Reinhold Martin, Infrastructure and Media Politics

October 4, 2014

Martin’s lecture at the Arkitektur and Designcentrum 1 October 2014, turned out to be a perfect match for our ongoing seminar, Architecture, Gender, Technology (even though Martin suggested he has reservations about what he called gender identity politics). Martin commenced with the notion that the complex assemblage that is the city can be considered a ‘thing’ with which to think. The city is no doubt one of the primary things through which we think about our global situation today. While we can never get to the bottom of it in terms of accounting for all its material complexity, yet we can address it from selected theoretical points of views, through the use of concepts: the concept Martin uses is ‘infrastructure’, and he warns immediately that infrastructure is not necessarily what you think it is (bridges, roads, electricity systems, rail networks, water and sewage, etc). Infrastructure helps to delineate a field of action that in turn produces a knowable world that emerges out of an ‘undifferentiated real’, which for the sake of convenience, we most often refer to as ‘nature’. But what is infrastructure, what does it do? The claim Martin makes, and he calls it an ‘axiom’, as though to secure a determined starting point, is that “at all scales infrastructure repeats…and in repeating becomes infrastructure.” Infrastructure is about things switching on and off, values opening and closing, binary codes flickering between zeros and ones. To get at this organisational concept called ‘infrastructure’, which Martin suggests connects together technology, politics and also aesthetics, he chooses to introduce a further term, and that is ‘media politics’. Media provides the means by which infrastructure does it work, that is to say, media ‘mediates’. Martin explains that he wants to use the framework of media-politics rather than, or perhaps in addition to another well-established, and today highly influential concept, and that is biopolitics. Biopolitics is a term introduced by Michel Foucault, but also discussed by thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, Catherine Mills, Nicolas Rose, Felicity Scott, Sven Olof Wallenstein, Maurizio Lazzarato (just to name a few!). Biopolitics is a significant concept that designates the management and control of human life and death at the scale of populations and emerges with the shift from sovereign societies to the rise of ‘governmentality’ as a form of political management of a body politic, that is, as a form of power exercised over populations. Another way of describing this is as a shift from a focus on sovereign control of territories to the governmental control of the relation between ‘men’ and ‘things’ (see Jonathan Xavier Inda, ed. Anthropologies of Modernity: Foucault, Governmentality and Life Politics, Blackwell, 2005: 3-4). Martin accepts the usefulness of the concept of biopolitics, but for his argument he wants to use ‘media-politics’ instead, seeming to shift the emphasis on the management of life and death toward the rhythms of information and communication travelling through infrastructural systems where the human subject instead forms an unexceptional part and questions of human agency and subjectivity would appear to diminish. Media theory he claims, enables an analysis of infrastructure, as its explains the means of mediating, for instance between on and off, inside and outside, or how mediation is achieved between the two banks of a river by the infrastructure of the bridge.

The bridge becomes a primary motif of infrastructure in Martin’s lecture, but the point he nevertheless wants to stress is that infrastructure is less the bridge itself than the repetition, and thereby the rhythm produced in its use, or through what it enables, the bridging of a river. Quite simply, the bridge mediates, it acts as a form of media, it is a medium of communication between the two sides of a river. The significance of this bridging, this mediation, is that a relation is produced between ‘nature’ and culture’ such that ‘nature’ is made visible, and knowable through the imposition of ‘culture’ expressed here through the infrastructural technology of the bridge. Furthermore, and Martin stresses this point, we should not assume that what is bridged is two pre-existing conditions, two sides of a great river that have already been surveyed and parcelled out into lots of property, for instance. No, in the act of mediating or bridging, two conditions are effectively created, or are made tangible and available for use. It should be pointed out here that the German phenomenological philosopher Heidegger has also famously used the example of a bridge by means of offering an account of ‘technologies’. Reinhold Martin touched briefly on the Heideggerian notion of ‘gathering’ or what is also called the ‘fourfold’, and even used a very Heideggerian distinction that we touched on in class that is between the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand. Martin articulated this as the rhythms of bridging which keep bridging until they do not, that is, until they break down, or as infrastructure that remains invisible until it fails (we pay little attention to the bridge we pass over everyday until its passage is blocked for repair). In much the same way, tools that are ‘ready-to-hand’ though used with varying levels of skill merge with everyday life, are part of our daily rhythms, whereas the present-at-hand is the moment at which the tool breaks and we become explicitly conscious of it. The present-at-hand also describes a more theoretical or scientific demeanour of the study of things, isolated them out of their contexts in order to bring them to the attention of the scientist. The bridge example that appears in Heidegger’s essay, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (an essay much loved by phenomenological architects). Here is an extended excerpt: “The bridge swings over the stream with case and power. It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge. Nor do the banks stretch along the stream as indifferent border strips of the dry land. With the banks, the bridge brings to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape lying behind them. It brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neighborhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream… The bridge lets the stream run its course and at the same time grants their way to mortals so that they may come and go from shore to shore… The bridge gathers, as a passage that crosses, before the divinities-whether we explicitly think of, and visibly give thanks for, their presence, as in the figure of the saint of the bridge, or whether that divine presence is obstructed or even pushed wholly aside…The bridge gathers to itself in its own way earth and sky, divinities and mortals. Gathering or assembly, by an ancient word of our language, is called “thing.” The bridge is a thing-and, indeed, it is such as the gathering of the fourfold which we have described.”

You can see to what extent Martin is taking on aspects of Heidegger’s account, for instance, the way the bridge brings the two banks into being, as it were in the mediating relation that is enabled by the bridge. Though Martin is not so interested in taking on the fourfold, that is the rather archaic notion of bringing together earth and sky, mortals and divinities! We do have an acknowledgement by Martin of the political or representational symbolism that a bridge, or perhaps an important water main is allocated in human contexts (he gives the example of certain pipes being named after influential local politicians in Indian towns). We also have on both accounts though the role of ‘things’ as mediators, which is interesting in relation to our seminar based on things and objects. So, things are a form of mediator, part of a network of infrastructural relations.

What I do not yet address here is how Martin gets from media as infrastructural mediation, to the question of media politics or aesthetics. Perhaps others of you who attended the lecture can comment?

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