Letters

Postpolitical Infrastructures

As a kid I was always fascinated by my father’s work as an architect. He used to take me to building sites and explain what was going on. But I was particularly interested in how he made the plans. These he drew by hand on a huge drafting table, with a range of geometric tools. Even more amazing was the blue-print machine, which turned he drawings into inky copies, for the client, the builder and the town clerk’s office.

It was an era when an architect still gave form to the world. Buildings were made of standard parts, but were not themselves quite standard. As Rem Koolhaas shows in his magnificent book Delirious New York, you can date buildings in a city once you know how the building codes change through time, as the codes are kind of invisible envelope that the actual structures strain up against. They are almost always as tall and big as the codes would let them be, but each has its own form, shoe-horned into the grid.

That era is over. The architect today is no ‘fountainhead.’ It is rather sad to watch today’s ‘starchitects’, designing their weird-looking signature buildings. These seem now always to be either museums or condos for billionaires. The brand-name architect just build useless luxury housing for the 1% and their trinkets. The actual design of the world is now in the hands of other people.

Perhaps the decline of architecture can be mapped onto the design of politics. Or rather its redesign. The architect made buildings which carved out private space against the boundary of a public one that was in the shape of some kind of polis. It was not always a democratic one, but it was a polis that formed the platform for modes of political calculation, consensus and ‘dissensus.’ But does that polis still exist, or do we live only with its spectacle, its simulacrum?

Of particular interest here is a new book by Keller Easterling, called Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. Following Armand Mattelart’s call for a critical history of global infrastructure, Easterling offers three case studies in new forms of built-out power, and some remarkably productive language for thinking about the kinds of built space that might be replacing those of both architecture and politics.

Easterling: “Buildings are no longer singularly crafted enclosures, uniquely imagined by an architect, but reproducible products…” (11) Not only buildings and office parks, but whole cities are now constructed according to the formulae of infrastructural technology. And so the object of analysis has to shift towards an understanding of that infrastructure. Easterling: “Infrastructure space, with the power and currency of software, is an operating system for shaping the city.” (13)

Infrastructure is how power deploys itself, and it does so much faster than law or democracy. Easterling’s three case studies are firstly free zones like Shenzhen in China, global broadband networks and their imposition on existing cities such as Nairobi, and International Organizations for Standardization (ISOs), which ‘legislate’ the design of things and processes.

Of these case studies, the ISOs are perhaps the weirdest: “The whole world now speaks a dialect of ISO Esperanto, one that often resembles the hilarious, upbeat argot of self-help gurus.” (19) And to media and communication scholars, the broadband story is perhaps the best known. Here I will concentrate on the third, the free trade zone story.

Easterling’s book is aimed at architects, but I think it deserves a wider audience. Its goal is to redefine the object of analysis so that it might be possible to reconstitute the object of professional intervention for architects and planners. “Exposing evidence of the infrastructural operating system is as important as acquiring some special skills to hack into it.” (20) This has implications both for what planning could be, but also for how social movements might engage with questions of scale.

This reconstitution of the object of analysis is I think a very important step. I am continually frustrated by the way in which scholars in the humanities and social sciences keep trotting out the same old authorities and the same old languages, which pretty much guarantee that when the look at the present all they will see is how it looks like the past.

Easterling: “Well rehearsed theories, like those related to Capital and Neoliberalism continue to send us to the same places to search for dangers while other concentrations of authoritarian power escape scrutiny.” (22) Sometimes one has to just forget Marx and Foucault in order to see the world afresh, which is after all what both Marx and Foucault were able to do, by forgetting the authorities and languages that preceded them.

So one of Easterling’s moves is to see the free trade zone as central rather than peripheral. She shows the long history of such zones, their rapid rise in the postwar years, and their weird proliferation into other kinds of ‘enclave’ form. What they all have in common is their detachment on the one hand from the envelopes of national polities, and on the other their connection into a global infrastructure of trade and communication.

When I was in China in 1987, I visited Shenzen, famous as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s most visible commitment to the ‘open door policy.’ When I visited it, Shenzen was still a fishing village, overshadowed by a vast, muddy, construction site. It is now a city of more than 10 million people. An entire city was built, in my lifetime. And it is not the only one. This is an unprecedented fact in human history.

