Ecologizing Infrastructure: Infrastructural Ecologies

Introduction by
Lisa Krieg, Maan Barua, Josh Fisher

This forum provides a suite of cross-cutting conversations on ecologizing infrastructures. These conversations have multiple threads and are necessarily plural, much like already existing scholarship on infrastructures, but what is common to these themes is that they go beyond the predominantly anthropocentric focus of the latter.

M

acaques break electrical grids.  Geckos use plant-bridges.  Rats navigate sewage systems like highways.  Trees root communities.  Infrastructures and non-human life are so closely intertwined that it is no longer possible to separate ‘natural’ ecologies from infrastructural ones.  

Infrastructures constitute non-human worlds. They shape the movements of nonhumans, and they dictate how animals, plants, and fungi encounter, sense, and inhabit landscapes, both along and against the grain of human design.  Deer use automobile roadways.  Plants, invertebrates, and other aquatic biota travel the world on ships.  Because infrastructures are certainly the “media” of capitalism — not merely its milieu, i.e. background or context — the essays in this collection explore how infrastructures mediate nonhuman lifeworlds, and how nonhumans, in turn, are becoming important actants within them.

We are also beginning to witness an infrastructuring of non-human worlds.  A number of actual and speculative biopolitical projects have recast animal and vegetal potentials as infrastructure.  Oysters, for instance, lessen the impact of surges along New York’s coastline (Wakefield and Braun 2019).  Cyborg cockroaches – or “RoboRoaches” – are the new canaries, serving as biosensors for labor under precarious conditions (Ghorayashi 2014).  Meanwhile, beaver dams have been put to work to restore stream ecologies and sustain the significant irrigation demands of industrial agriculture (Goldfarb 2018).  The essays in this collection also explore how nonhumans are becoming infrastructural actors.

Given the deepening enmeshment of infrastructural and nonhuman lifeworlds, ontological distinctions between them are impossible to sustain, and frameworks like naturecultures are increasingly significant (Haraway 2003).  Infrastructures are the “complex surrounds” (Simone 2015) of life, human and nonhuman alike.  Meanwhile, nonhumans – like people – “create the grounds on which other objects operate” (Larkin 2013:329; cf. Simone 2004).  Jussi Parikka terms these intra-actions medianatures, where “the natural ecology is entirely entangled with the technological one” (2015:63, see also Parks 2019).  Our goal in this collection is quite similar.  By raising the twin questions of ecological infrastructures and infrastructural ecologies, we propose to “ecologize” infrastructure and to follow the connections between organic bodies and their non/organic surroundings.

There is much to be gained from such an endeavour.  When the term was first coined in 1870s France, infrastructure referred to railway construction, specifically the organizational labor involved in establishing a roadbed of substrate material beneath the tracks (Carse 2016).  From the narrowly technological, infrastructure has come to be poised as modernity itself, including the promissory projects of development and progress (Gandy 2014).  Above all, infrastructures have sparked debates that cross-cut the disciplines of geography, anthropology, architecture, design, and media studies.   But whether they are conceptualized as a socio-technical condition, a political economic formation, or a heterogeneous association entailing things and relations between things, infrastructures are seldom outside a sticky web of relations with non-human life.  Yet, much of the work that seeks to map out ontologies of infrastructure (Larkin, 2013) – whether spectacular or mundane (Appel et al., 2018; Anand, 2017), monumental or invisible (Harvey and Knox, 2015) – largely remains anthropocentric in its outlook.  Attending to infrastructural ecologies, we argue, not only broadens understandings of how infrastructures operate, as material and political substrates. It also, in some instances, queries the very category of the infrastructural in uncanny and unexpected ways.

