Critical Infrastructure Studies, a special session at MLA 2018
Hilton — Murray Hill East
Infrastructure supports, connects, separates, constrains, frees, transforms, communicates, and stores who we are. It reinforces and reshapes the stresses between dwelling and work, center and margin, high and low, and local and global that make a society. Yet it is normally mute. Until something breaks, decays, or, as in heritage infrastructure, needs to be remembered or recapitalized. Then it speaks. Especially at moments of ruin or risk, infrastructure speaks eloquently about those who otherwise leave little textual evidence behind but instead a dreadful or artful material history — tracks at a border wall, inscriptions on the walls of the Angel Island immigrant cells, or graffiti on a bridge. Infrastructure is the literature of those whose identities are made by being acted on by the medium of infrastructure, even as they make themselves by acting in, and against, infrastructure. People on the “right” side of the wall, the cell, the tracks, and so on are also subjects of infrastructure — for example, each time they get in a car and just drive, or boot their computer and just browse.
Over the past few decades, “infrastructure studies” has arisen in the humanities and social sciences to address such issues. Important earlier approaches include “Large Technical Systems” analysis (influenced by the historian Thomas Hughes’s 1983 Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930) and ethnographic/information-science methods (influenced by Susan Leigh Star, Geoffrey Bowker, and their circle [e.g., Star and Ruhleder, and Edwards, et al.]). These approaches have been joined by new approaches, including:
- Digital-humanities infrastructure theory
e. g., Tara McPherson’s 2012 “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX” (revised, extended version), Sheila Anderson’s 2013 “What Are Research Infrastructures?” and James Smithies’s chapter “Towards a Systems Analysis of the Humanities” in his forthcoming The Digital Humanities and the Digital Modern;
- “Media infrastructures” theory
e. g, Kate Marshall’s 2013 Corridor: Media Architectures in American Fiction; Tung-Hui Hu’s 2015 A Prehistory of the Cloud, Shannon Mattern’s essays on media and space in the Places journal; and Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski’s 2015 edited collection, Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures;
- Feminist infrastructure theory
e. g, Deb Verhoeven’s 2016 “As Luck Would Have It: Serendipity and Solace in Digital Research Infrastructure”.
- Theory of “repair, care, and maintenance” (vs. “innovation and disruption”)
e. g., Steven Jackson’s 2013 “Rethinking Repair” and Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel’s 2016 “Hail the Maintainers”;
This special session is designed to bring many of these approaches into conversation with each other; to “scope” the problem (what kinds of infrastructure are important to consider? whose infrastructure? what isn’t infrastructure?); and to offer critical reflection on the place of infrastructure research among other humanistic methods. What does thinking about infrastructure make visible that thinking about texts, visual representations, and media does not?
Ultimately, the session hypothesizes that in late modernity the experience of infrastructure is increasingly the operational experience of culture itself. That is, the word “infrastructure” may now give us the same kind of critical purchase on the complexity of social experience that Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, and others sought when they reached for their all purpose word “culture.” As Rosalind Williams wrote in her influential 1993 essay “Cultural Origins and Environmental Implications of Large Technological Systems,” infrastructure is “the outstanding feature of the modern cultural landscape.”
Four of the most widely recognized, distinctive, and interdisciplinary scholars identified with current infrastructure studies give papers in this session (see bios):
Tung-Hui Hu’s paper “What Does Big Data ‘Feel’ Like?” considers the issue that despite the flood of investigative exposes and scholarly articles on surveillance and big data’s material infrastructures, users in the U.S. seem more enmeshed than ever in those infrastructures, as if they are responding with a collective shrug—“I know, but all the same.” Hu suggests that it is urgent to explore a more basic question: why we identify with digital platforms and subject positions that potentially harm us. His paper argues that the personalization mechanisms of big data are not particularly invisible; rather, they form an affective infrastructure that makes users feel “normal,” which is to say, comfortable, included, and connected. Largely tucked in the background—except when personalization fails and becomes ‘creepy’—this affect serves to bridge the individual user with the population of other, largely-unseen users that seem to share their interests; in media scholar Hollis Griffin’s words, “feeling normal” is an “affective state… [that is] both a flush of recognition and a fantasy of generality.”
As a corollary, because “feeling normal” explains and gives meaning to the otherwise-confusing double address that makes each user simultaneously an individual and also part of a population or demographic body, it may also explain a recent groundswell of investigations into the look of the normal user, such as the BBC’s recent creation of the face of an “average US Congressman”, to computer science’s pseudoscientific machine-learning investigation of “criminal” faces and “gay” faces. These societal anxieties suggest that big data has changed the way the individual fits or doesn’t fit into a larger social body—in other words, how we experience collectivity. (This abstract was revised after MLA from an earlier abstract.) (Bio)
Shannon Mattern speaks on “Cabinet Logics: Infrastructures for Epistemological Containment.” Her paper examines how individual media objects (at the micro scale) and information architectures (at the macro scale) mutually form, and inform, one another through nested logics of containment. Mattern looks specifically at media furniture (e.g., the actual cabinets in which past and present media systems are contained) to reveal the complex logic of infrastructure as it crosses between physical and informational registers: from metadata schemes and classification systems to drawers and archival boxes, to shelves and desks, to workstations and office buildings, and today to the “cloud.” (Bio)
Tara McPherson’s paper, “Infrastructures of Hate,” examines the relationship of digital infrastructure to the spread of the so-called “alt-right” movement. She considers how digital platforms change across time and also how they dovetail with broader cultural shifts to help produce new racial formations and new forms of racism. This investigation returns to work McPherson undertook around 2000 during the rise of the World Wide Web. The earlier project explored the digital presence of several neo-Confederate organizations and investigated the ways in which their digital footprints deployed modes of address that distanced racial difference and racism. In revisiting this work, McPherson tracks the intertwining of new digital platforms such as Reddit with emergent racial formations throughout the Obama years, developments that have blown the cover off of the earlier use of covert racial logics by white supremacist organizations. She asks: how do digital infrastructures facilitate or impede the work of such groups? How do digital and racial logics co-determine each other? How might studying such groups help us understand not only digital platforms but also the shifting contours of racism in the post-Obama years? (Bio)
James Smithies speaks on “Interrogating Global Humanities Infrastructure.” (Full text here.) His paper argues that in an era when cultural politics are defined by the digital, and the arts and humanities (like all disciplines) are confronted with a complex soup of systems engineering, tools, datasets, and emerging computational methodologies and epistemologies, the intellectual challenge turns from merely critiquing the literary and cultural domain to reflecting on the infrastructure that influences and shapes that activity. Such inquiry calls for a level of self-reflexivity — acknowledgement of the intersection of critic and machine — that demands macro as well as micro focus and a willingness to attend to sometimes dizzying complexity. No easy resolution is possible, Smithies suggests. The promise of critical infrastructure studies is not so much a definition of global humanities infrastructure, as a seed for a genre of writing on and about critical entanglement with computing platforms, methods, and devices. (Bio)
These papers are bookended between a brief introduction on “critical infrastructure studies” by Alan Liu (who has contributed on the topic from the perspective of the digital humanities) and a response by Matthew K. Gold (who has contributed to these conversations in the digital humanities field as editor and co-editor of the Debates in the Digital Humanities collections and a researcher and teacher in digital methods and infrastructure). (Bios for Liu and Gold). (The text for Liu’s introduction consists of the material on this Web page, with minor additions at the actual event. The full text of Gold’s response is posted here.)
Program arranged by the forum TC Digital Humanities