Infrastructure, Infra-politics

An excerpt from Contract & Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia, pp.113-18.


If, in its historical and etymological senses, infrastructure was that which enables military movements, infrastructure today seeks to become adequate to movement as a relational and scalable problem.

In her often-classically rendered critique of Fordism, Arendt had insisted that politics is premised not on a subject (not on the zoon politikon, as Aquinas reading Aristotle would have it), but on the infra, the unassimilable plurality of that which lies between. If she stumbled between the eternal ground of natality and the egalitarian virtues of Athenian democracy, she nevertheless noted that the conjuncture of common law and commonwealth illustrated that “the contradiction between the private and public … has been a temporary phenomenon.” “Seen from this viewpoint,” she went on to remark, “the modern discovery of intimacy seems a flight from the whole outer world into the inner subjectivity of the individual,” which she understood in terms of an indistinction between public and private, the simultaneous absence of invisibility and the ubiquitous superficialities of community. Without referencing Arendt, Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker had similarly suggested that “the relational quality of infrastructure talks about that which is between.For Stevphen Shukaitis, the infra-political describes a politics of (what Moten and Harney have called) the undercommons, “the liminal and recombinant spaces” that are situated besides and below the institutionalised politics of the academy.

Keller Easterling recently argued that infrastructure is increasingly more than the concealed subtrata or “binding medium” of transportation, energy supply, water, and communication. According to her, it is also “pools of microwaves beaming from satellites, atomised populations of electronic devices and shared technical platforms,” or in more socio-cultural terms, it is “the overt point of contact and access, where the underlying rules of the world can be clasped in the space of everyday life.” These often “mobile, monetised networks” are the medium of politics, understood in its broadest and rapidly shifting sense. As a business model, it is the online sales platform of Amazon – which, as James Bridle has argued, is neither bookshop nor publisher, but an “algorithmically managed infrastructure company.In business and in law, infrastructure is inclined toward interoperability and standardisation, which is to say, reproduction rather than generation or variation. As an economic-legal model, infrastructure is the introduction of labour contract law in China in 2008 that, as Eric Beck has suggested, is premised not on repression but instead on management through recognition and the formalised universality of right, the reorganisation of nodes, and the capture of movement.

Whether understood as the organisation of conventions that enable economic or legal action to accomplish form, or as the very mattering of politics before and beyond a conventioned definition of the political, the infrastructural is not a question of who – who is it that might be the subject of revolution, the actor of politics, who is friend and who is enemy, and so on – but of how affinities take shape, or not. Indeed, the business model, jurisprudence and classificatory systems are preoccupied with the infrastructural precisely because they capture the relational aspect of action. Contracts, inasmuch as they are future-oriented bonds, are infrastructures that seek to crystallise the allocation of relational risk because connection is always contingent. The infra-political question, then, embraces the uncertainties of attachment in order to distinguish between, on the one hand, the putative certainties and calculable probabilities of a reproducible capitalist futurity and, on the other hand, the irreducible contingencies of relation that make worlds. Infrastructure includes and overtakes networks, platforms, architecture, sewage, road, bridge, logistics, communications, topology, diagnostic systems, algorithms, assemblages, diagrams, buildings, and flows. Infrastructure is therefore not the base that determines in the final instance, or it is much more and something other than substructure or medium. It is, more precisely, movement and relation as these take form.

Infrastructure is the answer given to the question of movement and relation.

As an answer to the question of movement and relation, infrastructure is the “promiscuous infrastructuresthat have sustained the occupations and encampments of Tahrir Square, Wall Street, and Oakland. The infra-political builds toilets in homeless encampments in Sacramento; by-passes pre-paid water meters, trickler systems and privatised water piping in Durban; formulates vocabularies of reconfiguration rather than foreclosure and standardisation; delivers health care to noborder protests and undocumented migrants; creates phone apps for evading kettling by police in London; digs tunnels under national boundaries; and more – the infra-political, in other words, revisions activism not as representation but as the provisioning of infrastructure for movement, generating nomadic inventiveness rather than a royal expertise.

If the problem of repetition and classification emerges in infra-politics as it does in conventional infrastructural projection – as argued elsewhere in relation to the noborder camps – it highlights the question that is at stake here, namely: is it possible for infrastructure to be a field of experimentation and variation rather than repetition of the self-same, to amount not to reproduction and therefore standardisation but, instead, to an ongoing and critical engagement with the between, what Jean-Luc Nancy has called the “being-with” that might also be understood – particularly in the context of the increasing privatisation or familiarisation of infrastructure that Nancy rarely touches upon – as the being-without.

Infrastructure, after all, is about how worlds are made, how forms of life are sustained and made viable. To think politics as infrastructural is to set aside questions of subjectivity, identity, demands, promises, rights and contracts, and instead to render visible the presumptions that the knots of attachment, adherence, care or fondness and have already been tied by nature or supposedly incontestable forms of connection (by kinship, race, money, sexuality, nation, and so on). The materialities of infrastructure render it the most pertinent political question there is. Everything else is distraction. Infrastructure is the undercommons – neither the skilled virtuousity of the artisan, nor regal damask, nor the Jacquard loom that replaced, reproduced and democratised them, but the weave.

