Investigating Infrastructures

Introduction by
Deborah Cowen

Over the last decade there has been an explosion of popular and scholarly interest in infrastructure. Reports of infrastructural obsolescence, failure, crisis and struggle are a mainstay of the daily news and mark the volatility and vulnerability of the socio-technical systems upon which contemporary life is said to hinge.

Editors Note: This forum contains two sets of essays. Investigating Infrastructures I was published in October of 2017, and Investigating Infrastruces II in November of 2018. The introduction has been updated to include both sections of contributions.

Calls for renewed focus on infrastructure seem to come from all corners. Some of the loudest emerge out of the world of finance, where public and private institutions have rushed to acquire ports, roads and pipes, and rent formerly public assets back to the people who have typically already paid for them. Nation states, frequently a key ally in privatization, insist that infrastructure offers ripe opportunities for repairing broken economies and societies. Agencies like the World Bank largely echo these calls, while we have seen the creation of new supranational agencies like the Asian Infrastructure Bank, and national ones like the Canada Infrastructure Bank, dedicated entirely to financing infrastructure.

These mainstream voices sometimes drown out all others. Yet we can also trace powerful interest in infrastructure from social movements and justice-seeking groups who name it as an object of struggle and a crucible in their work towards socially just and environmentally sustainable futures. Mobilization around pipeline projects, damn construction and toxic water, for instance, has challenged corporate and state conceptions of infrastructure and put a series of different places on the map of contemporary politics. In the North American context, Standing Rock, Flint, and Muskrat Falls – among others – have become key locales of anti-racist and anti-colonial organizing, challenging the terms of public debate, or inciting one where there was none. Artists and writers, sometimes as part of social movements, and sometimes acting autonomously, have also taken up infrastructure in explicit and creative registers with growing frequency.

Of course, academics are key participants in this contemporary infrastructure frenzy. A rapidly expanding body of scholarly work highlights the ‘concrete’ socio-technical systems that enable uneven connection and circulation – the pipes, the roads, the cables and the rail – as well as infrastructure’s human, social, intimate, biopolitical and affective forms. Society and Space has been an important infrastructure in these conversations, as ever emphasizing the need for interdisciplinarity and never relinquishing a concern for space and materiality. In a recent contribution to the print journal, Lauren Berlant articulates an expansive but precise notion of infrastructure that points to the lively conceptual experimentation underway. For Berlant, infrastructure “is not identical to system or structure,” rather, it “is defined by the movement or patterning of social form.” Berlant defines infrastructure as, “the living mediation of what organizes life: the lifeworld of structure.” She offers an expansive and polyglot list of some of the forms it can assume, “roads, bridges, schools, food chains, finance systems, prisons, families, districts, norms all the systems that link ongoing proximity to being in a world-sustaining relation.”

This humble little forum emerges immediately out of the growing scrutiny of infrastructure inside and beyond the academy. It is a product of a graduate seminar that I facilitated in the spring of 2017, and then again in 2018, at the University of Toronto. The seminar was housed in the Department of Geography, but both years also attracted an (extraordinary) group of participants from fields including Visual Studies, Political Science, Women and Gender Studies, Anthropology, Socio-Legal Studies, and Planning. In each session, we read work from these disciplines and so many other fields that are playing a part in this infrastructure renaissance: Black Studies, Science & Technology Studies, History, Feminist theory, Settler Colonial Studies, Indigenous Studies, and others. We read novels and manifestos, watched films and discussed art practice. The syllabus shifted between seminar, but both years we tried to answer a seemingly simple question: What is infrastructure?

Over the course of twelve weeks, we considered how a focus on infrastructure can make palpable and visible that which underpins, enables or challenges and transgresses the everyday material life of empire. The seminar took as its starting point that infrastructure has a long and violent history in sculpting space and creating dis/connection in the service of racial capitalism, biopolitics, settler colonialism and imperialism, while it also acknowledged the increasingly critical and ubiquitous presence of infrastructure in the context of a deeply securitized, financialized and logistical geo-political economy. We examined a diversity of struggles over infrastructure, a wide variety of means of conceptualizing infrastructure, and the growing emphasis on infrastructure in so many corners. We finished off each term with dedicated reflection on efforts to resist, repair and rebuild infrastructures emerging out of especially Indigenous, queer, and Black politics and movements.

