Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

the reader can always handle the full complexity of the idea

Sara Hendren, ladies and gentlemen:

The opposite of jargon is not “plain language.” It is sparkling lucidity. Too many academics translate from theory to the everyday by employing a kind of verbal shrug — they say, Don’t be afraid of this fancy term here. It just means… [insert mealy-mouthed generalities]. The shrug is an attempt at intellectual democratization, I’m sure, but there’s no “just” about it. A thinker must actually go much more deeply toward the theoretical, turn its ideas like a jewel in her palm, slowly, with great understanding, to then lay out its provocations for the non-specialist reader. The reader can always handle the full complexity of the idea, no matter how abstract. Academics flatter themselves that they can speak “plainly,” but plainness is not the project.

I’m not going to claim I (yet) live up to the lucidity that Hendren is advocating, here, but I definitely recognise not only that “verbal shrugging” / “plain speaking”, but the incredible tacit pressure to conform with it.

(This is not a phenomenon unique to the academy, to be clear: the TEDification of complex topics is more widespread than that, and it most likely invaded academia from outside, along with all the other neoliberal guff.)

The challenge is compounded by the necessity of slowness to lucidity, as Hendren recommends. I’m currently working on a chapter for an edited volume in which I’ll (finally) get to formally publish some of my infrastructural theory, and even a generous wordcount (8000 words!) disappears quickly when you’re trying to talk at the theoretical level. But, as I have been advised by others: no one will fund you to be a theorist until you’ve already demonstrated that you are one (and even then it’s an uphill fight)… and so your early efforts are perforce a matter of hustling any opportunity to publish you can find, and making the best use of it you can.

On which note, I should probably get on with the work…

climate change aesthetics and the logic of the spectacle

Via Andrew Curry’s reliably interesting Just Two Things newsletter, here’s a piece by the Magnum photography collective about the portrayal of climate change in contemporary photography, and in particular the work of a non-profit called Climate Visuals, which is…

… founded in research in social science; they use evidence gathered from focus groups in Europe and the USA to examine the emotional responses to different photographic depictions of the climate crisis. Smith says they want to see a more compelling and diverse visual language around climate change: less “polar bears, factories and glaciers… all of which have the really neat trick of signifying climate change, but still producing a large amount of cynicism and inactivity”. It’s this cynicism that they hope photography can help overcome in order to build our collective investment in reducing environmental harm.

Now, for the sake of the avoidance of doubt, what I’m going to discuss here is not intended as an attack on the integrity or intentions of these photographers. Quite to the contrary: what interests me about this piece is the way it shows them wrestling with a problem which manifests in my own theoretical work, and which I believe to be inescapable. This problem affects all of us who are working for change in the collective human relation to the environment, but it is maybe most easily (and rather ironically) illustrated with the issues that these shutterbugs find themselves faced with.

“I think it depends on what you expect photography to do or what you expect of the photographer,” says Sim Chi Yin in reference to the challenges posed by photographing the climate crisis. “I think this is a deeper question about whether photography and photographers are expected to be advocates and activists as well,” she continues. “There are things that may translate photographically into climate change and some things that don’t”. Sim has been working on her project Shifting Sands, documenting the social and environmental cost of the land reclamation industry in East and Southeast Asia. Previously taking an ‘infrastructural gaze’, shot at ground level, capturing the people and places affected, she has since adopted a birds-eye view, producing strikingly beautiful other-wordly landscape photography. It’s not uncommon to hear criticism of photography, particularly in the realm of editorial, for making terrible things look too beautiful. This is an all too familiar conundrum for Smith in his work at Climate Visuals: “I spend a lot of my time arguing with the media about social science but the other side is that I spend a lot of time arguing with social scientists about the subjective qualities of photography,” he says.

The phrase “infrastructural gaze” there is an interesting choice, not least because I would probably find myself arguing that it was the bird’s-eye view that was the infrastructural (because systemic/managerial) gaze rather than the ground-level shots (which would provide a more situated perspective). However, the point is not to abolish the systemic perspective entirely, so much as to dethrone it: the systemic perspective is valuable precisely for its ability to portray the complexity and metasystemicity of that which to individuals on the ground appears either as technologies of interface, or as conduits regulated in such a way as to prevent local access to their capacities.