12 thoughts on “Infrastructure, Infra-politics”

  1. Brilliant post Angela! You get right to the bare bones of how infrastructure is the intra-active plane on which the foam of political ideology forms. What truly matters is the weave that forms our worlds and its consequential flows, not the stories we tell about its strands… [m]

  2. Thank you Michael! It’s a signal of my frustration with idealised and insistent forms of organization, and with everything that goes into making and sustaining those, when you would think the first question would be about how to transform life and the in-between.

    Anyway, the above was a small chapter, or actually, the hinge, in C&C – which is about the difference between generative and re/productive – something Plato’s theory of forms doesn’t have much sense of. But I’ve been extending it quite a bit, or picking up on what I deliberately left out of that book, though it’s implict. And now I think perhaps too implicit? Anyway, here are some fragments of the draft for Infrastructures of UnCommon Forms:

    I’ll put more up soon, and as I go.

  3. I could not agree more Angela. I think you are right on target and I’ll be watching how all this unfolds in your work.

    As a bit of context, I am a public health specialist in Canada and so my day job is to help design and build public infrastructure (in the broad sense), specifically in the areas of education and non-governmental para-healthcare delivery. And so i witness up close how infrastructure is about enacting worlds, or “worlding” (see Mei Zhan (2012), “Worlding Oneness: Daoism, Heidegger, and possibilities for treating the Human.” Social Text 29:4 (109):107-28.)

    Keep up the good work!


  4. Reblogged this on synthetic_zero and commented:
    Angela Mitropoulos’ post (which is an except from her book) is brilliant and very timely, at least for me. Lately I have been obsessing on the need to rethink all available options for large scale social organization. Democracy? Maybe. Communism? not sure. Some hybrid? Perhaps. But one thing is for certain: what have right now really isn’t working for a lot of us. Maybe what we need is a whole new set of possibilities and a new kind of “infra-politics”, as Angela suggests above.

    And, with this, I keep coming back to the idea that our real and imagined infrastructures are the place to begin not just to imagining alternative modes of existing but actually enacting them. Infrastructure is the intra-active context for subsistence and social relation. The skeletal supports of any social organization is its infrastructure. Beneath or before human phantasy and ideology there are basic ways that humans assemble themselves. And these provide the affording ‘soil’ within which the weeds of justification and ideology grow. The forces, modes and means of ecosocial (re)generation are determining. Infrastructure is the ‘weave’ that supports our worlds and organizes all consequential flows. Marx knew this, Foucault knew this, so many great thinkers knew it, even if they didn’t quite articulate it strongly enough. And engaging the social field at the multiple levels and strata that form infrastructure means augmenting political ideologies with the power of praxis and its results. In a trivial sense, then, we could say need more Aristotle and less Plato.

    Infrastructure is really about enacting worlds, or “worlding” [see Mei Zhan (2012), “Worlding Oneness: Daoism, Heidegger, and possibilities for treating the Human.” Social Text 29:4 (109):107-28]. And we need to develop the sense-abilities and response-abilities capable of sorting out what works, or what affords, facilitates and generates the most adaptive and eudaemonic (and perhaps creative) modes of human being and becoming.

    To be clear focusing on what “works” is not about seeking some naive form of neo-utilitarianism, techno-rational grid, or purified cultural deadening of diversity, but rather a rigorous and reflexive investigation and sensitivity to what is appropriate at different levels of reality and in different contexts. Praxis is about intelligent functioning not totalitarian instrumentalization. And an adaptive orientation to praxis looks at all available forms of life and relations and seeks to enhance those that generate the most positive effects, regardless of pre-established convictions, conventions and assumptions.

    The attend to infrastructure also fits well with we are calling “post-nihilist praxis”. Loosely, If nihilism results from the legitimization of all appeals to transcendentals (“the death of God”), and a direct confrontation with finitude and radical contingency in all things, including language and logic, then a post-nihilist turn would be to deliberately create tools and practices and language-games – and thus infrastructures – for engaging and enacting worlds after the collapse of dogma and ideology via a more affective and corporeal ‘coping-with’. Post-nihilist praxis thus seeks to deactivate human tendencies for erecting (phallic connotation intended) yet more “gods” or universalizing ideologies in place of the old, dying and dead idols, and operate within worlds in a decidedly pragmatic way.

    This, incidentally, is why post-nihilist praxis is not post-nihilism. “We don’t need another hero, we just need to know the way home”, so to speak, and to quote Tina Turner. Any strategy, practice, tools or ‘onto-stories’, as Jane Bennett has written, self-conscious and effective enough to help us adapt and be creative among the ruins of ideological certainty, and in relation to the ongoing ruination of planetary eco-systems and tradition social matrices, must be on the table.

  5. Blah! Late night postings do not make for good writing. I have revised my comments considerably over at S_Z. Thanks again. Enjoying your work!


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