is decidedly not one which can be associated with “pure individual creation” as Ukeles wittily frames it in her 1969 Manifesto for Maintenance Art.4 It is not the ex nihilo act of conceiving and putting something in the world that was not previously deemed so by the male artistic genius, but rather it is reproduction—making sure that this object or relation continues to exist over time, despite time’s ravages on its existence and persistence. Ukeles flagged that most art is not pure autonomous sovereign creation, just like most work isn’t, but is “infected by strains of” maintenance activity.5 In this she was challenging a certain orthodox, patriarchal or Oedipal anxiety about autonomy and influence in modernist art, and pointing also to the undoubted fact that it took a lot of cleaning to keep the white cube white—in all its senses, including the implied institutional violence of racial exclusion, which she would go on to emphasise in later work. The manifesto demonstrated that if all the unwaged, naturalised, feminised and racialised labour were to stop from one day to the next, so would the conditions for the display and appreciation of the supposedly sovereign act of art—and, going back into the “hidden abode” of the family and the studio, likely also for that art’s production. 

What we encounter in Ukeles’s Manifesto for Maintenance Art then is the materialist feminist troubling of the classic political economic division between production and reproduction—a division which of course also recurs in the critique of political economy—in which reproduction is always the devalued term. This resonates with related dualisms such as innovation and repetition, creativity and maintenance; with the valued and devalued, visible and obscure, thoroughly gendered divisions of labour and value in capitalist modernity. It is structural to patriarchy and capitalism that maintenance labour stays hidden—a “hidden abode” that stands in the same relation to labour as all labour does to the commodity, and as surplus value hides in the wage.6 On the one hand, maintenance or reproductive labour could be seen as the ‘secret’ of the secret of the fetishism of the commodity; on the other, all labour can be seen as reproductive insofar as it provides the means of life. This point about how constitutive the work of reproduction was to all official economic, measured and recognised activities of production traversed the political spectrum of materialist feminism from the 1970s onwards. The statement was especially pronounced by groups like Wages for (Against) Housework, one of the foremost feminist tendencies of the period, which brought Marxist value categories to the debate in ways that generated, then as they do now, as many polemics as enthusiasms. More simply, the Marxist notion that labour is a metabolism with nature allows us to understand how production is always already reproduction in principle. “Metabolism with nature” here refers to how human activity should compose with the affordances of its environment rather than in opposition to it, in the way technology “stands over and against” the worker in the factory. The production of the means of life and the reproduction of social relations are entangled if not continuous, and nature and the social are at best heuristic distinctions rather than anthropologically given ones—another crucial point for feminist, queer, anti-racist, and all movements challenging racial and patriarchal capitalism as the only possible social formation.

Such a metabolic understanding brings us close to the universality of individuation as the reproduction of self-consistent entities in the ideas of engineer and philosopher Gilbert Simondon, which will recur later in this text. At the same time, this conception’s bias towards a kind of organicism or vitalism can be kept in check by way of a concrete sense of the continuity of production and reproduction. As noted above, this can mean reproduction of life, as well as the fact that all production is at the same time a reproduction of capital, both in the accumulation of value and as a set of social relationships.

Working out a notion of maintenance as resistance can then include the sense of planetarity. For Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, planetarity invokes an ethics of alterity, which is needed to revise the human attitude to a no longer docile nature in the era of climate change and to an environment that the ‘waste’ of capitalist valorisation is rapidly making physically and socially unliveable. For Spivak, the planet is drawn in analogy to the white whale of Moby Dick, an unknowable force that pulls everything into its orbit. Stengers recently advanced a similar repositioning with her text “The Intrusion of Gaia”, which personifies the planet as an implacable, agential entity in lethal combat with the consequences of capitalist worldmaking. Both narratives suggest that the anthropomorphism of biophysical forces can be a valuable tactic to counter the ‘capitalist religion’. There is a kind of turn to pre-modern myth, albeit an ironic one, in the same way that Donna Haraway’s cyborg could be an “ironic political myth”. This turn is structured by a socially critical ethics of maintenance rather than the social control portended by myth in the service of religion. A planetary scale for maintenance thus positions its praxis as a troubled but nonetheless collective attempt to ‘handle’ the uncontrollable eventualities of ecological damage and a will to persist in projects of reclaiming futurity for the living. It would mean innumerable processes of maintaining liveability for different human and non-human entities in an environment rendered alien by damage; no doubt one where all kinds of social alienation are all too familiar, along with ones hitherto little imagined. More simply, planetarity refigures maintenance in and of (the conditions for) resistance once the known quantities of resources can no longer be managed in the familiar ways. Maintenance, with its dogged orientation to survival, can emerge as a creative encounter with the truly eco-systemic unknown, necessitating newer (or even older) co-operative social forms.

