Notes from the Anthropocene #2: Infrastructure
In November 2014, after grand juries in Missouri and New York refused to indict police officers for the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, over 170 cities across America exploded with nightly demonstrations that blocked major highways, bridges, and even commuter rail and subway lines. Hundreds of thousands found themselves on the West Side Highway, I-5, or I-75, amidst chants of “I can’t breathe,” “Black lives matter,” and “Shut it down,” while people held aloft road flares and shot off fireworks. In some places they threw rocks at police and in other places they built barricades out of street signs and traffic cones to shut down traffic. In New York, bridges and highways were invaded nightly, in scenes reminiscent of Occupy but much more developed, temporarily interrupting the city’s incessant flow of forgetting. Take the night of December 13, after the Millions March had wound its way around Manhattan in what seemed like an orchestrated effort to capstone the movement. As the official protest ended, thousands forced their way on to the Brooklyn Bridge, climbing over walls to the on-ramp and pushing their way past police. As people marched up the Brooklyn-bound lanes, young and old hoisted themselves and each other over the protective barriers of the walkway to block both sides. Hundreds took part in an impromptu trust exercise, helping one another navigate an eight-foot drop from a spiked security fence.
One could trace the antecedents of such moments and movements to the Civil Rights era or even as far back as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Or one could cast the blockade as the new strike of piqueteros and plebs expelled from the point of production. But we think that either of these prevents us from letting these moments be what they are in their present singularity and prevents us from reading the signs right in front of our faces. The blockades of November and December in the United States appeared like a reflex—an intuition or instinct—conducted with a muscle memory that most never even knew they had. In the process it became so clear, so obvious to people, that in blocking highways, tunnels, and bridges, they were planting themselves in places of immense power. Many asked themselves why they hadn’t done it before as they scrambled in front of oncoming vehicles, producing miles-long traffic jams made up of often very supportive commuters. Even though we traverse it every day, infrastructure is like something in the periphery of our vision; we sense its importance, traveling along and living within its powerful circuits. Yet we still don’t quite grasp it strategically or cognitively, except perhaps in the moments in which it has been rendered inoperable. Thus rather than analyze the anti-police movement of November, calling forth its roots and identifying its novelties, we want to follow where it carried us, across the highways, bridges, and railway lines and to an examination of the rapidly transforming grounds that uphold our way of life.
The term “infrastructure” is a loan word from French, where it originated around the turn of the century as railroad engineering jargon: “the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure’ work generally of the Ax to Bourg-Madame line have been completed.”1 In the United States, as elsewhere, the word developed greater usage in postwar civil defense and urban planning, appearing as military logistics language in NATO’s 1950s “common infrastructure programs,”2 in which member countries pooled their money to construct the various military installations—communications, airfields, war centers and training facilities, fuel supply systems, pipelines, radar systems, ports, etc.—necessary for modern, omnipresent warfare. More recently, the term “infrastructure” has been expanded far beyond brick and mortar projects such as bridges, roads, transportation arteries, and power plants, to encompass a much broader array of phenomena including waterways, animals, and even human communities.
And this is no simple indulgence in metaphor. As planners, architects, and city officials attempt to make N.Y.C. “resilient” to the myriad ever-increasing categories of “risk” the city faces, life itself is being recast as infrastructural in nature, and infrastructures are cast as indistinguishable from life in the Anthropocene. See, for example, the city’s post-Sandy Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency,3 or, even more recently, HUD’s $930 million Rebuild by Design competition,4 in which oyster reefs are hailed as “ecological infrastructure”—useful for attenuating storm surge—and friendly neighbors with backyard gardens and go-bags are “social infrastructure”—prepared to shovel out, clean up, and rebuild because FEMA and the government can’t do it alone. The importance of infrastructures in this regard is clear in post war reconstruction efforts in a place like Iraq, where the ability to get them up and running was the litmus test not only of U.S. power but also of the form of life it promises. In these scenarios, as Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen of Google argue, a “communications first, or mobile-first, mentality” has emerged wherein the reestablishment of communications infrastructure has become the first priority in the long process of rebuilding entire societies, providing a “new cement” that is not only a strategic objective but also a method of counterinsurgency, which brings us to our next point.5
As landscape architect Pierre Belanger notes, most often infrastructures were built in response to one perceived crisis or another—insurrection, hurricane, disease, criminalized behavior, etc. In the 19th century, the construction of New York City’s vast water infrastructure was spurred in large part by concerns over cholera outbreaks that would routinely kill thousands, just as Paris’s streets were transformed after the Revolution of 1848. Levees, spillways, and dams were erected to control and regularize the flows and floods of the Mississippi, facilitating commerce and urbanization. Early theorizations of the Internet posited communication as a defensive mechanism in the face of nuclear annihilation.6 Or take Central Park, which was conceived not merely as a piece of nature brought into the city, but also as a social safety valve for class antagonisms. In the face of myriad kinds of threats, infrastructures have long been posited as bulwarks against disorder and their deliverance of security and the protection of life in the face of such disorders is central to the kind of life they actually help produce.