Many such cities are some version of free trade zone, set up outside the regulatory envelope of the nation-state, such that labor and environmental law need not apply, and nor do the usual taxes. Such spaces have lately mutated into weird new forms, such as knowledge parks, satellite universities, full-service container ports, supply chain cities, super-factory cities and even leisure island cities.

Manuel Castells described a new global spatiality that emerged in the late twentieth century as a space of flows laid over, and circumventing, the old space of places. Where once geography constrained flows to the contours of places, now the ‘virtual geography’ of comms infrastructure warps that geography of places to that of flows. Or: in a language I have used for this: the second nature of build form is subsumed into a third nature of standardized mediation.

The space of flows is, among other things, a way of routing economic power around the power of labor, of circumventing labor’s ability to organize and command space. In the free trade zone, “inexpensive labor is imported from South Asia and elsewhere like machinery or other equipment.” (45) And “From its inception, the most overt and routine forms of violence have been aimed at workers.” (54) The labor compound may even be cordoned off within the free trade zone, even as it is cordoned off from its ‘host’ country.

To the usual tools of coercion against labor can now be added deportation. Labor can be expelled back to its ‘home’ country, or within a state like China, back to the provinces from whence it came. And while maybe not, or not yet, responsible for the majority of labor, these special cities are now of enormous size. The notorious Foxconn company alone has about 800,000 workers in Shenzen.

It is as if cities were engineering their own doppelgangers, which are not always about dirty manufacturing and cheap labor. They can also be about finding ways to aggregate and tap the abilities of what I call the ‘hacker class’ – those whose efforts yield not quantities of product but qualities of novelty that can be turned into copyrights, patents, or other information instruments through which to command a slice of the commodification process. Hence the proliferation of campus cities, IT cities, media cities, and their nonwork doubles – the vacation cities, urban-scale zones like the very strange resort the South Koreans have built in the North, about which Easterling has written elsewhere.

All cities are now branded global products, competing with each other as mediatized simulacra of each other. What is curious is the attempt to create new brands, which might then appeal within the third nature space of flows for both investment and high skill hacker-class populations. Consider here the Technopark Alliance, which includes Luzern, Winterthur and Skolkovo, which one might think of as niche brands meant to appeal to consumers of quite specialized forms of city.

What makes all this possible is a kind of infrastructure design way, way beyond the scope of the architect’s drafting board, or even the design software that has replaced it since my father’s time. On the one side is technical engineering, on the other a kind of financial engineering, and caught in the squeeze between is old fashioned architecture. It is being replaced by design systems which establish protocols for the unfolding of cities across greenfield sites, where the unit of design is not the building so much as the zone.

The language in which Easterling talks about this is the language of the interface. As Alexander Bogdanov argues, we get our metaphors for how the world works from our labor processes. Easterling ingeniously deploys the point and clickery language which not only architects but most members of the hacker class are familiar with as a kind of basic metaphor for how the world is now designed.

Thus: “The infrastructural operating system is filled with well-rehearsed sequences of code – spatial products and repeatable formulas like zones, suburbs, highways, resorts, malls, golf courses. Hacking into it requires forms that are also like software.” (72) Hence not only the metaphor for how the world is built, but also for how to engage with it shifts into the register of computing as popularly experienced and understood: “the MS Dos of urban software might be productively hacked.” (68)

But before it can be hacked, it has to be understood. Easterling offers a set of subsidiary metaphors for contemporary infrastructure design: multipliers, switches, and topologies.

The multipliers include: cars, elevators, mobile phones. The first, the car, was the multiplier that made possible one of the precursor forms of the greenfields city, the greenfields suburb. But “Levittown was simple software.” (74) Its repeated unit-forms were few. Sadly, it may be the case that the United States never quite acquired the higher-order practices of building forms at the next scale. Hence the endless attempts to solve spatial problems with yet more versions of the Levittown software.

The switch is something like an interchange highway. The switch is a macro-order feature compared to the multiplier, shaping where the multipliers can circulate. Topology might designate the art of patterning switches and multipliers into grids and networks for optimal circulation. “Topologies model the ‘wiring’ of an organization. … Just as an electronic network is wired to support certain activities, so space can be ‘wired’ to encourage some activities and routines over others.” (77)

In Gamer Theory, I argued that another way to think about the supersession of second nature by third nature is to think it as the incorporation of topography into topology. Comms infrastructure enables spaces to be folded or twisted, so that points that are geographically remote can be brought into close communication with each other, although usually at the expense of the hinterlands around each. This New York City can be right next to London, and very remote from upstate New York’s rural hinterlands.

