Darren mail at vegburner.co.uk
Sun Dec 28 00:32:15 GMT 2014


McKenzie Wark
Postpolitical Infrastructures
November 17th, 2014    | 6 responses

As a kid I was always fascinated by my father’s work as an architect. He 
used to take me to building sites and explain what was going on. But I 
was particularly interested in how he made the plans. These he drew by 
hand on a huge drafting table, with a range of geometric tools. Even 
more amazing was the blue-print machine, which turned he drawings into 
inky copies, for the client, the builder and the town clerk’s office.

It was an era when an architect still gave form to the world. Buildings 
were made of standard parts, but were not themselves quite standard. As 
Rem Koolhaas shows in his magnificent book Delirious New York, you can 
date buildings in a city once you know how the building codes change 
through time, as the codes are kind of invisible envelope that the 
actual structures strain up against. They are almost always as tall and 
big as the codes would let them be, but each has its own form, 
shoe-horned into the grid.

That era is over. The architect today is no ‘fountainhead.’ It is rather 
sad to watch today’s ‘starchitects’, designing their weird-looking 
signature buildings. These seem now always to be either museums or 
condos for billionaires. The brand-name architect just build useless 
luxury housing for the 1% and their trinkets. The actual design of the 
world is now in the hands of other people.

Perhaps the decline of architecture can be mapped onto the design of 
politics. Or rather its redesign. The architect made buildings which 
carved out private space against the boundary of a public one that was 
in the shape of some kind of polis. It was not always a democratic one, 
but it was a polis that formed the platform for modes of political 
calculation, consensus and ‘dissensus.’ But does that polis still exist, 
or do we live only with its spectacle, its simulacrum?

Of particular interest here is a new book by Keller Easterling, called 
Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. Following Armand 
Mattelart’s call for a critical history of global infrastructure, 
Easterling offers three case studies in new forms of built-out power, 
and some remarkably productive language for thinking about the kinds of 
built space that might be replacing those of both architecture and politics.

Easterling: “Buildings are no longer singularly crafted enclosures, 
uniquely imagined by an architect, but reproducible products…” (11) Not 
only buildings and office parks, but whole cities are now constructed 
according to the formulae of infrastructural technology. And so the 
object of analysis has to shift towards an understanding of that 
infrastructure. Easterling: “Infrastructure space, with the power and 
currency of software, is an operating system for shaping the city.” (13)

Infrastructure is how power deploys itself, and it does so much faster 
than law or democracy. Easterling’s three case studies are firstly free 
zones like Shenzhen in China, global broadband networks and their 
imposition on existing cities such as Nairobi, and International 
Organizations for Standardization (ISOs), which ‘legislate’ the design 
of things and processes.

Of these case studies, the ISOs are perhaps the weirdest: “The whole 
world now speaks a dialect of ISO Esperanto, one that often resembles 
the hilarious, upbeat argot of self-help gurus.” (19) And to media and 
communication scholars, the broadband story is perhaps the best known. 
Here I will concentrate on the third, the free trade zone story.

Easterling’s book is aimed at architects, but I think it deserves a 
wider audience. Its goal is to redefine the object of analysis so that 
it might be possible to reconstitute the object of professional 
intervention for architects and planners. “Exposing evidence of the 
infrastructural operating system is as important as acquiring some 
special skills to hack into it.” (20) This has implications both for 
what planning could be, but also for how social movements might engage 
with questions of scale.

This reconstitution of the object of analysis is I think a very 
important step. I am continually frustrated by the way in which scholars 
in the humanities and social sciences keep trotting out the same old 
authorities and the same old languages, which pretty much guarantee that 
when the look at the present all they will see is how it looks like the 

Easterling: “Well rehearsed theories, like those related to Capital and 
Neoliberalism continue to send us to the same places to search for 
dangers while other concentrations of authoritarian power escape 
scrutiny.” (22) Sometimes one has to just forget Marx and Foucault in 
order to see the world afresh, which is after all what both Marx and 
Foucault were able to do, by forgetting the authorities and languages 
that preceded them.

So one of Easterling’s moves is to see the free trade zone as central 
rather than peripheral. She shows the long history of such zones, their 
rapid rise in the postwar years, and their weird proliferation into 
other kinds of ‘enclave’ form. What they all have in common is their 
detachment on the one hand from the envelopes of national polities, and 
on the other their connection into a global infrastructure of trade and 

When I was in China in 1987, I visited Shenzen, famous as Chinese leader 
Deng Xiaoping’s most visible commitment to the ‘open door policy.’ When 
I visited it, Shenzen was still a fishing village, overshadowed by a 
vast, muddy, construction site. It is now a city of more than 10 million 
people. An entire city was built, in my lifetime. And it is not the only 
one. This is an unprecedented fact in human history.