But the seductiveness of the managerial/systemic perspective—the aesthetic snap and thrill of what Haraway referred to as the “god trick”—is plain to see, as well. Put simply, infrastructures which are ugly up close (in both the aesthetic and functional senses) display an elegant, mathematical beauty when seen from above and at scale:

Sim Chi Yin, Singapore. Tuas. 2017. From “Shifting Sands”, 2017

Artists are interested in beauty (or perhaps more accurately in aesthetics), but that is not unique to artists; it is surely also true of the planners and architects and “transition managers” who develop infrastructural projects like the above, just as it is true of the rest of us. And it’s probably fair to say that a majority of people are more attracted to beautiful and orderly aesthetics, rather than an aesthetics of of chaos and destruction. At least this is the dominant assumption among the people who make editorial decisions around which photographs to publish, which naturally effects the choices that photographers make about their shots:

… though accurate and impactful depictions of the climate crisis are the goal, the photos need to be published if you’re going to achieve that, and the pictures have to be good or that’s not going to happen. For Sim Chi Yin, the beauty of her Shifting Sands images were an entirely deliberate move away from the more ‘ditactic heavy-handed approach’ she once took; here, the aestheticization of a challenging topic is a strategy to encourage on-going engagement in a difficult conversation.

I want to zoom in on the use of the phrase “the pictures have to be good”, and so I’m going to re-emphasise my earlier point about not impugning the photographers in this analysis. These are artists trying to communicate toward a particular goal within an industrial structure where the decisions on what messages are fit to be commissioned and passed on are not under their control: in order to reach a wide audience (and to be paid enough to do the work), they are obliged to make these compromises with editorial requirements. Not to belabour the point, but the same constraints apply to most academics, though in different ways and to different degrees; in both cases, a large part of the job is finding a just way to do what you feel needs to be done that is compatible with the requirements (and the rhetorical framings) of your funders.

My interest in the use of the word “good” is due to its centrality to Guy Debord’s theory of the Society of the Spectacle, whose fundamental rhetoric he summarised as “that which appears is good; that which is good appears”. The point being is that “goodness” in the context of the Spectacle, while retaining its own surface appearance of being a moral valuation, is in fact evacuated of any moral and ethical content by the circularity of the spectacular premise: the “goodness” of a thing is merely a measure of its fitness to take a place in the semiotic torrent.

Furthermore, the Spectacle is the field in which capital’s recuperation of its most savage critiques is enacted. So Sim’s bird’s-eye images, as seen above, are good to certain audiences—to certain markets-for-imagery which are constructed and maintained by systems that end in editorial teams, but which of course extend back to profit-oriented corporations working on a global publishing platform whose incentives and imperatives are entirely predicated on clickworthiness. But there are other audiences, audiences for whom the aesthetic of chaos and despoilment is a better fit with their preconception of the state of the world—and for those audiences, the Spectacle provides “good” images as well, reaffirming the narrative assumptions and thus the identity of the audience/consumer. Critiques of capitalism are easily made into products; we might argue in fact that this has been one of the great growth industries of the neoliberal period.

Riffing very deliberately on Marx, Debord also noted of the Spectacle that its basic operational premise is that of separation: “The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Thesis 4). This point is echoed in the Magnum piece:

Many people don’t relate to these images beyond the shock and awe of the moment, because it doesn’t resonate with their own demographic construct. This in turn, has resulted in the othering of communities in the Global South as they are continually represented as victims, often by foreign Western photographers, as a way to capture the climate crisis in a way that’s seen as visually appealing. Rarely do we see the photography of practitioners with lived experience of climate disasters in the Global South, and rarely do Western photographers’ cameras turn to document the effect of climate change closer to home.

But the crucial point here is that—unless you decide to go with Debord’s closing exhortation, and aim for self-liberation from the Spectacle as a precursor to bottom-up communist organisation against it—the Spectacle is the only game in town. Debord and the Situationists used this insight to inform the practice of détournement, which was the forerunner of the techniques used by groups like the AdBusters, and arguably also a precursor to contemporary meme culture. The basic premise is that, if you can’t get outside the Spectacle, outside of the metamedium, then you need to learn the logics of the media embedded within that ecosystem of media, and find ways to turn them against the Spectacular flow. Which is what these photographers (and perhaps all artists) are each trying to do, in their own individual ways… but the prevailing currents of the Spectacle are far harder to fight against now than they were in Debord’s day:

Jonas Bendiksen […] says that “photography has a tendency to oversimplify; it’s not the easiest medium to formulate a complex thought process; it tends to rely on ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ and be less focused on the complexities of things”. He’s increasingly interested in the ‘grey zones’, for instance how photography of Western consumerism also provides an important perspective on the climate crisis, but is frustrated by limitations of the platforms that are available. There’s an increasing pressure, driven by social media, for single images or a couple of slides to have an impact, to be easily-digestible. Climate change, particularly its effect on the Global North, will not reveal itself so it can be fitted neatly onto social media feeds.