Easterling finds a remarkable precedent for today’s urban infrastructure design in James Oglethorpe’s 1733 protocol for the growth of Savannah, Georgia. It was not a master-plan, imagining how the city would fill out the topography around it. Rather, it was a kind of growth protocol, which imagined a kind unit-addition model, each unit having a certain configuration of public and private space, amenities and services.

Jackson Heights, my home in New York City, is a little version of this protocol approach, where the code involved doubling the size of blocks and enclosing the land in the middle of blocks as a shared space for the rows of buildings on each side. This is a quite different way of thinking about what ‘planning’ might be, as the unit takes precedence, nested within a macro-scale switches.

Easterling is not interested only in new cities, but also the refashioning of existing ones. Here what is of interest is how third nature, or topology, not only creates new spaces, but reconfigures old ones. This Easterling calls broadband urbanism, and her case study is Nairobi. Easterling: “for broadband urbanism the object of interplay is to maximize access to information.” (133) It is a way of reformatting existing cities, by bolting on an infrastructure that is light and distributed but pervasive, and which makes any and every asset, whether human or not, a resource that can be assessed, mobilized, combined and marketed.

Perhaps the most interesting intervention in Easterling’s book is when it start to touch on geopolitics. From the infrastructure engineering point of view, geopolitics is a complicated field of state and nonstate actors. It is a picture that does not neatly resolve into either realpolitik or liberal internationalism. The world is not an all-against-all conflict of state actors. Nor is it really something that could ever be tamed by international agreement. Various attempts to rethink it by adding nonstate actors don’t really address the real drivers of global infrastructural space.

Easterling wants to get away from the ‘chessboard’ metaphor. Of course, if one pays attention to infrastructure, one’s first question would be: who made the board in the first place? Even the ‘smooth’ spaces imagined by Deleuze and Guattari are premised on their difference from the striated, or chessboard ones. In any case, all these modes of thinking tend to take militarized space as primary, as if we really did live in Clausewitz’s world, only where politics was just war by other means.

I have a slightly different take on the military metaphor. I think its useful to separate the worldview of Jomini from Clauswitz. The former is the real ancestor of military geopolitics, of the RAND corp, etc, with his formula of force = mass x acceleration. He thought war was a quantifiable logistics. Clausewitz only partly agreed, and was more interested in how logistics met unquantifiable situations. This is why I find Guy Debord’s Game of War more interesting than Deleuze and Guattari.

What Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Zizek and Badiou have in common is juxtaposing war as logistics to revolt as event, where the latter has a sort of mystical quality, an undifferentiated subject/object outside all calculation. Debord follows Clausewitz more closely than either the cold war left or right by thinking strategy as having both elements at once, logistics and event.

This is why Debord’s Game of War is interesting. Its also a game that has the element of communication ‘infrastructure’ built in. (Units have to remain in ‘communication’ with each other or they cease to have value.) Its a game in which (unlike chess) strategy and tactics are reversible. The tactic of interrupting communication (attacking the totality) can become a strategy.

So its not ‘binary’ in the sense of splitting space into smooth/striated, or calculable/eventual, although it is binary in still having two sides. Mind you, one can think games in terms of the cooperation between the pieces as well as conflict between sides.

In short, I agree with Easterling that the military metaphor is a bit limiting, but I think there’s another way out of it. I had a stab at this in the last three chapters of The Spectacle of Disintegration, but it is better addressed by Alex Galloway and Richard Barbrook and the Class Wargames group.

What I find really refreshing about Easterling’s book is the way it both shows forms that are outside of conventional concepts and narratives such as the free trade zone, and then also offers new conceptual tools for understanding those forms. If one rethinks what architecture actually is, it turns out to be one of the most, not least, important levels of analysis.

