Investigating Infrastructures

Introduction by
Deborah Cowen
November 27, 2018

This forum, edited by Deborah Cowen, 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.

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.

ver 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. 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

The Sweetening Of Public Infrastructures, Or Tangerine

To follow the infrastructure in Tangerine--the artificial built form and fluorescent orange light that flood the screen--reveals the everyday occasions where it is both enforced ‘properly’ and transgressed improperly. It reveals a literal and figurative repurposing as Sin-Dee and Alexandra move through the city toward intimacies they cherish, and those they don’t (Wilson, 2016: 262).


Alison Zhou

Natural Resource Extraction And Settler Colonial Infrastructures

The celebration of Peter Munk’s life based on wealth and donations reveals a lot about the values of Canada as a settler colonial nation. His financial gifts have undoubtedly funded important programs such as medical research and innovations. But at what cost, and for whom?


Philip Son

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

This article is not trying to argue that the average modern hacker has abandoned the principles of liberalism, antiauthoritarian, justice, and freedom; instead, it is worth uncovering the individuals/groups behind state sanctioned hacking offensives, their motives and most importantly the consequences of their attempts to destabilize and repurpose cyber infrastructure.


Jack Galligan

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

The infrastructure of domestic privacy serves to contain and conceal abuse and exploitation, hiding it from public scrutiny, and creating an uneven dynamic that often carries echoes of colonial relationships between the global north and global south. 


Dani Magsumbol

Occupation On Track: Rail Infrastructure In Kashmir

For India, the rail infrastructure is a means to further consolidate itself as a nation-state: building material infrastructures on Kashmiri territory facilitates the blurring of boundaries between the independent state of India and the occupied territory of Kashmir, which the state claims is an “integral part of India”. For Kashmiris, however, the rail line is another manifestation of a brutal occupation that constantly penetrates and haunts their territory.


Khalood Kibria

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

The rhetoric of personal security, such as connecting hackers to terrorists, became a way for the state to justify its policies regarding the criminalisation of hackers and securitisation of the internet, as well as their desire to restrict the principle of freedom of information.


Tyler King

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.


Connie Yang

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

In the context of infrastructure and spatial mnemonics, the politics of collective occlusion suggests that alternative methods of memory-making, meaning-making and place-making might be imagined and actualized by contemporary geographers. It is along this road that I would like to signpost the (im)possible spatial mnemonics of black infrastructure.


Symon James-Wilson

Mexican Agrarian Movements And The Infrastructure Of Peasant Farming

In this piece, I explore the utility of infrastructure as a heuristic for understanding the conditions within which peasant agriculture might thrive. Using the distinct demands within these two junctures in Mexican history, I seek to understand agrarian movements as a struggle over the “infrastructures of peasant farming”: in other words, the structural conditions necessary to enable the viability of peasant forms of agriculture.


Caroline Kamm

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.


Deanna Del Vecchio

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

Law, legal systems, and the authority to impose them become highly historicized objects, ones that are spatially and relationally contingent in their production, enactment, and perpetuation. Through examining jurisdiction as infrastructure then, colonial and imperial authority not only become, but already are, contested and contestable claims.


Brenton Buchanan

Petro-Violence: Merging Militarism And Corporate Secrecy

It is evident in Standing Rock’s unfolding situation that the ongoing fusion between the state’s war machine and the private oil enterprise triggers much shock and resistance in contemporary politics. To study the colonial nature of violence committed on behalf of energy conglomerates today it is important to remember that the protection of oil interests through organized militarism is a continued form of dispossession that has a long legacy in early 20th century colonial agendas.


Rouzbeh Akhbari

The Mirrored Shield As Indigenous Fugitivity And Radical Glitchfrastructure

While this particular understanding of fugitivity is extremely useful when describing the precarity of life under settler colonial occupation for Indigenous peoples, I would like to propose that an alternative conception of the fugitive is necessary when discussing the creative forms of resistance that have defined much of the #NoDAPL movement. What follows is a meditation on the idea of Indigenous fugitivity as radical glitch, or “glitchfrastructure” (Berlant, 2016).


Melissa Nesrallah

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

While often represented through a Jane Jacobsian lens of humble multicultural livability, there is a large body of research documenting another Toronto story; a settler colonial city of sprawling borders and violent social ordering that produces the kind of systemic premature death that Ruthie Gilmore has helped us to know as racism. Sandy Hudson, of Black Lives Matter—Toronto, and Rinaldo Walcott insist that when it comes to anti-Black racism, knowledge is abundant but meaningful action is in painfully short supply. Indeed, reports and official commissions that document the problem have been piling up for decades.


Deborah Cowen

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

Through this piece, I build on both a foundation of landscape ecology and the extensive scholarship of border studies to contextualize the border as an edge of more extensive patterns and conditions of territorialization and land control. Tracing the relationship between landscape, mobility, and the border as an infrastructure of the state, I consider the geometries of both interrupted and intersected lines alongside thickened and variegated zones as alternative spatial understandings of boundaries and edges.


Zannah Mae Matson

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.’


Drew Forbes

The Jersey Barrier: Concrete Divisions And Mammoth Erections

The barrier directly arrests movement and denies circulation, making visible what Doreen Massey refers to as “power geometries”: the physical and institutional structures allowing movement and access for some but not for others. On the inside of the fence there is the spatial compression of world leaders discussing those they govern inside anonymous convention center rooms and multinational hotels, on the outside the governed are held static by the fence’s physical structure.


Sam Cotter

Homes As Infrastructures Of Intimacy

Israel simultaneously demolishes and builds. Dispossessing Palestinians of their homes and replacing the population with Jewish settler colonies. But as Afifi's comments suggest, more forces are at work beyond dispossession, theft and demographic (re)calibration.


Sabrien Amrov

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.


Zannah Mae Matson and Neil Nunn

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

Here I link the Canadian state’s political, legal, and material infrastructure with its own violent practices which are simultaneously its foundation and its means of reproduction. Specifically, the discussion is focused around Japanese Canadian internment during WWII and its redress in 1988 to ask how wartime and post-internment infrastructures can produce conditions that make particular bodies incarcerable at one time and incorporable into the nation at another.


Katrina Fukuda

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

The failure to include people with disabilities at the earliest of planning stages and in the infancy of infrastructure development excludes us from the lifeworld of structure and more broadly, a long awaited radical social acceptance. The lifeworld of structure must include disability and this task is particularly urgent when it comes to equitable access to transportation.


Terri-Lynn Langdon