So what’s my point? To put it very simply indeed, my point is that the despoilments with which these photographers and I are concerned—a category that includes sand-dredging and pipelines, but also the frantic commerce of surplus in the Global North which relies upon those extractions—are performed through infrastructural systems. Without the global logistical network that distributes resources and the commodities into which they are formed, the scars on the planet which are the markers of the thing that many of us refer to as the Anthropocene would be almost impossible to make at their current scale; but those systems are also by this point crucial to the most basic parts of human existence in the most “advanced” economies (as it appears the UK is about to find out the hard way).

Furthermore, those logistical systems have long been inseparably entangled with the systems of information distribution and control whose many functions also include being the medium of the Spectacle itself; information and images are, at this level of analysis, simply another category of resources and commodities to be distributed.

This is why I have argued many times before now that infrastructure colludes in the effacement of its own consequences—an effect analogous to the prestidigitation at the heart of any good stage-magic trick, which is achieved through a combination of physical displacement (i.e. stuff being moved around behind or beneath the stage) and the misdirection of attention. Infrastructure puts the rabbit in the hat.

But as Susan Leigh Star took pains to remind us, infrastructure is made of people as well as technological objects. And sure, those systems (as Langdon Winner first pointed it out) have political biases and assumptions baked into them (though Winner might not agree with me that the greatest and most fundamental bias embedded in infrastructure is the logic of capitalism itself). Infrastructure is hard to change, slow and expensive; people can also be pretty rigid (as we’ve been shown very clearly over the last eighteen month), but their rigidity is ideological, narratological, and might yet be won over, or at least shifted slightly.

How is that to be achieved?

Smith makes it clear that it’s not just the photographers and content generators, who sit at the wide bottom of the ‘pyramid’ of the photography industry, who can play a role in shifting public perceptions of the climate crisis. It’s also the agency, distribution, and media companies who occupy the top of the pyramid and choose what is and isn’t seen by a wider audience. There needs to be the funding and interest to commission work that can take on the long story-arc of the climate crisis in all its complexity.

Now that’s a hopeful position (as distinct from an optimistic one). I don’t think that changing attitudes at the top of that pyramid will be an easy job—and I doubt Smith and his fellow photographers do either. But the only other options would seem to be Kevin Kelly’s cozy accommodation to the status quo (and yeah, fuck that noise), or a pessimistic refusal to stand in the path of one of countless metaphorical (but also often actual) bulldozers.

I can understand both of those choices—though I find the former increasingly hard to forgive, because it is predicated on a sort of wilful blindness. But I have to believe that it’s worth trying to détour the stories that we tell one another through the Spectacle, even as I’m aware that the most likely outcome is their recuperation and commodification—as Debord noted, contradiction and narrative conflict is not a bug in the Spectacular system (as Marx believed contradiction was the bug in the system of capital), but rather a central feature of it. The recuperation and monetisation of counternarratives is depressingly plain to see; five minutes on the birdsite should be more than enough to make it obvious.

But I’m not ready to give up just yet. As is increasingly the case for me, the words of the Starbear still provide a light in the gloom:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula K Le Guin

Selah.

pronunciation guidance

A big part of the life-in-a-new-country experience is exposure to and (if you refuse the specious role of the “ex-pat”) learning a new language. For reasons that are presumably obvious, I have not yet been able to take formal in-person lessons in Swedish, but I have done over 400 days of Du*ling* at this point; as a result, I can read and write to what I’d guess is the same level of competence as a five-year-old native speaker, but my pronunciation and comprehension of speech are lame as hell, because they’ve not gotten much exercise yet.

