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Posts Tagged ‘infrastructure’

“One common accusation leveled against Latour is that he promotes a more or less neoliberal, market-driven ontology in which all things are actors who meet on equal footing in order to exchange, translate, arbitrate, and indeed flesh out their very existence. To these accusers Latour’s chief flaw is a political one, for at best he abstains from the political question by naturalizing it, and at worst he unwittingly assists the dominant ideology by endorsing and recapitulating it. I’ll admit I’m persuaded by such accusations, and find Latour’s work shallow because of them. But it is one thing to crab and complain about one’s political enemies. It is another thing to investigate why such positions are malformed. So let’s suppress the epithets for the moment–bourgeois, neoliberal, Hobbesian, or otherwise–and instead try to clarify Latour’s chief defect. Hint: it has nothing to do with the postmodernism wars or the veracity of scientific fact.

Latour still believes the old myth that systems are disruptive of hierarchies, that bazaars are better than cathedrals, that networks corrode the power of the sovereign, that markets are the most natural, most democratic, and most scientifically accurate heuristic for redistributing and indeed defining knowledge. Such claims are often necessary to make, and are often true within a certain limited arena. Yet Latour is unable or unwilling to move beyond them, to take the ultimate step and acknowledge the historicity of networks. Such a step requires a number of things, but most importantly it requires an acknowledgement of the special relationship between networks and the industrial infrastructure, a relationship that began in the middle twentieth century and has become dominant now after the turn of the millennium. On this score, then, Latour has never been postmodern, not that he ever wanted to be. (He is, like Deleuze, often inaccurately lumped into that tradition.) Latour has never been postmodern because he won’t admit the contingency of one particular grand narrative, systematicity. He would never agree that there is an historical phase “after decentralization” has taken place. And even if we might convince him of such an historical periodization, he would not likely agree that this new reticular infrastructure should itself be the object of criticism. Latour views the reticular infrastructure as the real world, literally and explicitly.”

– Alexander R. Galloway, “Theory Hot and Cold.” Culture & Communication, October 28, 2018.

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“Occupation of the Kasbah in Tunis and of the Syntagma Square in Athens, siege of Westminster in London during the student movement of 2011, encirclement of the parliament in Madrid on September 25, 2012 or in Barcelona on June 15, 2011, riots all around the Chamber of Deputies in Rome on December 14, 2010, attempt on October 15, 2011 in Lisbon to invade the Assembleia da Republica, burning of the Bosnian presidential residence in February of 2014: the places of institutional power exert a magnetic attraction on revolutionaries. But when the insurgents manage to penetrate parliaments, presidential palaces, and other headquarters of institutions, as in Ukraine, in Libya or in Wisconsin, it’s only to discover empty places, that is, empty of power, and furnished without any taste. It’s not to prevent the “people” from “taking power” that they are so fiercely kept from invading such places, but to prevent them from realizing that power no longer resides in the institutions. There are only deserted temples there, decommissioned fortresses, nothing but stage sets—real traps for revolutionaries. The popular impulse to rush onto the stage to find out what is happening in the wings is bound to be disappointed. If they got inside, even the most fervent conspiracy freaks would find nothing arcane there; the truth is that power is simply no longer that theatrical reality to which modernity accustomed us.

Yet the truth about the actual localization of power is not hidden at all; it’s only we who refuse to see it for fear of having our comfortable certainties doused with cold water. For confirmation of this, one only has to look for a moment at the banknotes issued by the European Union. Neither the Marxists nor the neoclassical economists have ever been able to admit that money is not essentially an economic instrument but a political reality. We have never seen any money that was not attached to a political order capable of backing it. That is also why the bills of the different countries bear the personal images of emperors and great statesmen, of founding fathers or personified allegories of the nation. But what is it that appears on euro banknotes? Not human figures, not emblems of a personal sovereignty, but bridges, aqueducts, arches—pieces of impersonal architecture, cold as stone. As to the truth about the present nature of power, every European has a printed exemplar of it in their pocket. It can be stated in this way: power now resides in the infrastructures of this world. Contemporary power is of an architectural and impersonal, and not a representative or personal, nature. Traditional power was representative: the pope was the representation of Christ on Earth, the king, of God, the President, of the people, and the General Secretary of the Party, of the proletariat. This whole personal politics is dead, and that is why the small number of orators that survive on the surface of the globe amuse more than they govern. The cast of politicians is actually composed of clowns with varying degrees of talent—whence the phenomenal success of the wretched Beppe Grillo in Italy or the sinister Dieudonné in France. All in all, at least they know how to entertain you, which is their profession of course. So, in addition to stating the obvious, reproaching politicians for “not representing us” only maintains a nostalgia. The politicians are not there for that, they’re there to distract us, since power is elsewhere. And this correct intuition is what turns nutty in all the contemporary conspiracisms. Power is indeed somewhere else, somewhere other than in the institutions, but it’s not hidden for all that. Or if it is, it’s hidden like Poe’s “purloined letter.” No one sees it because everyone has it in plain sight, all the time—in the form of a high-voltage line, a freeway, a traffic circle, a supermarket, or a computer program. And if it is, it’s hidden like a sewage system, an undersea cable, a fiber optic line running the length of a railway, or a data center in the middle of a forest. Power is the very organization of this world, this engineered, configured, purposedworld. That is the secret, and it’s that there isn’t one.