While infrastructure can take on a static form in our imaginations, sitting there in millions of tons of concrete, it’s important to understand the degree to which infrastructure is an action, a functioning. As the -structure in infrastructure suggests, the term refers to a process of arranging, forming, and disposing of things. Such structuring is writ large in the boastful architecture of projects like the Hoover Dam or the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which completely remade and reordered the physical environments they tower over. Embodied in them was the project of technical progress: the attempted recreation of humans as liberal individuals and the concomitant transformation of the environment around them into a prosaic set of objects, a perfectly ordered world of brick and mortar, grids, and master plans, of open spaces in which goods circulate—and individuals orient themselves—freely. Another way of putting this might be to say that it’s not enough to think that everything in the world is a commodity, as did the early bourgeoisie, to think the world as an inert landscape separate from us. This ridiculous way of life had to be imposed on us and on the earth through concrete and steel, engineering and design, as much as the enclosure of land and invention of wage labor. In short, infrastructure is a means through which the historical anomaly we call liberal existence is reentrenched and extended, modified and recalibrated, through the creation and functioning of everyday space, architecture, movement, and human relations.
But make no mistake, it would be giving far too much credit to government to think of it as a well thought-out conspiracy to order the world. Various infrastructures are developed to manage, to administer, to respond, to order, in a tangle of engineers, pencil pushers, designers, courtrooms, white papers, petroleum tanks, rebar, and asphalt. They are intensely ad hoc, local, and reactive, producing disastrous effects along with the much-touted benefits. Since the 1970s, infrastructures that were once posited as the unshakeable grounds of the modern world have been increasingly recast as bulky and brittle systems incapable of surviving a world of complexity and volatility.7 On the one hand, much of that complexity and volatility was a product of the very managerial solutions intended to defend infrastructures, which automated and networked them to maintain functionality in the face of worker resistance or environmental threats. On the other hand, it stems from the folding outward and interconnection of infrastructures within broader infrastructurally-comprised environments. In the case of the electrical grid, a very small incident such as a downed power line, a flooded subgeneration station, or faulty switch can now rapidly generate cascade effects, “those that produce a chain of events that cross geography, time, and various types of systems” whose “surprise effects are unexpected events that arise out of interactions between agents and the negative and positive feedback loops produced through this interaction.”8 This in turns multiplies human threats to infrastructure—terrorists, hackers, eco-saboteurs, bored kids, and revolutionaries. In May 2013, months after blockades of railways and round dances in shopping malls, retired Lieutenant Colonel Douglas L. Bland penned a report for the MacDonald-Laurier Institute think tank titled, “Canada and the First Nations: Cooperation or Conflict?” In it he argues, “if Canada is to escape the consequences of a First Nations insurgency, then … Canadians must, among other things, make its critical transportation infrastructure less vulnerable or deal with First Nations’ leaders from a point of relative strategic weakness.”9 Geologists however, understand this strategic weakness to exist not at the level of the nation but at the level of the entire civilization itself, further illuminating the meaning of infrastructure today.
