This unit had to get sped through and truncated a bit because of my grandmother’s death. Which is a shame because it’s probably the most important unit—but also the one that I’m most familiar with already, so it all works out in the wash I guess.
What Does This Intellectual Tradition Have To Do With Digital Studies?
Studying infrastructure is one of the newer “turns” in digital studies. We can find the roots of this approach across a range of fields interested in structural and systems thinking (although interestingly, “structuralism” as such isn’t part of infrastructure). The work of Innis and Mumford are some of the earliest cited prehistories of infrastructure. Another pathway is through Susan Leigh Star, who with Geoffrey Bowker established infrastructure as a viable category of ethnographic and sociological research. Still others who are interested in infrastructure emerge from a more traditional communications or media studies focus, i.e., telecommuncations infrastructure (Lisa Parks is a major innovator in this regard). The desire to focus on these kinds of infrastructures emerges from the screen essentialist focus of media criticism: infrastructure fits perfectly within the media studies desire to “make invisible things visible” as a scholarly enterprise. Indeed, one of the strongest assumptions of the infrastructural turn is this hermeneutic of visibility: the assumption that the critic’s role is to use a keen critical apparatus to reveal the hidden (vaguely paranoid) structures that undergird and mediate modern life.
We can also situate the turn to infrastructure alongside a concomitant expansion of the media concept. This is something I’ve been trying to track: how, across its history, the idea of “media” expands and contracts in order to give media studies scholars traction on different aspects of the human experience. The narrow focus on telecommunications media of traditional “mass media” studies or the highly technical definitions of media in Ernst’s media archaeology give way to the wide-open and conceptual media of McLuhan and the present infrastructural turn. This is not to say, however, that expanding the media concept is not useful—although I think various scholars have different levels of professional circumspection about how to mark that expansion and whether or not it dilutes their central claims. This is another central concern with infrastructure: its particular efficacy for theorizing and intervening into a contemporary situation dominated by nonhuman technicities and logistical arrangements.
From this claim, we can easily see how computation drives the proliferation of infrastructure and demands its formal refinement. By nature of the fact that I put together this list it’s obviously a bit more computational but even then we can divide infrastructuralists who are interested in processing from those who are interested in transmission. Of course this isn’t an easy binary (they never are) but helps trace those who are coming out of a comms tradition (Parks, Starosielski, Peters) from those with a more media theory bent (Gabrys, Hu, Rossiter).
How Do These Readings Help Me Shape My Dissertation
Out of all the folks on my list, I think that it’s this scholarly community with which I’m in the most conversation. That being said, there still needs to be some careful delineation: I do not take up the sociological or ethnographic work of Star, then vectored through Parks and Starosielski: my interests are still more in theory, representation, and the problems of culture. The single work on the entire list (so far) that I have the most admiration and affection for is Hu’s Prehistory of the Cloud, which to my mind combines a media archaeological interest in technicity, history, and temporality with a literary theorist’s eye toward the largest problem of infrastructural work: the subject’s inaccessibility.
Indeed, what might be the best typology for infrastructural work is by what theoretical and analytic methods folks go about making sense of extremely large systems:
- Philosophical and theoretical approaches (Bratton, Frabetti, some of Gabrys, Peters)
- These are folks who address massive systems by making them studies in the philosophy of technology: they are theoretical in the purest sense. Major interlocutors overlap with those in the Speculation list, esp. Whitehead, Simondon, Stiegler, and Stengers. There are of course case studies in their work but they tend to focus more on engaging other branches of philosophical thought.
- “Dirt research” (Gabrys, Mattern, Noble, Rossiter, Star, Starosielski)
- This is a term from Innis: getting ones hands down and dirty in the subjects of analysis; this often verges on ethnography (which is the preferred sociological method from the Star school of infrastructure). These tend to be case studies embedded within industrial or rural settings.
- Literary and cultural studies approaches (Hayles, Hu, Mattern, parts of Signal Traffic, parts of Starosielski)
- These approaches are best typified by Hu’s idea that infrastructures cannot be touched directly not just because of their scale but also because they are properly understood as cultural rather than solely technical formations. As such, they require an approach that focuses on representations, critical reworkings of infrastructure, and artistic/creative practices at the margins.
As this list demonstrates, everyone shares across these approaches: it’s rare to find someone who only does one thing. For the purposes of my work, here are some of the takeaways from infrastructure theory:
- Infrastructural media studies is more than media archaeology at scale. While many of these authors draw explicitly from media archaeology, they do so with a critical lens toward media archaeology’s inability to address political economy at the scale that infrastructure requires. Media archaeology becomes more of an instrumental method for doing “dirt research” in digital cultures.
- What joins together these two approaches is their recourse to materialism.
- In expanding the media concept to its limits, infrastructure also becomes a key site for thinking at the intersection of media and environments. Questions of the planet, its ecological systems, and the resource extractions that undergird computational culture rarely appear in the media archaeological corpus but are front and center in many of these works.
- Current infrastructural theory is more interested in transmission than computation. The next stage of this work, if it is to take into full account the ways that media have transformed the planet, need to observe and critique the operative logics—the verbs—of infrastructure. Part of this transmission-focus is the relatively primacy of televisual media within media studies approaches, and the digital’s uncomfortable relationship to visual representation.
I’m going to stop there but might return later.
- Bratton, The Stack
- This is simultaneously one of the most influential texts on this list re: planetary-scale computation and computational infrastructures and the most useless. I suppose I have some admiration for what Bratton is doing here but I have deep reservations about its accelerationist politics. It is also highly influential in its “stack” model of thinking about computational infrastructure, which we can see parallels w/ the stratigraphic model emerging in Anthropocenic literary studies.