Interestingly, the binary warlike approach might not be much worse than what descends from liberal internationalist rhetorics of cooperation. Easterling: “More disturbing than a binary competitive stance is its cooperative reciprocal stance. It is not a means by which nations attack each other , but a means by which both state and nonstate actors cooperate at someone else’s expense – usually the expense of labor.” (148) Current global trade treaty negotiations are aimed not just at labor, either, but at putting the genie of free information back in the intellectual property bottle.

So the world might be run not by statecraft but at least in part by extrastatecraft. Easterling: “Avoiding binary dispositions, this field of activity calls for experiments with ongoing forms of leverage, reciprocity, and vigilance to counter the violence immanent in the space of extrastatecraft.” (149) She has some interesting observations on the tactics for this. Some exploit the informational character of third nature, such as gossip, rumor and hoax. She also discusses the possibilities of the gift or of exaggerated compliance (related perhaps to Zizek’s over-identification), and of mimicry and comedy.

Can the planet be hacked? That might be the question for these times. Can the infrastructure being built out, one which precludes by design old-fashioned ‘politics’, yield to new kinds of engagement? These would seem to be very timely questions. Everybody knows the current infrastructure is not one that can last. In a way, it does not even exist, given that on the longer time frames of the Anthropocene it will flicker like an image and be gone. Hopefully to be replaced by a more habitable one.

Easterling: “Laissez-faire was planned; planning was not.” (156) Perhaps neither markets not plans are adequate metaphors for organization at scale any more. Hayek was right about the limits of planning as an information and organization system. We now know that the geo-engineering of freedom, where market signals are legislated and architected into primacy, has not worked much better. There’s some keys and tools for thinking otherwise in Easterling’s book, and that is what makes it so timely and interesting.

McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark

  • scot mcphee

    Interesting post. Very interesting. Two observations:

    “An entire city was built, in my lifetime. And it is not the only one. This is an unprecedented fact in human history.”

    But is it? The Greeks regularly established new cities in the Mediterranean, by sending out colonists to found a new city in a suitable location. Sure, they were no Shenzen, but the new cities had both a scale similar (in an appropriate way to the Greek city-state), and a political link back to the old founding state. Some of these cities would become large and beautiful and power in their own right. e.g. Syracuse, “the most beautiful of all the Greek cities” (according to Cicero). And the Romans themselves would create new cities out of whole cloth, by settling retired legionaries into coloniae. For example, Colchester, or Cologne (=colony). These cities, particularly in the non-Greek West, brought whole new architectures and political organisation with them.

    But, I’m mostly interested in this highly interesting interplay:

    “Thus: “The infrastructural operating system is filled with well-rehearsed sequences of code – spatial products and repeatable formulas like zones, suburbs, highways, resorts, malls, golf courses. Hacking into it requires forms that are also like software.” (72) Hence not only the metaphor for how the world is built, but also for how to engage with it shifts into the register of computing as popularly experienced and understood: “the MS Dos of urban software might be productively hacked.” (68)”

    OK, because this is *really* interesting for the following reason. It’s a feedback loop from architecture (or urban planning) into software design, and now, apparently, back into architecture. There’s a concept in software design called “design patterns”, which is about reusable templates of software design (not reusable *code*, but reusable *design*), which can applied in certain situations in a repeatable fashion. It allows software designers and engineers to have a conversation about the design of their software in a general way without having to discuss specifics: Visitor, Flyweight, Abstract Factory, Decorator, Command, Memento, Observer, Facade, Template Method, Adaptor, Bridge, Composite – all these mean particular patterns of software design, of how the different components interact.They are defined in a book colloquially called “the gang of four” (make of that what you will) or “Design Patterns: elements of reusable object-orientated software”.

    But all of this stuff was inspired by a 1977 book of town planning called “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction”

    What goes around, comes around, I guess.

    • mckenziewark

      ‘City’ means something different here. Compared to Shenzen, even 5th century Athens was more of a village.

  • Philip

    Terrific write up. I ordered the Easterling book before even getting to the end! On that last quote — “Laissez-faire was planned; planning was not” — I’m sure Karl Polanyi said almost precisely this in The Great Transformation. It’s something that we’ve yet to really understand, I think.

    • mckenziewark

      Yes Polanyi would be a good source on that.

  • Ai Luguan

    It’s “Shenzhen”, not “Shenzen”

    • mckenziewark

      Fixed — thanks.

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