The Anthropocene is a newly minted epoch conjured up by geologists who argue that “human activity” is the most powerful force shaping the planet’s stratigraphy. The various pieces of evidence marshaled on behalf of the Anthropocene’s legitimacy are disturbing in their degree of devastation: deforestation, acidification of the oceans, homogenization of environments, mass extinction, invasive species, and climate change, which collectively pose a direct challenge to the continuation of human life on this planet. In order to quantify and mark the age, geologists have recently shifted their analytical gaze away from fossils of dead organisms and on to a whole new set of human-made, non-biological “technofossils.” While a recent publication of the Anthropocene Working Group—the subset of the International Commission on Stratigraphy tasked with determining the validity of naming this new epoch—focuses on the rise and proliferation of plastics as well as the prevalence of radioactive isotopes as key markers of the epoch, other investigations have strongly homed in on existing infrastructures, which are examined in the present as future fossils. As such, some of our civilization’s most touted achievements are cast as already in ruin, a forecast that doesn’t seem too far off given what the Anthropocene’s potential consequences have in store for us.10
This terminal diagnosis is not confined to geologists. In order cope with such a civilization-wide disaster a slew of designers, engineers, politicians, and activists are forwarding a complete redefinition of life—as infrastructure—in an eco-cybernetic model that effaces the difference between governing and governed, order and disorder.11 Post-Sandy New York is a laboratory for such experiments, and many current technofossils are being fazed out because as former Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg stated, “Robert Moses built the roads along our coastline, separating us from this natural resource and we have worked very hard to try to reconnect back to the most wonderful asset that we have.” Posited in their place are hybridized infrastructures that involve artificial wetlands and meshworks of oysters and special concretes designed to grow together in order to attenuate but not block out storm waters. Alongside these so-called ecological infrastructures are redesigned communication systems with built-in redundancies, and human infrastructures to serve, maintain, and self-organize for disaster relief. In this drive to protect the city, it is exactly as geographer Bruce Braun put it, “‘[s]ecurity’ is thus increasingly about protecting ‘critical infrastructure’, and biopolitics is increasingly infrastructural in form.”12 While infrastructure of the past was imbued with ideas of progress or the promise of a (better) future, the vital systems that we are now told include us project an image of existence permeated by crisis, of an ever-expanding universe of tipping points. This cobbled together and tangled web—now stretching to the ends of the earth—of flows of people, water, and energy, of wetlands, code, and satellites, has only the aim of managing or surviving its crises. In this, we are not only told to be patient and prepare to undergo whatever crises to come, crises that are an acknowledged byproduct of the self-same system. What is fundamentally being demanded of us is that we accept the ontology projected by a dying order whose last wish is that we continue to live within it—and thereby complete it.
The move onto the bridges, rail lines, and highways during the protests of November and December last year was more than just a tactical reawakening to the potential of blockading infrastructures: it was an expression of the shifting grounds of our epoch. We live at the tail end of a long series of attempts to locate a plane outside of being to which action and life could be understood as tethered or from which it would emanate—the One, Being, God, the Subject, the Base, etc.—whose activity consists in organizing being. Today infrastructure is heir apparent to this position, yet occupying it in a way that appears immanent to life, banal and commonplace, indistinguishable in the everyday rhythms we traverse. The point in recognizing this, however, isn’t to position infrastructure as a new critiqueable object, a new enemy, or new base, fodder for another decade of articles and conferences. Rather it is to reorient the way we think about power, life, and revolution, and to set out adequate starting points from which to begin rebuilding all three. What the current problematization of infrastructure shows quite clearly is that the concrete, material reconfiguration of worlds is on the table as a question not of the future but of the present.
Once some revolutionaries may have argued that the task at hand was the seizure of the means of production, followed by putting up an “under new management” sign outside of the factory (or the White House depending on the flavor of their politics), the task today has changed. As our friend Jason Smith wrote in his excellent review of the French text First Revolutionary Measures, “[t]he material obdurateness of the built environment—cities, roads, ports, factories—will mount a resistance far greater than any political enemy.”13 That is because they carry within their material organization ways of ordering and inhabiting the world that are deeply hostile to revolutionary transformation. Taking it as a given, as our unquestionable base—in French, Marx’s “base” is translated as infrastructure—risks naturalizing the operations it carries out and the ways of life it upholds. Thus the Anthropocene tells us something about the present, it’s that the question of what to do with these technofossils here and now is paramount.