The thing with a second language is that you question everything about it in a way you simply don’t with your first: I suspect this is (at least for me) a conscious attempt to map the differences between them in order to enact a sort of spontaneous translation. I’m also informed that this is actively unhelpful in the long run, because languages simply don’t map precisely onto each other like that; the really obvious challenge comes with prepositions like “in”, “on”, “to”, in that you expect there will be a word that does exactly the same job of describing relations between other words in a sentence, but there just isn’t. There’s often a fair bit of overlap—“i” and “på” in Swedish are pretty close to working the same way as “in” and “[up]on” in English, for instance—but if you rely on mappings of equivalence, you’ll get tripped up by the still-plentiful cases where they describe a relation that doesn’t fit at all with the supposed equivalent from your own language. Hence the value of repetition and practice: you just have to learn the new word by way of seeing it used in context, repeatedly, which is exactly how native speakers learned to use it, and how you learned to use your own native language.[i]This is made even more clear when you persist in asking native speakers how and why a particular word signifies a particular relation, and what the rules for its application are; more often than not, … Continue reading

One thing that is relatively easy about learning Swedish, however, is pronunciation from written text. Or, more accurately, it’s relatively easy to know how a word should be pronounced; actually forming the sounds in the right way with the right rhythm and stress is quite another matter! But here there are fairly consistent rules: most letters only have one sound associated with them, and the exceptions (e.g. the letter g, which quite often sounds more like a y, or consonant pairs such as sk or sj, which come out as a sort of breathy cwh sound which I can’t really describe phonetically in a way that would make sense to an English-speaking reader) are pretty consistent.

This causes one to realise even more than one had beforehand that, to be blunt, the rules of English spelling are utterly bat-shit inconsistent. Which is why this essay at Aeon was such an interesting read, because there’s a reason for that, and that reason is profoundly sociotechnical in nature: moveable type turned up in Britain at a moment when the written language was already in flux, as English reasserted itself after the long hegemony of Norman French.

Some standards did spread and crystallise over time, as more books were printed and literacy rates climbed. The printing profession played a key role in these emergent norms. Printing houses developed habits for spelling frequent words, often based on what made setting type more efficient. In a manuscript, hadde might be replaced with had; thankefull with thankful. When it came to spelling, the primary objective wasn’t to faithfully represent the author’s spelling, nor to uphold some standard idea of ‘correct’ English – it was to produce texts that people could read and, more importantly, that they would buy. Habits and tricks became standards, as typesetters learned their trade by apprenticing to other typesetters. They then often moved around as journeymen workers, which entailed dispersing their own habits or picking up those of the printing houses they worked in.

[…]

Other spellings arose, and were then cemented through the power exerted by the visual shape of similar words. The existence of would and should, for example, brought about the spelling of could. Would and should were once pronounced with the ‘l’ sound, as they were the past-tense forms of will and shall. Could, however, was never pronounced with an ‘l’; it was the past tense of can. Could was coude or cuthe. Then the visual power of would and should attracted could to their side. At printing’s rise, the ‘l’ sound was already often absent from the pronunciation of would and should, so the ‘l’ was less a cue to pronunciation than to word type. Could is a modal verb, same as would and should. There was no explicit intention to make them look the same, but the frequency of their appearance nudged them toward ending up that way.

This is an interesting case-study for the emergence of standards, because the vectors of influence on fixing those standards flow in both directions: from the printing houses, who wanted to simplify and speed up the typesetting process, but also from the readership, which (albeit unconsciously, one assumes) wanted a more consistent written language, because a consistent written language “gets out of the way” and allows reading to be a more efficient and absorbing experience. Movable type frequently (and deservedly) does well in those risible “ten most amazing human innovations” listicles, but there’s an implicit assumption there that this work of standardisation in spelling was either a linguistic fait accompli before Gutenberg and Caxton came on the scene, or was somehow achieved by the print industry as a “solution” to a pure business problem (if indeed the question of linguistic consistency even occurs to the writers of such pieces). But of course there is something rather more dialectical at work, here: the reader and the printer are shaping the language through an interaction mediated by the technologies of the printing press… and the press itself had emerged from a series of similarly complex mutual shapings on the European continent. The emergence of reliable roads is an often overlooked factor in both the production and distribution of printed matter; it’s there in Febvre & Martin (2010), but as description rather than analysis, because they’re Marxist historians rather than STS types.

But to return to the matter of spoken pronunciation, something else was also afoot:

in the years when printing was slowly establishing and fortifying spelling habits, English was undergoing what’s now called the Great Vowel Shift. In broad terms, over the course of a few centuries, sounds changed and vowels moved around. Words such as name and make, for example, once had an ‘ah’ vowel as they do in German name and machen, or English father. During the Great Vowel Shift, it moved to more of an ‘eh’ vowel as in bed, and eventually to the ‘ay’ where it is today. But the words affected in this way continue to be spelled with the ‘a’ of father.

