more from the
Jan/Feb 2015 issue:
– David Reinfurt
Makes the World
– Jesse LeCavalier
– Shumon Basar
– Karen Kubey
On Vernacular Computing
– Jacob Gaboury
Extrastatecraft by Keller Easterling
– Carson Chan
Amie Siegel: Provenance
– by Rattanamol Singh Johal
– Barry Bergdoll
+ buy JanFeb 2015 issue
Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space
by Keller Easterling (Verso, 2014)
Text / Carson Chan
Dubai Internet City, 2012 [licensed under Creative Commons]
In John Cheever's famous 1960 story, The Death of Justina, the narrator finds himself in a predicament. His wife's
cousin died on their sofa, and when he tries to arrange for a funeral, he learns that his part of town is not zoned for
dying, let alone funerals. "In a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our
powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing." In this world, "the importance of
zoning can't be overestimated." It is hard to overestimate the hold our self-built world of protocols has over us, and harder
still to pinpoint whom to address concerns to when something goes wrong. Local trade begat networked corporations, discrete
conversations became mass broadcasting, and community habits are quantized and redistributed into international standards.
Resistance is redirected from one automated call center to another, and unlike the municipal bureaucracy in Cheever's story,
the system that governs today is perhaps not the nation state but a multitude of headless, dispersed infrastructures that don't play requests.
Extrastatecraft (Verso, 2014), by architecture theorist Keller Easterling, is a manual for navigating this condition.
Following her award-winning Enduring Innocence (2005), Extrastatecraft is Easterling's second book to dilate on infrastructure
through space, and it follows a new tradition of writing an architecture integrated into larger economic, military, technological,
and political narratives, whose other practitioners include Reinhold Martin, Felicity Scott, Eyal Weizman, and the Aggregate Collaborative,
to name a few. The reader is witness to a majestic sweep of places, organizations, and time frames: the frictionless ethics of special economic
zones around the world, the unanticipated results of high-speed Internet development in Africa, and the insidious ways of the International
Organization for Standardization (ISO).
Many of the key ideas and characterizations of the present moment in Extrastatecraft began in Easterling's earlier book: our world
is increasingly populated by spatial products, or the built manifestation of commercial formulas; like sweat on a guilty brow, these
spatial products are knowable only by their dispositions, undetectable through traditional methods of architecture analysis; and
somewhere in and between the narratives surrounding the development of the military, free trade, and universalizing tools like radio,
lies the untold story of infrastructure space.
Reviewers of Enduring Innocence from fields other than architecture lauded the book for "setting aside the idea of a stable,
design-driven global architecture," and making architecture "more familiar, more political, and ultimately more relevant" to everyone else.1
Stylistically, perhaps owing to writer Leo Hollis' skilled editing, Extrastatecraft eschews the elliptic phrasing and insider-speak of its
predecessor; its narrative is graspable and mobilized from the start. Whereas Enduring Innocence is structured to allow the reader to skip
around the sections like salad ingredients, Extrastatecraft is rhetorically presented to persuade – and it does.
Extrastatecraft is a "portmanteau describing the often undisclosed activities outside of, in addition to, and sometimes even in
partnership with statecraft," or government affairs. Manmade physical and invisible infrastructure, interspersing material and information,
itself produces "undeclared forms of polity," faster, more amorphous, and less definable than can be legislated. Similar models, or what
Daniel Heller-Roazen calls the "paradigm of piracy," have existed in the past, but extrastatecraft is presented also as a suite of activist
responses to a present-day condition that often leaves us feeling helpless in the face of insurmountable, globally networked systems. Traditional
binary resistance (David vs. Goliath) is powerless and irrelevant in infrastructure space. Easterling's conceit is that by knowing the enemy,
and by learning its ways, we could relieve our oppression, if not defeat it. As with the difference between a single company and the matrix of
global forces that constitute "Wall Street," the book notes that the enemy is not a thing, but rather a set of actions between things. For the
majority of Easterling's readers – architects – this premise will come as a disappointment. Alas, buildings cannot change the world,
but the systems in which we build them can be reprogrammed to generate a new world of buildings. In fact, the book can be read as a retort to
the way architecture is currently being taught and practiced. Does architecture see itself prepared to provide a spatial response to the abuses
of the contemporary world, or does it see itself as the maker of built confections?