Many such cities are some version of free trade zone, set up outside the 
regulatory envelope of the nation-state, such that labor and 
environmental law need not apply, and nor do the usual taxes. Such 
spaces have lately mutated into weird new forms, such as knowledge 
parks, satellite universities, full-service container ports, supply 
chain cities, super-factory cities and even leisure island cities.

Manuel Castells described a new global spatiality that emerged in the 
late twentieth century as a space of flows laid over, and circumventing, 
the old space of places. Where once geography constrained flows to the 
contours of places, now the ‘virtual geography’ of comms infrastructure 
warps that geography of places to that of flows. Or: in a language I 
have used for this: the second nature of build form is subsumed into a 
third nature of standardized mediation.

The space of flows is, among other things, a way of routing economic 
power around the power of labor, of circumventing labor’s ability to 
organize and command space. In the free trade zone, “inexpensive labor 
is imported from South Asia and elsewhere like machinery or other 
equipment.” (45) And “From its inception, the most overt and routine 
forms of violence have been aimed at workers.” (54) The labor compound 
may even be cordoned off within the free trade zone, even as it is 
cordoned off from its ‘host’ country.

To the usual tools of coercion against labor can now be added 
deportation. Labor can be expelled back to its ‘home’ country, or within 
a state like China, back to the provinces from whence it came. And while 
maybe not, or not yet, responsible for the majority of labor, these 
special cities are now of enormous size. The notorious Foxconn company 
alone has about 800,000 workers in Shenzen.

It is as if cities were engineering their own doppelgangers, which are 
not always about dirty manufacturing and cheap labor. They can also be 
about finding ways to aggregate and tap the abilities of what I call the 
‘hacker class’  those whose efforts yield not quantities of product but 
qualities of novelty that can be turned into copyrights, patents, or 
other information instruments through which to command a slice of the 
commodification process. Hence the proliferation of campus cities, IT 
cities, media cities, and their nonwork doubles  the vacation cities, 

urban-scale zones like the very strange resort the South Koreans have 
built in the North, about which Easterling has written elsewhere.

All cities are now branded global products, competing with each other as 
mediatized simulacra of each other. What is curious is the attempt to 
create new brands, which might then appeal within the third nature space 
of flows for both investment and high skill hacker-class populations. 
Consider here the Technopark Alliance, which includes Luzern, Winterthur 
and Skolkovo, which one might think of as niche brands meant to appeal 
to consumers of quite specialized forms of city.

What makes all this possible is a kind of infrastructure design way, way 
beyond the scope of the architect’s drafting board, or even the design 
software that has replaced it since my father’s time. On the one side is 
technical engineering, on the other a kind of financial engineering, and 
caught in the squeeze between is old fashioned architecture. It is being 
replaced by design systems which establish protocols for the unfolding 
of cities across greenfield sites, where the unit of design is not the 
building so much as the zone.

The language in which Easterling talks about this is the language of the 
interface. As Alexander Bogdanov argues, we get our metaphors for how 
the world works from our labor processes. Easterling ingeniously deploys 
the point and clickery language which not only architects but most 
members of the hacker class are familiar with as a kind of basic 
metaphor for how the world is now designed.

Thus: “The infrastructural operating system is filled with 

well-rehearsed sequences of code  spatial products and repeatable 
formulas like zones, suburbs, highways, resorts, malls, golf courses. 
Hacking into it requires forms that are also like software.” (72) Hence 
not only the metaphor for how the world is built, but also for how to 
engage with it shifts into the register of computing as popularly 
experienced and understood: “the MS Dos of urban software might be 
productively hacked.” (68)

But before it can be hacked, it has to be understood. Easterling offers 
a set of subsidiary metaphors for contemporary infrastructure design: 
multipliers, switches, and topologies.

The multipliers include: cars, elevators, mobile phones. The first, the 
car, was the multiplier that made possible one of the precursor forms of 
the greenfields city, the greenfields suburb. But “Levittown was simple 
software.” (74) Its repeated unit-forms were few. Sadly, it may be the 
case that the United States never quite acquired the higher-order 
practices of building forms at the next scale. Hence the endless 
attempts to solve spatial problems with yet more versions of the 
Levittown software.

The switch is something like an interchange highway. The switch is a 
macro-order feature compared to the multiplier, shaping where the 
multipliers can circulate. Topology might designate the art of 
patterning switches and multipliers into grids and networks for optimal 
circulation. “Topologies model the ‘wiring’ of an organization. … Just 
as an electronic network is wired to support certain activities, so 
space can be ‘wired’ to encourage some activities and routines over 
others.” (77)

In Gamer Theory, I argued that another way to think about the 
supersession of second nature by third nature is to think it as the 
incorporation of topography into topology. Comms infrastructure enables 
spaces to be folded or twisted, so that points that are geographically 
remote can be brought into close communication with each other, although 
usually at the expense of the hinterlands around each. This New York 
City can be right next to London, and very remote from upstate New 
York’s rural hinterlands.