Words that ended up with an oo spelling generally used to be pronounced with a long ‘o’ sound. Moon and book both used to sound something like moan and boke; the two o’s, quite logically, represented a long ‘o’, before moving to an ‘u’ sound, as in June. However, sometimes the long vowel became a short vowel: eg, the more lax ‘u’ vowel, as in push. Moon (also goose, food, school) ended up with the June vowel, while book (foot, good, stood) with the push vowel.

Now, I know very little about the Great Vowel Shift, and certainly nothing at all about its causes. But the article suggests that “[w]hen an English speaker sat down to write something at the end of the Middle Ages, the way they wrote it could depend on where they lived and what the dialectal pronunciation of vowels was there”, as well as “what they had read and incorporated into their spelling habits”. This leads me to guess that the greater consistency of a language like Swedish may be something to do with its smaller population of speakers, and the role of literacy in local governance and economics, which was mediated by the church… but I am suddenly and uncomfortably aware of just how limited I am when it comes to not only the Swedish language, but also the country’s history, and so I’ll stop speculating.

Besides, it’s high time I did my daily language practice…

Works cited

Febvre, L., Martin, H.-J., Nowell-Smith, G., & Wootton, D. (2010). The coming of the book: the impact of printing, 1450-1800. Verso.

Footnotes

Footnotes
i This is made even more clear when you persist in asking native speakers how and why a particular word signifies a particular relation, and what the rules for its application are; more often than not, they’ll say they don’t know, and that they’ve never even thought to ask. Because why would you?

revenge effect

From the conclusion section of Carabantes, M. (2021). “The Coronavirus as a Revenge Effect: The Pandemic from the Perspective of Philosophy of Technique”. Science, Technology, & Human Values. https://doi.org/10.1177/01622439211008595

The main goal of technique is freedom. We use it to free ourselves from the burdens imposed by nature, such as getting food and shelter. However, modern technique, because of its five essential characteristics of universalism, self-augmentation, automatism, autonomy, and monism, tends to extend its control over everything, including the human being, to ensure the optimal efficiency of the whole system that we demand. If this control condition is not satisfied, and human freedom is not limited in the way technique requires, then the result will be the loss of efficiency because we are interfering in its functioning; and this efficiency may be critical when technique is introduced in order to neutralize some of the worst unwanted consequences of technique itself, such as global environmental issues, enhanced terrorism, and fast worldwide pandemics. Therefore, modern technique calls, under threat, for the establishment of a centralized and authoritarian organization of humanity. Thus, the paradox arises: modern technique as a whole entails a revenge effect because the search for freedom results in the loss of it. Our ingenuity turns against us.

If we want the comfortable material life provided by industrialism but do not want severe environmental degradation, then we need this kind of organization. If we want the popularization of robotics to democratize technique and to empower the people but do not want devastating terrorist attacks, then we need this kind of organization. If we want goods and passengers to travel fast and cheap in airplanes all over the world but do not want pandemics like the current one, then we need this kind of organization. In sum, if we want the many benefits of modern technique but at the same time want to avoid its often-disastrous side effects, trade-offs, and revenge effects, then we need this kind of non-democratic organization. From these and many other cases, it follows that Ellul’s (1964) prediction seems correct: modern technique leads to a new kind of slavery.

Looks like I’ll be adding Ellul to the infrastructural-theoretical reading list; I think this author’s use of slavery is a little strong, but habituation—my preferred term—seems like it would swap in well.

How to map nothing: Shannon Mattern on geographies of suspension

Back on 27th January, the UCL faculty of the Built Environment (virtually) hosted a seminar talk by the mighty mighty Shannon Mattern; a little more than a week ago, they uploaded a recording of said talk to A Popular Video-sharing Platform. This is that video, and I commend it to you wholeheartedly; I will not sully you or demean Prof. Mattern by trying to summarise it, because while I certainly took notes, the sheer volume of ideas in this thing—which naturally speaks very much to the concerns of The Ongoing Situation, while also being relevant to the world which preceded it, and the one which will succeed it—is quite astonishing*. (All the more so, given it was apparently conjured up out of little more than a vague thematic idea in the fortnight preceding its delivery.) So, enjoy!

[ * — Also because, frankly, I’m so behind on things I’m meant to be writing, or in some cases meant to already have written, both for other people and for myself, that I can’t presently justify the couple of hours that it would take to rewatch this, return to my notes, and do it justice. So just watch it, y’know? ]