The Politics of Infrastructure

Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, Summer 2016

What does it take to build an infrastructural system? What kind of norms do infrastructures enforce, and what kinds of people do they allow to thrive? What happens when infrastructure starts to break down, or prove inadequate in the face of disaster? What do infrastructures teach us? And what kind of world do they make possible? This four-week seminar pulls back the curtain to reveal the people, processes, and values that shape the infrastructures of modern life, and how these systems simultaneously provide opportunities for and place constraints on social life. Course readings will examine many kinds of infrastructural systems, including transportation systems, water systems, the internet, and financial markets. Students will read canonical theorists like Louis Althusser, James Scott, and Michel Foucault alongside scholars in Science and Technology studies, including Susan Leigh Star’s work on the ethnography of infrastructure, Langdon Winner’s well-known essay “Do Artefacts Have Politics?”, Trevor Pinch’s work on the social construction of technology, and Paul Edwards’ work on infrastructure and modernity, to guide our critical engagement with real-world infrastructural systems.

This seminar offers crucial insights for anyone interested in how built environments shape our social lives, including designers, scholars, artists, practitioners (from workers to developers to engineers to entrepreneurs), and interested citizens of every stripe. Supplemental materials on the methods of critically studying and designing infrastructures will be available.