Published Dec. 10th, 2018
By Rebecca Baker
We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us; when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when the flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily.
-Bill Brown, “Thing Theory”
Most of the time, the infrastructure we rely on remains politely, unobtrusively invisible. The cogs and wheels that make our modernized lives function smoothly, that underlie the workings of our bodies, and that carefully undergird and maintain the socioeconomic segregation built into our worlds all have one thing in common–they are meant to fade into the background, not to be scrutinized too closely. Usually, when these things make themselves known, step forward out of their invisibility into the harsh light of day, it represents a problem of some kind. Something has broken; something needs to be fixed as quickly as possible and then, once again, put out of mind.
But for some people, infrastructure is always broken. Perhaps it was never made with them in mind, and they are obliged to inhabit the cracks and the pockets where others don’t bother to look. For these people, infrastructure is hypervisible, even as they themselves carefully cultivate invisibility in order to stay safe. More insidiously still, perhaps infrastructure is perpetually broken for some because it was carefully designed to maintain the conditions of exploitation, benefiting the powerful while ensuring a constant population of docile labor. These people, like infrastructure, fade into the background assumptions of the worlds they maintain. If infrastructure is fundamentally relational, as Susan Leigh Star theorizes, then it stands to reason not only that different people use infrastructure in different ways, but that parts of that same system are rendered useful or not, accessible or inaccessible, depending on the position you inhabit in relation not just to things, but also to other people. But, despite the ease with which they are taken for granted, the “things” that surround us have a way of asserting themselves–with subtle yet jarring insistence–into our routines.
Following Susan Leigh Star’s call for an ethnography of infrastructure, a call to “study boring things”, I propose to examine this infrastructural invisibility in the context of “invisible” human beings, elaborately playing their part in a system that prefers to pretend they don’t exist. While rejecting the capitalistic fetishization of individual free will, which invariably attempts to place the greatest blame on the most vulnerable, I am nevertheless interested in tracing how choice and circumstance, metis and materiality scarcity interweave with one another in complex ways. Following the the folkloric teachings of the trickster, the ability to cultivate resourcefulness in the face of scarcity–the irreverent rasquachismo necessary to survive on the fringes of society–is a keen and creative form of intelligence, and one that is too little acknowledged. While certainly not forgetting the stark inequalities that characterize our world, I nevertheless do not wish to uncritically pity these subjects–to do so would be ignore the courage and intelligence necessary to survive, and sometimes even thrive, in such situations.
Thinking of infrastructure as a complex assemblage of technology, I theorize survival itself is a form of techne, a way of “lifehacking” the mainframe of one’s world. Just as Donna Haraway theorizes the figure of the cyborg, itself a trickster denizen of biotech and science fictional realms, as apropos to (post)modern positionality and situated knowledges, Ytasha Womack reminds us that some lives are inherently science-fictional, and that “the burden of having to prove one’s humanity” falls to some more than others (Afrofuturism 33). Laboria Cuboniks’ “Xenofeminist Manifesto” posits that the danger inherent in technology–digital, infrastructural, and social–is the very reason why we must both study and utilize it to its fullest extent:
Technology isn’t inherently progressive. Its uses are fused with culture in a positive feedback loop that makes linear sequencing, prediction, and absolute caution impossible. Technoscientific innovation must be linked to a collective theoretical and political thinking…the ultimate task lies in engineering technologies to combat unequal access to reproductive and pharmacological tools, environmental cataclysm, economic instability, as well as dangerous forms of unpaid/underpaid labour.
The leaps between dystopic realities and science fiction are shorter than one might think; the worlds we create have a palpable effect on those we inhabit. Combining approaches from Science and Technology Studies, feminist philosophies, hard-nosed survival guides, and investigative journalism, this Starter Kit is designed with Critical Infrastructure in mind, and social justice in view. By weaving together threads from myriad disciplines, each with its unique ontoepistemological understanding of the world (Barad), we can begin to understand the staggering complexity–and the patterns of underlying harmony–that emerge when we read the invisible from an infrastructural lens.
Starter Kit (Readings)
A humorous but accurate depiction of endemic social invisibility
Exhibit 2: Biocapital
Until they were outlawed in 2017, commercial baby surrogacy agencies were commonplace in India. The surrogate mother–almost invariably poor, of low caste, and with several children of her own to look out for–will “rent” her womb to a rich foreign couple. Although the foreign couples often pay tens of thousands of dollars for this service, the surrogate mother is lucky to receive $1000-$2000
Exhibits 3-5: Security State
Exhibit 6-7: The Art of Making Do
Tips and tricks for camping without getting caught–in both urban and rural settings
Many “freegans”, though discreet, are not actually homeless–although economic deprivation is certainly a factor in scavenger subcultures, many also consider their actions to be a form of civil protest, helping prevent rampant, unnecessary food waste via “recycling”
Exhibit 8-9: Political Activism
Artist Krysztof Wodiczko has built his career focusing on public spaces, invisible subjects, and forgotten histories. This is a “redesign” of the ubiquitous shopping cart used by many homeless. It is designed for optimal storage and movement, intended to be seen as vehicle necessary for livelihood, rather than a cart for collecting trash