Participants invested themselves fully in the seminar and shared always beautiful, sometimes brilliant work. Below is a sample of short interventions that emerge out of these collective experiences. Here you will see creative engagement with infrastructure in its seemingly banal and innocuous forms, like the jersey barrier, or the airport washroom. Some authors focus instead on the affective, intimate and aspirational dimensions of infrastructure in engagements with im/mobility and undocumented youth, Palestinian homes, and anti-colonial artistic practice. One of our colleagues challenges popular and professional conceptions of transit efficiency by engaging infrastructure from the perspective and experience of dis-ability. A number of pieces address questions of force and violence through engagements with the infrastructures of petroleum extraction, the construction of national borders, colonial scientific observatories, and the internment of racialized peoples.

More recently we have added to our humble offering with a new bunch of interventions. These pieces bring a wealth of new questions to the forum. Here you will read engagements with questions of circulation and infrastructure – through critical engagement with rail infrastructure in Kashmir, and with the roads, routes and roots of Rochester’s urban/suburban bussing movement. Circulation is also taken up in two contributions that address struggle over and through digital infrastructures. Authors also take up themes of containment and mobility through urban infrastructure – in the streets of LA and in the home as domestic workplace. Others take us through the Occupied Territories to Mexican agrarian movements, to settler colonial sites of extraction to consider the role of infrastructure in forms of rule and their contestation. One author offers a helpful engagement with the concept of infrastructure, asking about the productive powers – the world-making – of this particular discursive turn.

We are profoundly grateful to Lauren Martin, Natalie Oswin and the editors of Society & Space for their support for this experimental forum and their crucial engagement in making our work stronger. We hope that our reflections on this mess of infrastructure contributes something to the growing dialogue.


Berlant L (2016) The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times.* Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34(3): 393-419.

essays in this forum

Homes As Infrastructures Of Intimacy

"The first hammer blow feels like you're hitting yourself" explains Azzam Afifi describing his pain after being forced to demolish his home in East Jerusalem under Israel’s new "cost-effective policy.” It is a cheaper option for Palestinians, who would otherwise have the State of Israel charge them to do it, some sort of colonial rebate it imposes on Palestinians when it forces them to demolish their homes (Al Jazeera, 2017).

Incarceration And Incorporation: The Infrastructures Of Japanese Canadian Internment And Redress

As the grandchild of two people relocated to work on sugar beet farms during WWII, my family’s silence around their experiences of internment, and the postwar conditions of their lives produced a stubborn, yet shapeless form of that history in my mind.

The Jersey Barrier: Concrete Divisions And Mammoth Erections

The Jersey Barrier is a squat cast concrete traffic control device, among the most commonly used in an evolutionary chain of concrete dividers. The barrier was developed for the New Jersey State Highway Department in the 1950s and bears its name though it is officially known as a Type C barrier in Canada.

Space Infrastructure, Empire, And The Final Frontier: What The Mauna Kea Land Defenders Teach Us About Colonial Totality

Over the last few years, the sacred Mountain of Mauna Kea has been the site of an ongoing war between Hawaiian land defenders and imperial forces. Initiated by plans for the construction of a piece of next-generation astronomical infrastructure, the battle speaks to a larger fight against colonial occupation and the role of infrastructure in maintaining the cultural, spiritual, and political hegemonies that produce it.

The O’Hare Shit-In: Airports, Occupied Infrastructures, And Excremental Politics

On January 28, 2017, the chant “No Ban! No Registry! Fuck White Supremacy!” echoed through the crowd stationed in front of the John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport. This is the story of the O’Hare ‘shit-in.’

‘Public’ Transit For ‘Every-Body’? Invisabilizing Bodies Of Difference

As a wheelchair-user who cannot drive due to visual limitations, I consistently witness that normative bodies can take so-called ‘public transit’ while I cannot. Lauren Berlant (2016: 393), insists that infrastructure “is the movement or patterning of social form.

A Geometry Of Borders: The Infrastructural Points That Construct The Line

Recent events, both across North America and globally, reveal underlying assumptions and political intentions that manifest in the specific geometries of border infrastructure. Too often, borders are materially demarcated and symbolically constructed as lines.

Dreams And Desires On A Go-Kart Track: The Inclusions And Exclusions Of Infrastructure

Holiday Mountain Fun Park, in the rural Hudson Valley region of New York state, boasts a number of rides and attractions that are colorful, if past their 1980s prime. The only one that registered for the group of eight 13-year old boys in our summer research program, however, was the go-kart track.