The first theme of this forum’s essays is non-human life as infrastructure.  Arguing that we are approaching a new age of animal infrastructures, Maan Barua points to the capitalist biopolitics of infrastructuring non-human life that draws upon animals’ vitality and their mediatic capacities – animals’ and plants’ abilities to sense and respond to ambient forces and environments.  Such capitalist biopolitics range from deploying beavers to engineer ecosystems to goats for building resilience.  The latter, steeped in discourse about contemporary risks, aims to keep turbulent and catastrophic futures at bay, thereby inverting the very promissory trope of infrastructure (also see Wakefield and Braun, 2019).   Switching scales from animals ‘big like us’ to arthropods, Liron Shani provides critical insights from a science and technology studies (STS) perspective into the enrollment of insects in agricultural production.  Here, arthropods are mobilized to work in intensively farmed environments, carrying out activities that humans and machines cannot yet do, and get caught up in political ecologies driven by ethnicity and nationalism.

The infrastructuring of non-human life does not always need to proceed through major modes.  As Alex Nading and Josh Fisher argue, urban ecologies can be ‘minor’ infrastructures, minor not because they are small but because they can foster non-capitalist projects.  Their ethnography of trees in urban Nicaragua provides vital insights into how multispecies infrastructures can materialize kin relationships or ‘lay the groundwork for diverse and community economies’.  Other essays also converge on this theme. Sneha Gutgutia’s more-than-human ethnography of urban pig-rearing shows how, in Delhi, pigs become infrastructures for the poor to deal with precariousness.  Architectures of urban slums are reworked to accommodate pigs and the latter, through their metabolic labour, bring waste back into circuits of value.  Equally, as Shruti Ragavan and Shubhangi Srivastava’s essay shows, modes of infrastructural commoning can emerge through affect.  The bonds formed between people and street dogs in urban India, where the former provide security and safety through their capacities as mediatic bodies, are exemplary.

The notion of non-humans becoming infrastructures for biopolitical projects or for those that exceed capitalist imperatives in many ways remain indexed to the human, however differentially the latter is constituted.  Lisa Krieg advances the conversation by asking whether multispecies relations can themselves be considered infrastructural, not along a humanist axis of calibration, but through relations forged by animals’ and plants’ own activities.  She shows how Aldabra Tortoises in the Mascarene Islands function as ‘landscape engineers’, whereby their bodies transport seeds and by doing so, create landscapes.  This role is often evident through their breakdown, when species go extinct.  Tortoises’ ‘world-building activities’, Krieg argues, furnish worlds for other creatures, and therefore, could be considered infrastructures for non-humans.   Tortoises, as well as the beavers discussed by Barua, help modulate and channel biotic and abiotic circulations. Resonating with emerging readings of environmentality (Hörl, 2018; Lemke, 2015), they become means to govern the aleatory, creating a mode of biopolitics enacted through the infrastructural.  But when seen in less-anthropocentric ways, they can also be infrastructures for a multispecies commons.

One might pause to reflect on how helpful the term infrastructure is for encapsulating what are diverse more-than-human relations and agencies.  As the essays in this forum highlight, infrastructure is a helpful analytic for grasping some of the emergent ecologies we witness around the world.  More than an empty signifier, as some critics have remarked, infrastructures put non-humans to work, albeit in very different terms than as raw material and economic stock.  Their very living capacities are harnessed to subtend and create grounds for economic activity, bringing a whole raft of other dimensions to the understanding of what constitutes infrastructure.  Furthermore, infrastructural ecologies are critical as they prompt other analyses of the temporalities, politics and economies of nature than conventional anthropocentric accounts of political economy/ecology.   These analyses take non-human potentials and liveliness as constitutive of the economic from the very outset.  Here, the infrastructuring of non-human life is less about territorializing different agencies into a singular umbrella term, and more to do with understanding the different registers in which relations with the non-human world subtend economic and everyday life.  As Sandra Calkins in her essay on ‘vegetal collaborators’ evocatively points out, when writing about infrastructure it would be a mistake to decide, a priori, ‘whose agency – whether human, animal, plant or thing – needs attending to’.