Easterling finds a remarkable precedent for today’s urban infrastructure 
design in James Oglethorpe’s 1733 protocol for the growth of Savannah, 
Georgia. It was not a master-plan, imagining how the city would fill out 
the topography around it. Rather, it was a kind of growth protocol, 
which imagined a kind unit-addition model, each unit having a certain 
configuration of public and private space, amenities and services.

Jackson Heights, my home in New York City, is a little version of this 
protocol approach, where the code involved doubling the size of blocks 
and enclosing the land in the middle of blocks as a shared space for the 
rows of buildings on each side. This is a quite different way of 
thinking about what ‘planning’ might be, as the unit takes precedence, 
nested within a macro-scale switches.

Easterling is not interested only in new cities, but also the 
refashioning of existing ones. Here what is of interest is how third 
nature, or topology, not only creates new spaces, but reconfigures old 
ones. This Easterling calls broadband urbanism, and her case study is 
Nairobi. Easterling: “for broadband urbanism the object of interplay is 
to maximize access to information.” (133) It is a way of reformatting 
existing cities, by bolting on an infrastructure that is light and 
distributed but pervasive, and which makes any and every asset, whether 
human or not, a resource that can be assessed, mobilized, combined and 

Perhaps the most interesting intervention in Easterling’s book is when 
it start to touch on geopolitics. From the infrastructure engineering 
point of view, geopolitics is a complicated field of state and nonstate 
actors. It is a picture that does not neatly resolve into either 
realpolitik or liberal internationalism. The world is not an 
all-against-all conflict of state actors. Nor is it really something 
that could ever be tamed by international agreement. Various attempts to 

rethink it by adding nonstate actors don’t really address the real 
drivers of global infrastructural space.

Easterling wants to get away from the ‘chessboard’ metaphor. Of course, 
if one pays attention to infrastructure, one’s first question would be: 
who made the board in the first place? Even the ‘smooth’ spaces imagined 
by Deleuze and Guattari are premised on their difference from the 
striated, or chessboard ones. In any case, all these modes of thinking 
tend to take militarized space as primary, as if we really did live in 
Clausewitz’s world, only where politics was just war by other means.

I have a slightly different take on the military metaphor. I think its 
useful to separate the worldview of Jomini from Clauswitz. The former is 
the real ancestor of military geopolitics, of the RAND corp, etc, with 
his formula of force = mass x acceleration. He thought war was a 
quantifiable logistics. Clausewitz only partly agreed, and was more 
interested in how logistics met unquantifiable situations. This is why I 
find Guy Debord’s Game of War more interesting than Deleuze and Guattari.

What Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Zizek and Badiou have in common is 
juxtaposing war as logistics to revolt as event, where the latter has a 
sort of mystical quality, an undifferentiated subject/object outside all 
calculation. Debord follows Clausewitz more closely than either the cold 
war left or right by thinking strategy as having both elements at once, 
logistics and event.

This is why Debord’s Game of War is interesting. Its also a game that 
has the element of communication ‘infrastructure’ built in. (Units have 
to remain in ‘communication’ with each other or they cease to have 
value.) Its a game in which (unlike chess) strategy and tactics are 
reversible. The tactic of interrupting communication (attacking the 
totality) can become a strategy.

So its not ‘binary’ in the sense of splitting space into 
smooth/striated, or calculable/eventual, although it is binary in still 
having two sides. Mind you, one can think games in terms of the 
cooperation between the pieces as well as conflict between sides.

In short, I agree with Easterling that the military metaphor is a bit 
limiting, but I think there’s another way out of it. I had a stab at 
this in the last three chapters of The Spectacle of Disintegration, but 
it is better addressed by Alex Galloway and Richard Barbrook and the 
Class Wargames group.

What I find really refreshing about Easterling’s book is the way it both 
shows forms that are outside of conventional concepts and narratives 
such as the free trade zone, and then also offers new conceptual tools 
for understanding those forms. If one rethinks what architecture 
actually is, it turns out to be one of the most, not least, important 
levels of analysis.

Interestingly, the binary warlike approach might not be much worse than 
what descends from liberal internationalist rhetorics of cooperation. 
Easterling: “More disturbing than a binary competitive stance is its 
cooperative reciprocal stance. It is not a means by which nations attack 
each other , but a means by which both state and nonstate actors 
cooperate at someone else’s expense  usually the expense of labor.” 
(148) Current global trade treaty negotiations are aimed not just at 
labor, either, but at putting the genie of free information back in the 
intellectual property bottle.