Petro-Violence: Merging Militarism And Corporate Secrecy

The highly militarized response to the demands of Indigenous water protectors in North Dakota is a well-documented and globally debated subject. Security forces in these contested areas relied on mobilizing techniques reserved for the battlefield against civilians in order to dismantle their resistance.

Lumpy Space, Colonial Place: Jurisdiction As Infrastructure And (Post)Colonial Place Making In The Marshall Islands

In their work, both Lauren Benton and Shiri Pasternak examine the fluidity of legal relationships through conceptions of jurisdiction which overlap, entangle, and shift over time. As Pasternak explains, seeing “jurisdiction as a spatial category… [allows] for the examination of the production of colonial space through the work of jurisdiction” (emphasis mine. 2014: 147) Pasternak’s geographic lens positions law and space as political, as contested categories that come together in constituting colonial claims to authority; to colonial jurisdiction over others.

The Mirrored Shield As Indigenous Fugitivity And Radical Glitchfrastructure

In his article, The Surrounded: #NoDAPL and Geographies of Indigenous Resistance, Nick Estes (2016) explains that “the Native is usually cast as surrounded by the settler, bounded within highly restrictive and ever-diminishing territories that are under constant surveillance and assault” (12).

The City And The City (And The City): Infrastructure In The Breach

Like many of the world’s large cities, Tkaronto/Toronto is constituted by deepening divides. [1] The homeless population is growing and dying. The housing market is booming and displacing. The city is accumulating and concentrating wealth and other toxins.

A Peculiar Infrastructure: Privacy In Homes Employing Live-In Care And Domestic Workers

I propose an understanding of "privacy" in the home as a peculiar infrastructure because of the incongruity between the lived experience of the employee and the employer.

Natural Resource Extraction And Settler Colonial Infrastructures

If the obituaries failed to give a balanced account of Munk’s legacy, they were effective at revealing how extractive projects function as a nation-state building infrastructure in Canada.

Mexican Agrarian Movements And The Infrastructure Of Peasant Farming

In November 1911, the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata solidified his agrarian ideology in the Plan de Ayala, a declaration calling for the protection of peasants' rights to land and liberty (Wolf 1969). Now in 2018, a coalition of peasant, indigenous, and Afro-Mexican organizations has put forward the Plan de Ayala Siglo XXI (21st Century Plan of Ayala), which renews this platform on peasants’ rights to resources, government entitlements, and political representation.

Detouring The Occupation: Jerusalem And The Infrastructure Of Unseeing

Understanding unseeing as an infrastructure reframes the conflict in Jerusalem, exposing the less spectacular forms of violence that sustain Israeli settler colonialism.

Roads, Routes, And Roots: The (Im)Possible Spatial Mnemonics Of Black Infrastructure

When I first approached the question, “What is infrastructure?” my mind trailed back to the rhythms and rhymes of ‘trains, planes and automobiles’ that I learned in childhood.

The Cyber Vector Of War: State Sponsored Hacking Attacks And The Rise Of The Digital Mercenary

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other military alliances have recognized cyberspace as an essential operational domain of international conflict. The militarization of cyberspace has led to the recruitment of digital soldiers, experts in technology who carry out state sanctioned cyber attacks and political subterfuge.

The Hacker 'Ethic:' Digital Infrastructures As The Battleground Of Conflicting Liberalism

On January 22, 1999, then US President Bill Clinton warned the National Academy of Sciences about the nation’s need to bolster their defenses against two new terrorist “tools of destruction” - biochemical warfare and computer hacking (Clinton, 1999). In the most explicit terms, computer hackers were catapulted to the same level of dangerousness as those terrorist groups who might use chemical or even nuclear weapons against the West.

Occupation On Track: Rail Infrastructure In Kashmir

In 2002, the Indian state launched a “high-priority" national project to build the first rail line that would connect India’s capital city, New Delhi, to Baramulla, a city on the northern tip of Indian-occupied Kashmir. The 345 kilometre Jammu-Baramulla line, also known as the “Kashmir Railway Project,” has been under construction for the past 16 years and is yet to be completed.

The Sweetening Of Public Infrastructures, Or Tangerine

On Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, best friends Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra sit at a Donut Time on the corner of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. They are Black, trans sex workers living poor. Sin-Dee has just finished serving a 28-day prison sentence and is about to announce her engagement to Chester, a West Hollywood pimp, when Alexandra interrupts to tell her that Chester has been cheating on her with a “white fish”—“real vagina and everything, yes girl.”