Another impulse in this direction can be drawn from the idea of technological knowledge as a processual relation to contingency. In other words, the maintenance of objects, subjects and their transitions and transversalities across scale is faced with an unknowability that repels domestication, at a level of damage that is both granular and massive, social and planetary, where old exploitations might dwindle and others, even more virulent and makeshift, take hold. Here there is a partial correspondence with the notion of the incomputable that theorists Antonia Majaca and Luciana Parisi propose in their recent text “The Incomputable and Instrumental Possibility”. They suggest that instrumentality can be reassessed not as an independent cultural logic tending towards a totalitarianism of things, a fully quantified and (ir)rationalised dystopia in the style of Dialectic of Enlightenment, but rather that technology embodies the socio-historical values of a period. While this may sound like a banality, the more intriguing dimension is that instrumentality is biopolitical and that the machine itself can be the source of “alien modes of subjectivation” which might be touched by inhabiting the perspective of the machine and not that of the engineer, architect, designer, user, security analyst or manager.7 

How can this subjectivity be envisioned, and in the service of what? How to move from the scale of planetarity as the name for alterity in Spivak’s political ecology to the intimacy of alterity in everyday technology, such as the data platforms that embed social life in new and prodigious forms of surveillance? In both scenarios, the question of alterity is formulated in terms of an enabling alienation, which can both defeat imagination and appear as something which “forces us to think” (Deleuze) and to act in political and affective response to genuine novelty. After alienation comes the intimacy of maintenance, which may yet entail a recalibration of the subject-object relation, which the commercial forms of ‘techno-animism’ that we experience through our devices today block rather than enable. This is made more urgent, in Parisi and Majaca’s terms, because these devices foster paranoid forms of surveillance and control as the basic tone of relationality for their critics, users and developers alike. Instead what is needed is a reckoning with the mutual shaping of algorithmic and human cognition. Such a reckoning would involve thinking of ways to biopolitically inhabit these very technologies in all their errancy and imperfectability, rather than projecting police logic from the standpoints of critique and implementation alike (the robots are taking over, and they will make more robots, and these robots will vote for Trump). 

Parisi and Majaca’s contention is that “thinking from within the machine and from within the very logic of the instrument” may provide us, especially those among ‘us’ abjected by structural violence, some resources to evacuate the self-sustaining forms of algorithmic control that pervade current models of cybernetic governance. This would be primarily by overhauling the means-ends hierarchy embedded in technology as a repository for naturalised social relationships of competition, efficiency and control, and coming to it rather as a space of intimate alienation where the meaning of functionality itself can be exceeded, turned around and reinvented as one part of a transformative social process. Ultimately this would have to mean that the persistent, if philosophically discredited, duality between technicity and nature could no longer be perpetuated; that nature is not a set of timeless meanings that technology allows us to standardise and systematise. Central to this discussion is the idea of the instrument possessing its own ends, its own history of subjectification:

The new subject can only be constructed from the hard labor of alienation, which includes understanding the logic of instrumentality, politicising it, and transcending it through usage itself. This requires building a non-paranoid imagination, and a readiness for a radical denaturalisation of both humanness and subjectivity as we know it.8

This work uses some of the same tropes, such as alienation and a fully constructionist view of nature, as proximate articulations such as xenofeminism, but importantly it points to the socio-historical and material framing of the nature-culture, function-chaos dyads that xenofeminism, with its schematic valorisation of rationality does not achieve with its retro-fitting of vintage cyberfeminist ideas into the received ideas of accelerationism. Doubtless the xenofeminist proposition also shows a certain colonial innocence with its disregard of the operations of biopolitical management for determining the nature:culture split as mapped onto gender and race, and the critical importance of structural violence for authorising rationality. Rather, Majaca and Parisi’s short text alludes to the project of Gilbert Simondon, particularly his book On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, which offers an analysis of co- and trans-constitution between humans, milieus and technical objects.9 Technical objects should not be degraded and dominated for the ends of profit, fashion or control, but rather their technicity should be allowed to develop towards ends currently deemed non-functional or undesirable. This entails granting an autonomy to technology which is less like the autonomy of capital and more like the autonomy of art, free to set its own purposes and envision a world in which that purpose matters—an instance of the abductive reasoning Parisi draws from the semiotics of Charles S. Peirce. This then can align with the social autonomy experienced by humans no longer subjugated to the naturalised despotism of the technical but working in conjunction with technical objects and the force of technicity. In a late interview, Simondon opined on the proximity between this notion of the autonomy of the technical and the ideas of maintenance discussed so far, from the angle of care: “I believe there are humans in the technical objects, and that the alienated human can be saved on the condition that man is caring for them.” As Yuk Hui has recently observed, for Simondon technical alienation is prior to social alienation—an alienated, functionalist relation between the human and non-human has to be established before dispossession and exploitation in their turn become the rule for relations among humans.10