A second theme in this forum’s essays is the ways in which infrastructures are becoming the substrate for non-human life.  Thomas White, in his intervention on road ecologies, in some ways turns to what has been central to anthropological work on infrastructure.  In contrast to more anthropocentric accounts (Harvey and Knox, 2015), the emphasis here is on how roads configure the distribution of life, and are increasingly being redesigned to accommodate animals, although often in ways that enable petrocapitalism to go on as usual.  Similarly, as Ragavan and Srivastava in their example of Delhi’s urban cows show, animals can repurpose road infrastructures for their own, bovine, modes of inhabitation, rendering State-built transport infrastructures into commons, in excess of their inaugural script and assembly.   Indeed, infrastructures are increasingly becoming habitat for a number of creatures, although not necessarily through design.   As Sandra Jasper argues, infrastructures can become habitat through their abandonment and lead to a spontaneous emergence of nature, where infrastructures serve as ‘unusual zones and experimental fields’ for understanding ‘the adaptability of nonhuman life’.  Substrates furnished by infrastructure are not just architectonic.  As Sandra Calkins points out, these can be lively and recalcitrant, and often toxic, material environments forged by chemical infrastructures that are increasingly beginning to dictate non-human flourishings world over.

Enmeshments and enfleshments of non-human life and infrastructure thus call for more attention to emergent medianatures, where non-human ecologies are entangled with technological ones (Parikka, 2010).  Animals and plants, as differentially sensing mediatic bodies, open up questions of how infrastructures can be relationally known by a whole suite of other bodies.  Equally, as Markus Rudolfi and Julia Poerting show, infrastructures are vital for rendering nature present and calculable.  Devices such as camera traps evidence the wild, forming part of a media ecology in which infrastructures are a vital thread.

In sum, this forum provides a suite of cross-cutting conversations on ecologizing infrastructures.  These conversations have multiple threads and are necessarily plural, much like already existing scholarship on infrastructures, but what is common to these themes is that they go beyond the predominantly anthropocentric focus of the latter.  Whilst the infrastructuring of non-human life and the effects of infrastructures on non-human life are two vital currents, each of the interventions opens up a raft of questions for future inquiry.  As a series of provocations on the contemporary infrastructural condition, the essays collectively highlight the fact that taking nonhuman worlds into account brings the multiplicity of infrastructure into focus and by doing so, point to a range of ways in which human-nonhuman relations become material sites through which governance proceeds, power is reproduced and contested.   Ecologies of infrastructure are political through and through, bringing to fore a range of conflicts and contestations that are otherwise glossed over when the story of infrastructure is articulated through predominantly anthropocentric concerns.  

Infrastructures are part of projects that, as a by-product, can build human and nonhuman worlds spinning off in different directions, possibly tightly weaved together, possibly only meeting at chance interfaces, at times smoothly and at other times through frictions.  An ecology of infrastructure is therefore about attending to infrastructure as that which forges the very grounds for what shows up as nature at any juncture.  The question of what natures we witness, live with and wish to conserve, is never outside what infrastructures do, and what future worlds they might herald.  Equally, nonhumans continue to build worlds that matter for humans, which are put to different projects, whether that of the state, capital or those of the commons.  Attending to the material and political consequences of our respective ‘projects’ and the futures they herald could not be more pressing. As the essays in this collection show, there is much to be gained in moving from anthropocentric accounts of infrastructures to infra-ecologies, where non-human life is threaded by infrastructure and such life bears upon the latter’s promises and perils.

