Affective Infrastructures

Essay
31.10.2019

Affective Infrastructures

Should you be invited to think of an infrastructure, maybe you would come up with the example of a bridge, a hospital building, or a system of network submarine cables. The term is broad and a wide range of cases can be mentioned equally. Despite their differences, infrastructures do have certain elements in common: they connect but can also keep parts separate; they allow but can also impede the movement of goods, people or information. Having access to them affects the present and shapes different future/s. Infrastructures tend to be associated with power, sovereignty, and privilege, but they also underline the need for alternative architectures of association and resistance. Lauren Berlant introduces these as “affective infrastructures,” able to accommodate multiplicity and difference and allowing us to be with each other in common, moving beyond relations of sovereignty.1 Reading Berlant’s positioning as an invitation to imagine, empower, and most importantly—as she clarifies—to desire such protocols and associations, transmediale 2019 initiated the homonymous Study Circle. Artists, scholars, and activists were invited to address related topics and questions before and during the festival.

This transmediale journal issue wishes to return to some of the issues discussed, to elaborate on some cases and notions and to provide room for further reflection. The authors of the different contributions—which vary and include essays, sound pieces, collective reports, and reflections—refer to infrastructures of different character, form and scale, commenting on their affective qualities.

Objects, feelings, technologies, and practices that can be understood as affective infrastructures are discussed in the online conversation which took place among all study circle members prior to the festival, moderated and edited for the journal by Maya Indira Ganesh and Femke Snelting.

Diving deeper into one of the conversation entries, Pedro Oliveira in his article discusses the relationships between objects and bodies, of infrastructures and users and examines how they come to inhabit us and define the course of our lives. Oliveira takes the phone as a starting point to explain how the image of a telephone in a safe environment like a home can change to one of a device empowered with accent recognition in a migration office. He discusses how the trivial and the familiar can be weaponized in order to support contemporary border infrastructures. Looking into the reproduction of unequal and bordered worlds, Lou Cornum argues that the discourse of decolonization has little to offer if the linkages of people in struggle are not acknowledged and strengthened. Indigenous lands, or Indigenous practices, according to Cornum, need to be understood as the grounds of relations that provide support and operate against divisions and imperial borders. These affective infrastructures are to be found at the opposite side of the violent infrastructures of displacement and dispossession.

The humans’ relation to the land, to the soil and to the body of earth is also discussed in the essay of Jara Rocha. Rocha discusses the human urge to study, visualize and represent the body of the earth in relation to the forms of techno-colonialism emerging through softwares and engines today. Her contribution takes the form of a bug report on the way the earth’s depths and densities are computed while part of the essay is based on the collective studying and writing that took place during the Possible Bodies workshop of transmediale 2019. Open-source tools of geomodeling are discussed as infrastructures that could allow us to shape a more diverse corpus of knowledge which escapes universalism.

Moving from the body of the earth to the body of society and the individual, Marija Bozinovska Jones explores the way these bodies are affected by algorithms and systems of optimization. Referring to fascia, the web of connective tissues that holds a body together, MBJ focuses on the linkages between social, computational, and neural architectures. Through her project presented at the festival and shared online as part of her contribution, she connects affective interfaces with behavioral economics, taking as an example the use and impact of personal intelligent assistants. The new forms of emotional intelligence now emerging—be it digital assistants, humanoid robots or chatbots—are also examined by Maya Indira Ganesh who explains how they are based on growing datasets of human affect, influencing the way we relate to each other. Furthermore Ganesh pays special attention to the role of the #metoo lists, discussed as “affect data” that built much needed affective infrastructures of organization and support against sexual harassment. For her it is important to acknowledge that what binds us to each other might also be ephemeral based on subtle weaving of experiences, movements, and relationships: it might be connections that can only be felt and not seen.

But how can such infrastructures be empowered? What can assist in transcending the architectures of sovereign technologies, and the building of ones that would support diverse realities and needs? Femke Snelting underlines the importance of the shapes and geometries which we are in need of. These are not and cannot be the architectures of the sovereign networks that enhance normalization and homogeneity, but rather other different geometries of relation. These need to be understood as archipelagic—remembering Glissant here—driven from a collective desire for shapes and structures that can be considered stable and safe but also allow diversity, multiplicity as well as continuous movement and transformation. Ultimately, as Berlant notes in her essay, the quest for nonsovereignty does not mean to negate belonging, but rather to go beyond it, to be able to “be close without being joined, without mistaking the other’s flesh for one’s own.”2 It is about learning how to be receptive and how to create spaces within the environments that we already inhabit. Technological or not, physical or not, already existing or not, the affective infrastructures are protocols that we need to build, modify, or reclaim as joints that will bring and hold different worlds together.

  • 1. Lauren Berlant, “The commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times,” in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34, no. 3 (2016): 393–419.
  • 2. Berlant, ibid.

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