Scale is a question for Simondon when he reflects on “orders of magnitude”, between which relation is fundamental. This amounts to a “realism of relations”. For Simondon an individual is the outcome of a process of individuation, which is myriad; it can be a mental, biological, chemical or social process, among others. The individual, of whatever ontological status, is not in relation but is relation, foremost with its milieu. The individual is a composite and container of relations, which exist at different scales: the scale of the individual, the scale of the pre-individual, the scale of the milieu. The individual thus can be seen as a phase of consistency in a landscape of diverse relations. The division between intellectual and manual, or better, routine labour, which has traditionally underpinned the division between production and reproduction, maintenance and creativity, and even management and execution, is denied by such a conception, which rather envisions a panoply of scales across which consistency and responsibility may form and dissolve. This approximates the logic of maintenance, attuned to ad hoc operations whose creativity is geared towards the amplification of effects and connections rather than efficiency and control for remote but unquestionable ends. 

Management across scales can also imply management of scales, in the sense that management has the chance to develop into care: a reflexive undertaking rather than that mode of optimising activity or processes for predetermined ends called efficiency or performance. In this way management comes back to questions of scale from the standpoint of each specific situation. Scale is an artefact of the productive imagination and the specific engineering process in question, not a pre-existing frame of reference keeping a predetermined order that technology is designed to respond to, whether in an ameliorative or a punitive way. If, as Majaca and Parisi offer, “instrumentality is subjectivity in practice”, or can be, this practice travels into the object and abandons the subject, but only at the (disavowed) cost of overcoming the empirico-ontological doublet of capitalist social relations, which the two authors do not engage with directly, unlike, to take an obvious example, Adorno’s treatment of instrumental reason. Rather, they turn their attention to noting how contemporary developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning operate with notions of incompleteness, error and contingency, which are ripe for reappropriation by a feminist technics, pursued through concepts such as abduction. Abduction, as distinct from the more established modes of induction and deduction, is a way of trying to account for the unprecedented through a series of consequences that imply, or, rather, project a world in which that new event would make sense. Majaca and Parisi consider abduction as an “alien mode of cognition”, as it starts with unknown or at least temporarily unknowable premises, fusing the energy of the speculative with the rigour of formal logic.

Such a mode of cognition could make sense of “the generation of new hypotheses of instrumentality, one that acknowledges the history of techne whereby the machine has been able to elaborate strategies of autonomy from and through its own use.” 

In this, the xenogenetic scenarios of science fiction could be both an example and a methodology, leading us to approach this autonomy of the technical as another “ironic political myth”. That kind of move would mean coming back to maintenance with a politics not rooted in the productive subject—even if this is a reproductive subject—but rather one that allows subjectivity for the object, and then for the process of unknowability that the autonomy of a technical object can bring into focus (such as when it ‘breaks’). In the scenarios of science fiction, mechanism acts to condense, reflect or instigate social relationships which might be proximate enough to be recognisable but are unarguably different from what we know—think of the special mineral in the movie Black Panther, or further, the role of hyperempathy in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. But we might also look to historical episodes in which political invention ushered speculative instrumentality to the fore—for example, the attempt at cybernetic-monitored industry in Salvador Allende’s Chile or the agricultural theories of 1920s Soviet writer Andrei Platonov, who suggested, as Maria Chekhonadskih relays, that if “nature is a realm of capitalist history, because capitalism exploits not only people, but also animals, plants and earth,” then “[t]he task is, therefore, to liberate nature and all living creatures […]. Similarly to Marx, he writes elsewhere that the capitalist exploitation of the soil results in the creation of deserts and droughts. This is because exploitation exhausts the productive forces of the earth. Thus, what he terms ‘the repair of the earth’ should be implemented as a science of cooperative [communist] farming”.11 Platonov also went on to develop a number of prototypes for simple, cheap generators for use in the countryside. Maintenance, again, emerges as inseparable from transformation, and even from autonomy. In this light, and as the recent surge of cultural interest in the esoteric doctrines of Russian cosmism testifies, practical imperatives, politics and metaphysics most often come entangled. It is only for the goal of domination that the positivist dissociation between these strands can stake its pernicious claims to modernity and progress. 