In the book, a recurring metaphor for the workings of the contemporary world is software. Resistance to injustice in the form of street protest,
then, is tantamount to shouting at your computer when it malfunctions. Easterling has identified a number of "active forms" operating in
infrastructure space, and, in her words, "knowing what," over time, will lead us to "knowing how." We have to become programmers of space.
Design is reframed as the manipulation of an entire region's building codes. For instance, while working on the Esentai Tower complex (2008)
in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill had to update the city's antiquated, Soviet-era building codes and
bring them to international, or American, standards. Translated for the first time in English, these codes were then used by all subsequent
Whole cloth design is an enticing prospect. The claim of our inability to fix the world – coeval with our drowning faith in representative
democracy and free-trade capitalism – is due partly to the fact that we're beginners in driving the machine of our own making. The
juggernaut can be trained. Easterling lists a number of "unorthodox auxiliaries," or techniques in which we can redesign infrastructure space:
"gossip, rumor, gift-giving, compliance, mimicry, comedy, remote control, meaninglessness, misdirection, distraction, hacking or entrepreneurialism."
She expands on the mechanics of each item, but most importantly they are all tools with which to affect the stories, the dispositions, of infrastructure
space. If you can't change the outcome, change the conversation. It's the long con. Preventive, not curative (Chinese rather than Western medicine),
it's a method that doesn't produce quick, verifiable results, but perhaps it's one that could divert us from the endless cycle of piecemeal fixes we've
become addicted to.
There is danger in this proposition that Easterling doesn't fully engage with in the book. Reprogramming the system will no doubt produce more holistic
changes than item-by-item solutions. Instead of constantly developing newfangled pesticides that insects eventually build resistance to, for example, why
not adapt ancient farming techniques that strategically pair crops that mutually repel their respective predators? Thus, organic farming. Alternatively,
we could genetically change the plants themselves so that they're inherently repellant. Thus, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Yes, "knowing how"
infrastructure space operates allows us at least the chance of affecting how it manifests, but at what point does our duplicitous, self-aware compliance
make us in fact complicit? Easterling retells the story of Jana, a crowd-sourcing platform first tested in Kenya. Partnering with cellphone service providers
that derive revenue from data collection, Jana provides users with free airtime in exchange for their data collected through surveys and questionnaires.
Cellphone users are recast as a workforce – feeding personal information to a machine for continued access to the machine. What could possibly go wrong?
Humans are feckless, and it's a hopeful, purposeful imagination that sees us fixing our problems by outsmarting the irrational products of our collective
insouciance. It is also an absolutely necessary imagination to study, preserve, and cultivate.
What makes this book, like Enduring Innocence, so relevant to nonarchitects is that by addressing the system (infrastructure space) rather than the
symptoms (architecture), a wide range of cultural artifacts could be framed within its description. A special economic zone in its own right, the
unregulated art market's power is extrastatecraft. What if we think about the climate system as extrastatecraft? What could we learn if we reframe
race, blackness, whiteness, as infrastructure space? Accelerationism, a trending concept in political philosophy that sees expanding capitalism as
a way to escape capitalism, could do well by considering Easterling's far more holistic idea of "exaggerated compliance" as a way out of the quagmires
of Marxist theory. Rather than hanging an entire discursive and aesthetic project on a single technology, observers of the post-Internet art movement
would find the concept of infrastructure space – of a contextual frame layered with many networks – particularly enriching.
No doubt that as this book makes its way to the desks of architects and their students, many will ask: is this about architecture? Architects have
long been megalomaniacal in ambition – dreaming up cities that walk and towers that spear the sky – but their visions have always eclipsed
their influence. Many of the book's techniques are already intuited by the world's most responsive firms, including Lacaton Vassal and Bjarke Ingels Group
(BIG), but much of the architecture profession remains a boutique industry, and designers of buildings have long recognized their insignificance at the
grandest scale of actions. In the face of the built world's systemic problems such as housing shortage, worker abuse, and irreversible environmental
destruction, prominent architects have shrouded themselves in theoretical obscurantism (Eisenman), claimed impunity (Hadid), or literally flipped off
those who question why they do what they do (Gehry). Architects want to construct, organize, and improve upon the built world, but to improve upon a
situation, its problems have to be identified and studied. Extrastatecraft – in recognizing that the space we occupy today itself operates under
radically different rules than it did a few decades earlier, when Cheever wrote his story – can serve as a manual for a new generation of architects,
whose designs can begin to align with their goals.
– Carson Chan
1. Gregory Clancey, "Enduring Innocence: Review," Technology and Culture 48, no. 1 (2007): 178.