Power is now immanent in life as it is technologically organized and commodified. It has the neutral appearance of facilities or of Google’s blank page. Whoever determines the organization of space, whoever governs the social environments and atmospheres, whoever administers things, whoever manages the accesses—governs men. Contemporary power has made itself the heir, on the one hand, of the old science of policing, which consists in looking after “the well-being and security of the citizens,” and, on the other, of the logistic science of militaries, the “art of moving armies,” having become an art of maintaining communication networks and ensuring strategic mobility. Absorbed in our language-bound conception of the public thing, of politics, we have continued debating while the real decisions were being implemented right before our eyes. Contemporary laws are written in steel structures and not with words. All the citizens’ indignation can only end up butting its dazed forehead against the reinforced concrete of this world. The great merit of the struggle against the TAV in Italy is in having firmly grasped all that is involved politically in a simple public works project. Symmetrically, this is something that no politician can acknowledge. Like that Bersani who snapped back one day at the NO TAVmilitants: “After all, we’re talking here about a train line, not a bomber.” But “a construction site is worth a battalion,” in the estimation of Marshal Lyautey, who had no rival in the business of “pacifying” the colonies. If struggles against big infrastructure projects are multiplying all over the world, from Romania to Brazil, it’s because this intuition itself is becoming widespread.

Anyone who means to undertake anything whatsoever against the existing world must start from there: the real power structure is the material, technological, physical organization of this world. Government is no longer in the government. The “power vacuum” that lasted in Belgium for more than a year is a clear example in point. The country was able to function with no government, elected representatives, parliament, political debate, or electoral issues, without any part of its normal operation being affected. Same thing in Italy, which has been going from “technical government” to “technical government” for years now, and it doesn’t bother anyone that this expression goes back to the Manifesto-program of the Futurist Party of 1918, which incubated the first fascists.

Power, henceforth, is the very order of things, and the police charged with defending it. It’s not simple to think about a power that consists in infrastructures, in the means to make them function, to control them and to build them. How do we contest an order that isn’t articulated in language, that is constructed step by step and wordlessly? An order that is embodied in the very objects of everyday life. An order whose political constitution is its material constitution. An order that is revealed less in the President’s words than in the silence of optimal performance. In the age when power manifested itself through edicts, laws, and regulations, it was vulnerable to critical attack. But there’s no criticizing a wall, one destroys it or tags it. A government that arranges life through its instruments and its layouts, whose statements take the form of a street lined with traffic cones and surveilled by overhead cameras, may only invite a destruction that is wordless itself. Aggression against the setting of everyday life has become sacrilegious, consequently; it’s something like violating its constitution. Indiscriminate smashing in urban riots expresses both an awareness of this state of things, and a relative powerlessness in the face of it. The mute and unquestionable order which the existence of a bus shelter embodies will not lie shattered on the ground, unfortunately, once the shelter is demolished. The broken windows theory will still stand after all the shop windows have been smashed. All the hypocritical proclamations about the sacred character of the “environment,” the holy crusade for its defense, can only be understood in light of this mutation: power has become environmental itself, has merged into the surroundings. It is power that we’re asked to defend in all the official appeals to “preserve the environment,” and not the little fish.”

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comité invisible, “To Our Friends.” 2014.

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