If we started out by looking at maintenance as the care of what is, enabling this to develop and become, we have now shifted the perspective somewhat by moving to inhabit alienation through the creativity and productivity implied, and by turning this alienation into the site where both creativity and productivity take on new meanings in and as praxis. This enables us to see how these divisions are not simply practical but predicated on social hierarchies of command and control, where creativity on one side is fostered by instrumentality on the other, with this instrumentality being the fate of those subjects who are not considered properly human, even prior to there being anything like non-organic mechanism, as in Aristotle’s renowned definition of the slave as a “speaking implement”.

Yet in this discussion of inhabiting mechanisms and reprogramming them in open-ended ways, the question of the social mechanisms of institutions can fall by the wayside (with the speculative energies of inhabitation foundering in the inertias of reprogramming). A tracing of the relations between maintenance and resistance should though touch down in the institution. What remains to be examined is how in the present, all management tends towards crisis management, and so by default tends to converge with the communal and emancipatory-minded politics of care. 

Nowadays management is concerned to be seen to care—to make sure everything is all right, that everyone has their voice heard, that everyone feels safe, especially in workplaces exposed to cycles of precaritisation and proletarianisation, such as educational institutions. This concern to ensure normality at all costs is saturated with biopower, as security-minded governing bodies show their solicitude for fragile bodies and psyches by inviting police and other agents of the state to ‘take care’ of deviant life as expressed by restive labour and students. Perhaps more insidious than such not surprising phenomena is the discourse of care that licenses aspirations to absolute control; where dissent is depicted not as a matter of antagonism but of insensitivity, and organising is made into a blow against dialogue rather than an attempt to foster one. In this state of affairs, any action of maintenance that is at the same time resistance—as with any defence of public services, any struggle over conditions—is automatically painted as an act of intimidation.

Power rebranded as care can be seen as a kind of reproductive realism, which appe-ars to affirm the invisible labour of maintenance and survival engaged in by all, but only insofar as it guarantees the stability of its accumulation prospects. In this crude dissociation of maintenance and resistance, we are left with only management. Such dispositions spread far beyond large institutions and bureaucratic apparatus, often internalised by individuals who would seem to have little to gain from these principles or their exercise. A common tendency is the reframing of any disruption or discomfort as an unjustified exercise of power and privilege—those who want to resist are pitted against those who just want to persist. Negative solidarity arrives to the scene, with its disabused view of a zero-sum social field in which solidarity is a delusion and resistance an irresponsible pastime. A continuum can be drawn between moments on this spectrum: the cosmetic care routines of institutional management, the ruthless denial of political questions in favour of an etiolated ethics of care that somehow always confirms market subjectivity, and the ‘maintenance art’ of the hipster broom brigades that took to the streets of London in the aftermath of the 2011 riots to flaunt their race and class hatred in fits of photogenic compulsive cleaning—an ironic inversion, to be sure, of Ukeles’s “the sourball of every revolution: […] who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”12 

My short circumnavigation of some of the more dubious corners of the maintenance-management complex here ought to diffuse some of the piety that often clusters around the politics of care, as if there were just one politics and the invocation of the word ‘care’ was enough to signal its nature. In order to re-valuate and not just revalorise the activities of maintenance, there would need to be the kind of displacement of agency from human subjects to technical objects that Majaca, Parisi and Simondon talk about, but only as part of a larger transvaluation of abjected forms of labour and existence, which seem technically obvious but remain socially opaque. The manoeuvre of naturalising the technical as the opposite of a reified nature only means that the social content of nature is always already functionalised, whereas what is urgent now is reassessing the means-ends relationships of capitalist techno-science that are driving towards ecosystemic annihilation. This cannot be enacted by rejecting the scientific or the instrumental per se, but by rejecting the social relationships that perpetuate their mythologised versions as simple realism. This is something that the performativities of feminist art (as with Ukeles and her transvaluation of maintenance as a non-progressive form of life), science fiction and philosophies of technology can help us begin to unpack.

