Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 29, 2018
Keller Easterling Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space New York: Verso Books, 2014. 252 pp. Paperback $13.96 (9781784783648)

Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space is a palimpsest of a book. It is rich with stories of intricate entanglements among capital, space, and politics; it provides a probing analysis focused on how this evidence allows for a new understanding of how the world operates. And it claims a role, albeit somewhat vaguely, for the agency of designers and others in crafting counter-narratives and insurgent practices.

Easterling’s strength is in her convincing descriptions that flip the background into the foreground—we thought we knew how economies were optimized, but the process of optimization elicits hefty resonance. She describes the spaces of exception in contemporary flows of capital that are, in fact, centers not peripheries, and that are essential to the production of rules and regulations in design, commerce, and communication. Far beyond the stack, the churn, or other recent attempts to produce a figure for life amid networked technology, the diagram that Easterling draws is one of entangled interconnections, misplaced certainties, and the slow emergence of patterns that ossify into infrastructures. It is a tantalizingly, painfully up-to-date analysis of the world and how it works.

Easterling’s focus is on the objects, systems, and devices that regulate commerce, communication, and other means of contemporary life. Her model at first seems eminently spatial—the book starts with a discussion of the “Zone,” export processing zones, special economic zones, and free-trade zones, all of which are built artifacts producing spaces of territorial ambiguity. The Zone acts as “a warm pool to spatial products that easily migrate around the world, thriving on incentivized urbanism.” The core of her argument plays out here: that these zones of exception condition the norms of global commerce; that these isolated, fenced-off spaces produce, in their cultural indistinctions, models and methods that resonate far beyond their porous boundaries; that spatial conditions and the capital that produce them are part of the same speculative system, feeding each other as competing foci for optimization.

While this tear in the fabric, seen as the fabric itself, operates on a spatial model, the book progresses to articulate a more potent frame. As a counterpoint to her rigorously spatial discourse, Easterling introduces the concept of disposition: how, precisely, does a given zone or given infrastructure recast our knowledge of economic and social systems, and condition our capacity to participate in them? In Easterling’s approach to infrastructure, “spatial organizations are always providing information about their inherent if undeclared activities.” The switches, active forms, governing tactics, and other dispositions with which she analyzes the Zone help to keep us on the inquisitive side of the conspiracy theories with which the book dances. The Zone contains and distributes power almost without us noticing.

Other stories play out this tentative if tantalizing model of knowledge in slightly different arenas. Discussing the introduction of broadband to Kenya, Easterling describes the different colonial-legacy agencies and the exertions of contemporary corporations attempting to take advantage of monopoly potential. It is a compelling case study for the relationships of infrastructure, power, and knowledge. While the implicit thread of technological leapfrogging is familiar—the digital communication tools used by Kenyans are not in the shadow of Euro-American practices but offer their own trajectory for technological innovation and development—it is not presented as some vague social justification for corporate intrusion. Rather, information and capital collude to exploit imbalances and explore fissures in a tightly controlled system.

Which is also to say: infrastructures change, but with some difficulty. Markets need to be imagined. Regulations offer models. Spaces and tactics help to slowly form the social and physical infrastructures of Extrastatecraft, but also leave them open to other kinds of imposition and intrusion. And, indeed, part of the point here is that changes at the infrastructural scale occur less as a result of pressure from the state (from above) and more due to pressure from users, from day traders, from an overwhelming flow of and financialization of knowledge.

The poignancy of Easterling’s title is, in this sense, seemingly, the state aspect, the recognition that the powers once given to governance have now been absorbed by the regulatory conditions, tariffs, and arrangements that allow infrastructures to penetrate life. Her analyses carefully map the intersections of state power, the flow of capital and commerce, and the brusque physicality of the spaces, tubes, and façades that this form of power somehow has to inhabit. We are all subject to these forces.

Also at stake in Extrastatecraft is the allusion to stagecraft, to the trickster, to the front and the back of the stage. Another stark recognition Easterling facilitates: we all stare at our screens without much concern for the materiality of what is in front of us—for how the moving pixels connect to the conditions of labor at an Apple factory or to the carbon footprint of the cloud. Easterling’s concerns are subtler and more intense. How do we, in using a given network, facilitate consequences, multiply effects, and rewire contingencies so that our every move is fed into a system of wealth production? The cables, networks, power sources, storage devices, and means of manufacture that occupy the back of the computer become potent sites for analysis. Obsessed as we are with the screen and its images, a nascent capacity to visualize and produce knowledge around the back of the computer is Easterling’s call to arms. The most invisible of commodities—connectivity—is also where political and economic power resides.

If Easterling balances, again, right on the edge of conspiracy theory—there is so much here that seems too convenient—it is likely that this is also intentional. Her other central point is how stories and narratives have helped to create logics for infrastructural systems, for assumptions of the normative, for the application of the universal. Stories that reveal these interconnections are almost by nature hard to credit. However, her careful research allays concerns over tinfoil hats—rather than seeming paranoid, Easterling’s intricate webs stretch toward a possible truth, or at least a ground from which to understand the workings of power and the possibility of resistance.

There is, in this regard, a pleasant sense that the book could go on, with additional episodes, almost ad infinitum—that Extrastatecraft is a method just beginning to be applied. An interesting constellation of related texts has come out more or less simultaneously—Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); and Jesse LeCavalier’s Rule of Logistics; Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2016). Collectively, they help place Easterling’s book at the forefront of attempts to encounter the epochal weight of possible infrastructural transformations—be they relative to the regulatory resonance of the Zone, or to the ossified means by which contemporary society struggles with the consequences of the many fossil-fuel infrastructures we rely on.

Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2013) and Bernhard Siegert’s Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015) also come to mind. Easterling is providing useful threads to connect isolated disciplinary projects that reveal the fragile and contingent nature of our seemingly shared knowledge of media, materiality, and the conditions of the future. Extrastatecraft here opens up toward a realm of new disciplinary engagements. If, on the one hand, it falls comfortably into the recent wave of media materialisms, it also threatens, productively, in its careful spatial emphasis, to generate a new kind of media architectural studies, one that takes advantage of and reflects knowledge of infrastructures physical and virtual. In her exploration of a different sense of mass and media, of the spatial, the physical, and the political that infuse our networked condition, Easterling offers narratives and methodological frameworks compelling to architectural and art historians. At stake in particular is the urgency of a recent history told for its contemporary relevance, a drawing through of evidence into a resonant palette of norms and possibilities. This presentist approach has paralyzed much critical architectural history, though Easterling navigates it with ease. She does not shy from encouraging her readers to see her analyses as opportunities for tactical interventions, and the book as a rich description of the complexities of the challenges to building a more equitable world.

Despite the rigorous and compelling analysis presented, Easterling’s is not a jargon-laden, theoretically weighted analysis. Though Agamben and Foucault clearly lurk behind the premise of the book, they are rarely addressed directly. Another aspect of a background that resonates across a foreground: it is as if we have gone beyond the familiar purview of theoretical speculation, into a realm of pragmatic analysis focused on tendencies and tentacles that reach deep into our everyday lives. Easterling has a way of writing that makes the obscure seem obvious, and then the obvious ubiquitous. It is hard to imagine a way of living in the world as attuned to spatio-politico-infrastructural resonance as is presented in this book, and with the keen specificity that is applied—though Extrastatecraft makes the task of imagining significantly easier. 

Daniel Barber
Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania School of Design