So the world might be run not by statecraft but at least in part by 
extrastatecraft. Easterling: “Avoiding binary dispositions, this field 
of activity calls for experiments with ongoing forms of leverage, 
reciprocity, and vigilance to counter the violence immanent in the space 
of extrastatecraft.” (149) She has some interesting observations on the 
tactics for this. Some exploit the informational character of third 
nature, such as gossip, rumor and hoax. She also discusses the 
possibilities of the gift or of exaggerated compliance (related perhaps 
to Zizek’s over-identification), and of mimicry and comedy.

Can the planet be hacked? That might be the question for these times. 
Can the infrastructure being built out, one which precludes by design 
old-fashioned ‘politics’, yield to new kinds of engagement? These would 
seem to be very timely questions. Everybody knows the current 
infrastructure is not one that can last. In a way, it does not even 
exist, given that on the longer time frames of the Anthropocene it will 
flicker like an image and be gone. Hopefully to be replaced by a more 
habitable one.

Easterling: “Laissez-faire was planned; planning was not.” (156) Perhaps 
neither markets not plans are adequate metaphors for organization at 
scale any more. Hayek was right about the limits of planning as an 
information and organization system. We now know that the 
geo-engineering of freedom, where market signals are legislated and 
architected into primacy, has not worked much better. There’s some keys 
and tools for thinking otherwise in Easterling’s book, and that is what 
makes it so timely and interesting.


----   scot mcphee  ------

     Interesting post. Very interesting. Two observations:

     “An entire city was built, in my lifetime. And it is not the only 
one. This is an unprecedented fact in human history.”

     But is it? The Greeks regularly established new cities in the 

Mediterranean, by sending out colonists to found a new city in a 
suitable location. Sure, they were no Shenzen, but the new cities had 
both a scale similar (in an appropriate way to the Greek city-state), 
and a political link back to the old founding state. Some of these 
cities would become large and beautiful and power in their own right. 
e.g. Syracuse, “the most beautiful of all the Greek cities” (according 
to Cicero). And the Romans themselves would create new cities out of 
whole cloth, by settling retired legionaries into coloniae. For example, 
Colchester, or Cologne (=colony). These cities, particularly in the 
non-Greek West, brought whole new architectures and political 
organisation with them.

     But, I’m mostly interested in this highly interesting interplay:

     “Thus: “The infrastructural operating system is filled with 
well-rehearsed sequences of code  spatial products and repeatable 
formulas like zones, suburbs, highways, resorts, malls, golf courses. 
Hacking into it requires forms that are also like software.” (72) Hence 
not only the metaphor for how the world is built, but also for how to 
engage with it shifts into the register of computing as popularly 
experienced and understood: “the MS Dos of urban software might be 
productively hacked.” (68)”

     OK, because this is *really* interesting for the following reason. 
It’s a feedback loop from architecture (or urban planning) into software 
design, and now, apparently, back into architecture. There’s a concept 
in software design called “design patterns”, which is about reusable 
templates of software design (not reusable *code*, but reusable 
*design*), which can applied in certain situations in a repeatable 
fashion. It allows software designers and engineers to have a 
conversation about the design of their software in a general way without 
having to discuss specifics: Visitor, Flyweight, Abstract Factory, 
Decorator, Command, Memento, Observer, Facade, Template Method, Adaptor, 
Bridge, Composite  all these mean particular patterns of software 
design, of how the different components interact.They are defined in a 
book colloquially called “the gang of four” (make of that what you will) 
or “Design Patterns: elements of reusable object-orientated software”.

     But all of this stuff was inspired by a 1977 book of town planning 
called “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction”

     What goes around, comes around, I guess.



Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space
by Keller Easterling
"An extraordinary guidebook to the politics of infrastructure in the 
contemporary world." Stephen Graham, author of Cities Under Siege
Extrastatecraft controls everyday life in the city: it’s the key to 
power  and resistance  in the twenty-first century.

Infrastructure is not only the underground pipes and cables controlling 
our cities. It also determines the hidden rules that structure the 
spaces all around us  free trade zones, smart cities, suburbs, and 
shopping malls. Extrastatecraft charts the emergent new powers 
controlling this space and shows how they extend beyond the reach of 

Keller Easterling explores areas of infrastructure with the greatest 
impact on our world  examining everything from standards for the 
thinness of credit cards to the urbanism of mobile telephony, the 
world’s largest shared platform, to the “free zone,” the most virulent 
new world city paradigm. In conclusion, she proposes some unexpected 
techniques for resisting power in the modern world.

Extrastatecraft will change the way we think about urban spaces  and how 
we live in them.

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