References

Anand N. (2017) Hydraulic city: Water and the infrastructures of citizenship in Mumbai, Durham: Duke University Press.
Appel H, Anand N and Gupta A. (2018) The Promise of Infrastructure. Durham: Duke University Press.
Carse A. (2016) Keyword: Infrastructure - How a humble French engineering term shaped the modern world. In: Harvey P, Jensen CB, Morita A (eds) Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Companion. New York: Routledge, 45-57.
Gandy M. (2014) The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity and the Urban Imagination, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Ghorayashi A. (2014) Cyborg cockroaches home in on sounds of distress. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26525-cyborg-cockroaches-home-in-on-sounds- of-distress/. 
Goldfarb B. (2018) Beavers, rebooted. Science 360: 1059-1061.
Haraway D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Vol. 1. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Harvey P and Knox H. (2015) Roads: Ann anthropology of infrastructure and expertise, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Hörl E. (2018) The environmentalitarian situation: Reflections on the becoming-environmental of thinking, power, and capital. Cultural Politics 14: 153-173.
Larkin B. (2013) The politics and poetics of infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-343.
Larkin B. (2013) The politics and poetics of infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327- 343. 
Lemke T. (2015) New Materialisms: Foucault and the ‘Government of Things’. Theory, Culture & Society 32: 3-25.
Parikka J. (2010) Insect media: An archaeology of animals and technology, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Parikka J. (2015) A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Parks L. (2017) Mediating Animal-Infrastructure Relations. In: Boucher M-P, Helmreich S, Kinney LW, et al. (eds) Being Material. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 144-153.
Simone A. (2004) People as infrastructure: intersecting fragments in Johannesburg. Public Culture 16(3):407-429.
Simone, A. (2015) Infrastructure: Commentary by AbdouMaliq Simone. Curated Collections, Cultural Anthropology Online. November 26, 2015. Retrieved here.
Wakefield S and Braun B. (2019) Oystertecture: Infrastructure, Profanation, and the Sacred Figure of the Human. In: Hethertington K (ed) Infrastructure, Environment and Life in the Anthropocene. Durham: Duke University Press, 193-215.

Dr. Lisa Krieg is a cultural anthropologist at the University of Bonn working on the relationships between humans, nature, and technology in the Indian Ocean. She can be found on Twitter @Liza_Jenn.

Maan Barua works on the politics, economies and ontologies of the living and material world. He is a University Lecturer in Geography at the University of Cambridge, and is the Principal Investigator of an ERC Horizon 2020 Grant on Urban Ecologies and is on Twitter @maanbarua.

Josh Fisher is a sociocultural anthropologist who works at Western Washington University. He studies community development and environmental change in Central America and can be reached on Twitter @JoshuaFisher360.


essays in this forum

Nonhuman Life as Infrastructure

Infrastructures are rapidly expanding to include nonhuman life, heralding a new age of animals as infrastructure.

By

Maan Barua

Family Trees

Minor infrastructures do lots of things, beyond reproducing the conditions for capital, including laying the groundwork for diverse and community economies.

By

Alex Nading, Josh Fisher

Pigs, Precarity and Infrastructure

Pigs become infrastructure for the poor to deal with urban precarity, whilst the animals continue leading precarious lives amidst the mangle of infrastructure.

By

Sneha Gutgutia

Road Ecology

In this short essay I show how recent approaches to infrastructure and to human-nonhuman relations across the social sciences can help us to sketch out a political road ecology.

By

Thomas White

Commoning Infrastructures

Forms of 'more-than-human commoning' of infrastructure we highlight provide valuable insights for comprehending entangled patterns of interaction, conflict, care, resource-sharing, and affective relations of bonding and security that unfold in the lived city.

By

Shruti Ragavan and Shubhangi Srivastava

Chemical Dissidents and Vegetal Collaborators

When writing about infrastructures do we need to decide a priori whose agency – whether human, animal, plant or thing – needs attending to?

By

Sandra Calkins

Abandoned Infrastructures and Nonhuman Life

Abandoned infrastructures become unusual zones and experimental fields for studying the adaptability of nonhuman life and speculating about future ecologies in future cities.

By

Sandra Jasper

On Gecko Gardens and Giant Tortoises: Extinction, Restoration, and More-than-Human Infrastructures in the Mascarenes

Considering the different roles infrastructure can play for humans and nonhumans, we have to start thinking of infrastructure as multiple.

By

Lisa Jenny Krieg

Arthropod Mercenaries as Agricultural Infrastructure

Focusing on insects as elements in the agricultural infrastructure, this essay describes the dual role of agricultural infrastructure and analyzes the process that led to the mobilization of the nonhuman into the political and economic struggle.

By

Liron Shani

Infrastructures of Ecological Evidence

What makes some evidence strong and others weak is not a matter of the method or technology itself, but the infrastructures of evidence underlying it.

By

Markus Rudolfi, Julia Poerting