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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.