Infrastructure Study Group

Music for infrastructure: Under the Bridge

In Chicago, Compass Collaborators are initiating a weekly or bi-weekly infrastructure reading group. We meet on Sunday afternoons around 4pm in the Logan’s Square area. After the meeting and discussions we will eat dinner, and sometimes watch a video.

We welcome more participants. Please contact duskin (forestmongrel(at)gmail(dot)com) if you are interested in joining us!

Most of us have been studying infrastructures in some form. The reading group offers the opportunity for recollecting and reflecting through shared readings and discussion. A gathering that might stimulate modulated approaches to our practical engagements in, entanglements with, and succor from infrastructures.

In our conversation at the preliminary gathering several idea clots linger with me. I wrote the following responses the day after the meeting.

Particular Infrastructures Abstract Infrastructures
Why study and read about infrastructure? Can any relation of capacitation be described as infrastructure? Does abstract description of concepts or grammars of infrastructure make it arbitrary? How do we define what is “infrastructure”? One suggested approach was to start making lists and drawing mind maps. Another complementary approach suggested was that we structure our inquiry on our own current research and practice trajectories. What infrastructures and infrastructural relations are we already struggling with? Study of infrastructure could be described to have an interval of possible engagements ranging from abstract to discrete particular. An “abstract” might be mind mapping the language that describes infrastructural relations such as ‘capacitation,’ ‘enable,’ ‘continuity.’ ‘support,’ and so on. A “discrete particular” could be mind mapping a very specific case such as a midstream grain elevator on the Illinois River or the Woodpat Crude Pipeline between Wood River and Patoka. At our meeting, we almost started mind mapping the infrastructure of corn. This example falls between abstract and particular because it may include generalizations like “transportation” or “water” or “fertilizer” but also specificities like a particular genetic laboratory or specific pieces of equipment to process natural gas into fertilizer. In some ways, “corn” is partially a generalization. Lets ground our study in particular material cases. I do not want to get in a game of policing what is or is not in the category of infrastructure. How can the collective study capacitate our practices? Our interests will probably arouse all the theoretic contradictions.

Infrastructure and Affect
What are the affects of an infrastructure? What are peoples’ affective relations to an infrastructure? Is there an infrastructure of affect? Or, do affects have infrastructures? What are some practical relationships between an infrastructure and an affect? From the meeting, I am remembering two ways affect came up. The affects we have toward and with infrastructure, and the infrastructure of affect or affects as infrastructure. Mathias observed that our conversation had veered toward a negative association toward infrastructure brought on by characterizing infrastructure in terms of subordination. He gently reminded us how much and how often, most of the time, we cherish and count on the infrastructures that care for us. This reminds me that in my project, exploring petroleum performance, I am most interested in successful operation of maintaining flows and combustion of petroleum rather than the breakdowns. The performance of the petroleum infrastructure provides sustenance, security, and pleasure. In the other instance of affect, I remember Amy wondering about affective infrastructure. This suggests some inter-articulating questions: How do material built infrastructures contribute to affective experiences/practices? Can affects act as infrastructures? What are the infrastructures of affect? If affects are corporeally held and felt, embodied, then these questions suggest distinct material cases not just psychological or categorical abstraction. In Brian Larkin’s article “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” some of the cases he describes as poetics might be considered in terms of the affective relations to particular infrastructures or infrastructural regimes.

Care Sustenance and Security
How are practices and concepts of security, sustenance, and care caught up in infrastructure? Can disambiguating security, sustenance, and care tease out the grammar of subordination implied and inferred in infrastructural relationships? This clusters several concerns. Infrastructures often intend to secure enduring material relations. These material relations provide, or are imagined to provide sustenance and care. Can material relations of care and sustenance be disambiguated from security? For example, can indigenous modes of productions, or grounded normativities, provide examples of material relations of care and sustenance without infrastructure? Without security? Or by securing temporal and spatial relations differently? Is Hortense Spillers’ description, in her germinal article “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” of radical black maternal care, an example that eludes infrastructural arrangement? In my reckoning, with their pipeline blockade, the Unist’ot’en Clan confront the petrochemical companies with a system of care and sustenance with incommensurate with the infrastructure projects.

Subordination, Sedimentation and Endurance
How does an infrastructure create a temporality, or perhaps better, a duration? Many infrastructures are enduring arrangements working through repetition. Often the initiation and continuity of the arrangements require relations, or entities, or systems of relations to become instrumentalized and, perhaps, subordinated. Sarah L. suggested that there is something temporal about infrastructure and Sarah R. echoed her saying with the word “endurance.” Attempted permanence (through repetition)? Rozalinda mentioned the example of the first canal that shaped the entire city of Chicago. The results and patterning of are everywhere but the canal is buried. An example of how infrastructures have different material effective durations from their repetitions and provocations. Like fossilized layers of practices. Claire brought up the exceptional case of Black slavery. Where people or, better, flesh, in Hortense Spillers’ terms, become both commodity and infrastructure. And maybe in the transforming practices reproducing black flesh as infrastructure is embodying the prison-complex. Is the prison complex an infrastructure? Or is flesh the infrastructure for the prisons? Instrumentalization seems to suggest subordinate relation. Is this a syntax of infrastructure? Prepositional relations? Petroleum and people instrumentalize steel, pipes and cylinders, and fuel, and boats and drills, and trains, pipelines, to enable, to capacitate, petroleum combustions (and a little bit of re-composition and chemical compost). The sedimentation of a couple hundred years of infrastructural practices is very robust and pervasive. Especially infrastructures that support key Late Liberal relations like combustion transportation, metallurgic production especially steel and aluminum, industrial agriculture, energy for urban life, especially heating and cooling. So robust, as Brian pointed out, that the infrastructural practices have capacitated and enacted the reshaping of rivers, coastlines, mountains, entire ecosystems, and the reformatting of the atmosphere. The particular grandiose violences of trying to create certain arrangements of durative continuity. I keep thinking about how infrastructure in some ways seems to avoid a constant re-evaluation of a material relationship.

Media and Infrastructure
How are media and infrastructure similar and/or different? Ryan brought up the similarities between infrastructure and media. Both overlap with communication in the basic sense of movement. But not all infrastructure enables flows or streams. Not all infrastructure acts like a carrier in media. The fiber-optic cables are the carrier, the infrastructure, for the code, the media, that delivers the internet. Some theories of infrastructure might point to the language and code practices of the digital system, and the works of maintaining and renegotiating protocols be considered infrastructure, underlying systems of relations that are foundational in the operation. The confluence and divergences between infrastructure and media could be very useful since they are overlapping practices but not exactly the same. Sarah brought up that stuff being moved by both media and infrastructure can be in either flows or batches. Streams or pulses. Beats or tone. These are intriguing differences. I was also thinking about infrastructures that are about limiting, like flood control dams, or fences. Or Heather’s example of infrastructural descriptions in anatomy and biology like, RNA, both flows and blockages. Continuities and discontinuities. Form and circulation. Is infrastructure just one way to do form and circulation? The description of “natural” forms and circulations as infrastructure might flatten important differences. Or better as Jensen notes in “Infrastructural Ontologies” the differences are persistent making infrastructures good sites for encountering super-positioned and appositional and overlapping and entangled, incommensurate forms (arrangements) and circulations (temporalities).

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