Yet maintenance as resistance is a common phenomenon. From the groundbreaking cleaners’ campaigns for a living wage, sickness and holiday pay, and ultimately an end to outsourcing that have been transpiring in London over the past decade, to the self-organised emergency response and ongoing infrastructures of support in the wake of the state and corporate manslaughter of the Grenfell Tower residents, and even the struggle of university academics over vast pension reductions which swiftly reignited the debate over the reckless marketisation of UK universities, the urgency of matters of survival has not ensured political apathy but has rather been a source of political creativity. Struggles in social reproduction—often coinciding with what look like conventional workplace struggles, as noted earlier—are capable of opening wide rifts in the resignation of populations and the arrogant rock-face of power. If initially the force of argument is in the shameful material consequences of conflict (uncleaned public buildings, residents burning to death in central London), it is this sense that things are crumbling at their very foundations—invisible, unvalued—which can shift the conversation, and translate between lives which fundamentally don’t make sense due to the poverty and exploitation that defines them to societies that fundamentally stop making sense because things are not maintained: they do not work. The withdrawal of maintenance labour and its turn to maintenance praxis strikes to the heart of capitalist rationality and accumulation in a way no narrowly framed wage struggle would be capable of. It must be stated that this threshold of senselessness is a very situated one: the intolerability of the unravelling of social and ecological fabrics is still very much a matter of history, of habituation, and of the level and arrangement of social antagonisms. 

Maintenance has to be seen as the basis of a politics of transformation and not of a realism of survival. While it is crucial to consider the reinvention of usefulness, of instrumentality and technicity in this project, a praxis guided by the inseparability of negation and reproduction must remain central. In other words, maintenance does not have to become ontologised or naturalised to be a generative source of political practice, and if reproductive labour under capitalist conditions is a “fate worse than death”13 because it reinforces the brutalities and instrumentalities of gender, race and accumulation in simply keeping things going and people alive, maintenance can be the logic of resistance on the way to a non-capitalist form of social organisation in which maintenance and creativity, reproduction and production, can and should no longer be distinct. Here it will be important to keep questioning instrumentality, to keep criticising ‘usefulness’, whenever it acts as a substitute for a materialist thinking. Insofar as the conditions of life we reproduce are utterly squalid and destructive, there is no autonomy for use or for care if it’s not at the same time part of a project of negation. A project to be endlessly maintained.



1 Maria S. Giudici, “Learning by Numbers”, e-flux Architecture conversations, March 2017, http://conversations.e-flux.com/t/architecture-conversations-maria-s-giudici-responds-to-zeynep-celik-alexander-mass-gestaltung/5784

2 Isabelle Stengers, “Autonomy and the Intrusion of Gaia”, South Atlantic Quarterly 116, 2, April 2017, pp. 381–400. See also the discussion by Cinzia Arruzza, “Capitalism and the Conflict over Universality: A Feminist Perspective”, Philosophy Today 61, 4 (Fall 2017), pp. 847–61.

3 Jordana Rosenberg, “The Molecularization of Sexuality: On Some Primitivisms of the Present”, Theory & Event 17, 2, 2014, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/546470

4 See pp. 76–79 of this publication. 

5 Ibid.

6 For discussions of reproduction as a hidden abode within a hidden abode, see Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Durham, Duke University Press, 2011; Leopoldina Fortunati, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, trans. Hilary Creek, New York, Autonomedia, 1995; Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, ed. Tithi Bhattacharya, London, Pluto Press, 2017. The invisibility of gendered labour as nature can also be considered in the context of the racialised non-being described by Frank B. Wilderson II as “the position of the unthought” in white civil society, but also in its emancipatory politics, not excluding materialist feminism. See Wilderson III, “The Position of the Unthought: An Interview with Saidiya V. Hartman”, Qui Parle, 13, 2, Spring/Summer 2003, pp. 183-201. See pp. 183–201; and “Reciprocity and rape: Blackness and the paradox of sexual violence”, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 27, 1, March 2017, pp. 104–11.

7 Antonia Majaca and Parisi, “The Incomputable and Instrumental Possibility”, e-flux journal, 77, November 2016, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/77/76322/the-incomputable-and-instrumental-possibility/November2016

8 Majaca and Parisi, “The Incomputable and Instrumental Possibility”. 

9 Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, trans. Cecile Malaspina and John Rogove, Minneapolis, Univocal, 2016.

10 Yuk Hui, “On Automation and Free Time,” e-flux Architecture Superhumanity, March 2018, http://www.e-flux.com/architecture/superhumanity/179224/on-automation-and-free-time/

11 Maria Chekhonadskih, “The Anthropocene in 90 Minutes”, Mute, 23 September 2015, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/anthropocene-90-minutes

12 Ukeles, see pp. 76–79 of this publication. 

13 Maya Andrea Gonzalez and Jeanne Neton, “Logic of Gender: On the Separation of Spheres and the Process of Abjection,” Endnotes 3, September 2013, pp. 56–90.


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