But if infrastructure is expert at fading into the background when it works, its fraught and fragile existence today increasingly brings it to our attention, exposing the particularly anomalous and outright ridiculous nature of the way we live today, whether it’s that for most of us, spinach’s native environment is the plastic container or that we find ourselves living lives of deep existential and material poverty. Thus as the normal functioning of these infrastructures is being brought into question, ways of eating, staying warm, and getting around become open fields again and properly radical in nature. Such matters are being taken up in the growing number of autonomous regions like Kobane and in Kurdistan as a whole, the Zapatista communes of the Mexican southeast, and the Zones à Défendre (ZAD), primarily in France. In the ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes for example, major clashes in 2012 and 2013 at a protest camp to prevent the construction of the Aéroport du Grand Ouest have led to a police-free zone in which people have self-organized farms and reoccupied abandoned villages.14 Once-fallow lands are now home to dozens of collectively tended vegetables plots, and once empty buildings now house bakeries, barter markets, and meeting spaces for organizing collective life across different generations and backgrounds. At one farm, Saint Jean du Tertre, ZADists have planted wheat, set up apiaries, and reestablished a vineyard, growing some of the first truly indigenous varieties of grapes to be planted in decades. As many ZADists say, they are against the airport and its world, meaning that in opposing the construction of this particular project, they are also seeking to uproot the way of life from which it emerged. But just as important is what they are posing: the nascent, material possibility of not merely surviving but living beyond the pale of the Anthropocene itself. Facing up to our epoch will require giving ourselves the capacity to make real other ways of life, of pairing our sentiments with their necessary material force in process of experimentation and discovery. In our humble estimation, this process, already underway in many places, is “the condition for a serious, massive return of the revolutionary question.”15
- According to the Oxford English Dictionary.
- NATO Infrastructure Committee, 50 Years of Infrastructure: NATO Security Investment Programme is the Sharing of Roles, Risks, Responsibilities, Costs and Benefits (2001).
- On infrastructure and the West, see Michael Dillon and Julien Reid, The Liberal Way of War: Killing to Make Life Live (New York: Routledge, 2009). Quote from Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), 218.
- Cade Metz, “What Do the H-Bomb and the Internet Have in Common? Paul Baran” Wired, September 3, (2012).
- See for example the Pentagon’s study Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security, by L. Hunter Lovins, Amory B. Lovins (Denver: Brick House Pub Company, 1982).
- Myriam Dunn Cavelty, ETH Zurich, “Systems at Risk as Risk to the System,” Limn, www.limn.it.
- Douglas Bland, Canada and the First Nations: Cooperation or Conflict? (Ottawa: MacDonald-Laurier Institute, 2013), 25. Bland has since developed this report and an earlier novel on the subject into a book, Time Bomb: Canada and the First Nations (Toronto: Dundurn, 2014).
- See Glenn Dyer and Stephanie Wakefield, “Notes From the Anthropocene #1,” The Brooklyn Rail, November (2014).
- For the New York specific plan see, the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) report.
- Bruce Braun, “A new urban dispositif? Governing life in an age of climate change,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2014, volume 32, 58.
- Jason Smith, “The Day After the Insurrection: On First Revolutionary Measures,” Radical Philosophy 189 (Jan/Feb 2015), 42.
- For more on the ZAD at Notres-Dame-Des-Landes, see zad.nadir.org. For the ZAD at Sivens, see “Fighting For the Forest: Ecological Activism in France,” in the January issue of the Brooklyn Rail.
- Invisible Committee, A Nos Amis (Paris: La Fabrique, 2014), 96.
- “Eric Garner NYC” by EventsPhotoNYC (flic.kr/p/q25aPH), used under CC BY 2.0 / Desaturated from original.
Glenn Dyer was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana and now lives in Ridgewood, Queens. He is a historian, translator, amateur strategist, and part-time instructor at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies. Glenn is also part of 1882 Woodbine, a workshop and organizing space for practical experiments in building autonomy.Stephanie Wakefield
STEPHANIE WAKEFIELD is a 2017 – 18 visiting Assistant Professor in Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College The New School. She has written extensively on the political and philosophical implications of the Anthropocene, 'living' infrastructure, and urban resilience in New York City. Her current research is on south Florida where she is exploring 'experimentation' as a mode of dwelling in the Anthropocene, and emancipatory possibilities offered by the concept of the 'back loop.'