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M/C Journal, Vol. 14, No. 5 (2011) - 'zone'


Interzoning In after Zoning Out on Infrastructure


This paper is about the relationships between infrastructural, interzonal spaces and the communities and individuals that interact with them. It attempts to describe the politics of their aesthetics and their legitimation as two aspects of the same process of semiological warfare and its governance. For example, think about a street-corner, preferably one in a big city. Consider the processes and operations that occur there, who creates them, legitimates them, and what they mean. For the sake of this paper, the road, the sidewalk, the streetlights with their cabling and electrical grid, the sewers and their gutters, are all infrastructural zones, and they come together and intermix to form the interzone. That is, the complex assemblage of meanings, things, and peoples, that is at once the street-corner and beyond it.

Zones are inscribed through codes and conventions to form pragmatic regimes through which we enact our lives and our roles (Thévenot, “Rules and Implements” 9-15; Thévenot, “Pragmatic Regimes” 64–5). Though these zones are integral to our lives, the deterritorialisation of these zones has dispersed them throughout our world, splintering and disintegrating the meanings we can assign to them, thus forcing the perpetual re-creation of new zones and interzones across spaces and times. Through this dispersal, the integrated world capitalism in which we live, allows us to be ignorant of their processes as the experience of the zones are removed from our subjective experiences (Guattari, The Three Ecologies 137). Because our ignorance of and alienation from our infrastructural zones, a subpolitics forms and spawns semiologic warfare for our attention and disattention that causes us to be “zoned out” about the zones in which we live (Beck 35).

Instead of zoning out, this paper zones in on infrastructure zones and interzones. An interzone is an interstitial zone of extraterratoriality governed by a broader set of rules, as with international zones such as the infamous Green Zone in Iraq or the international zone of Tangiers made famous by William Burroughs (Thévenot, “Rules and Implements” 9–15; Thévenot, “Pragmatic Regimes” 64–5). Interzones are the territories between zones that we project our subjectivities through. They cut or splinter the empty spaces of the dispersed and fragmented zones of our capitalist realities. Our subjective projection of these interzones creates and requires modes of interpretation and governance that comes into being as we share our knowledge of them. As interzones become reified through our shared interpretations and governance, they become zones themselves, forming a pragmatic regime of codes and conventions that eventually is alienated from our experience. This perpetual passage from zone to interzone based on our spatial subjectivities, requires significant amounts of work—intellectual and other. Without this work, interzones are entropic and temporary; fading from our shared memories. But even as they fade, interzones have changed the zones around them, transforming the necessities of their governance through the vacating of the semiological and social spaces the interzone once occupied with its own processes.

This paper confronts these interzones that are frequently within a five-minute walk from anywhere humans inhabit. These interzones contain infrastructures such as sidewalks, roads, sewers, passageways, or in the digital world web servers, routers, and fibre optic cabling. As we pass through these zones and have the opportunity to interact with them, we occasionally intermix them, creating new possibilities of understanding and operating; this is the creation of an interzone. The interzone exists when we make it and share it from the zones we inhabit, transforming their infrastructures through our interaction with them. However, our actions tend to be vitalist and pluralist in that our interactions with infrastructures tend to create a multiplicity of livable interzones existing between the zones as new spaces of autonomy, occupation, and legitimising politics.

This plurality combined with our immersion within infrastructural zones provides the living semiological space of self-legitimation in which we deny the existence of the very infrastructural zones it requires:

In the “private,” in the “domestic” sphere (and so also in the environment of objects) in which the individual lives as a refuge zone, as an autonomous field of needs and satisfactions, below or beyond social constraints, the individual nevertheless always continues to evince or to claim a legitimacy and to assure it by signs. In the least of behaviors, through the least of objects, he or she translates the immanence of a jurisdiction which in appearance is rejected. (Baudrillard 40)

Our objects; our actions within this domestic environment constitute elements of several zones and provide our own subjective system of legitimation within them, and our autonomy within that space is guaranteed by our ignorance of the operation of that system of legitimation. It is only our situatedness through our inscriptions and actions within these spaces that gives us the ability to read the codes that we co-construct through these spaces. (Thévenot, “Rules and Implements” 9–15; Thévenot, “Pragmatic Regimes” 64–5) This situatedness allows us this sense of refuge, safety, and in the end as Baudrillard claims, this refuge zone allows for us to exist socially, if ignorantly within the infrastructures we require. (Baudrillard 40, 49)

But even in our ignorance, infrastructural zones still provide us with the background necessities of our everyday lives; eliminating dangers and constituting a significant part of our artifactual world (Star 377-90; Star and Ruhleder 253-64; Hunsinger 277-79). As Paul Edwards says:

Infrastructures constitute an artificial environment, channeling and/or reproducing those properties of the natural environment that we find most useful and comfortable; providing others that the natural environment cannot; and eliminating features we find dangerous, uncomfortable, or merely inconvenient. In doing so, they simultaneously constitute our experience of the natural environment, as commodity, object of romantic or pastoralist emotions and aesthetic sensibilities, or occasional impediment. (189)

Zones too are artificial environments, performing the same sort of functions as described by Edwards above. Zones operate through their semiological form as desire/seduction and they operate through their borders where their aesthetization is at play. More specifically how we imagine and react to zones and interzones, and who and what occupies their border spaces, defines the interoperation of their interpretation, their aesthetisation, and their governance. Edges and borders define the relations of zones; the screen of the monitor is like a wall with a window that defines our access to cyberinfrastructures beyond, much like the curb or ditch defines the edge of the street or road. These borders and edges are more than spaces of interoperation, they are spaces of politics. It is through these borders, and the actions we can pursue through them, where the operations of legitimacy will be most tested and transgressed.

Infrastructural zones operate in and across those borders both as real and phantasmal aesthetics that operate as a becoming system of governance and interpretation. They operate as a cross-ecologic, semiological, and pragmatic regime that is established in relation to production of subjectivity in their cultural milieu. The zones and interzones articulate a form of alienated subjectivity in all cultural milieus. This is an articulation of our acted environment that is assembled through our distributed cognition of zones and interzones, which as part of the politics of legitimation, we inscribe, erase, and re-inscribe in perpetual semiological warfare until the zones fade into the background losing their salience. Edwards agrees with this lack of salience, “The most salient characteristic of technology in the modern (industrial and postindustrial) world is the degree to which most technology is not salient for most people, most of the time” (184).

Even without particular salience to most people, infrastructural zones are spaces and aggregations of perceived fixity or normality demarcated by their transgression. The modes of transgression that demarcate them can occur in any part of our experience. Normally the boundaries are constructed in the forms of visibility and knowability centered on questions of expertise and/or professionalism amongst other boundary processes (Star and Griesemer 387–420; Star and Ruhleder 253–64 ; Gieryn 791–2). Plumbers, for instance, confront a reality of certain infrastructures on a daily basis, as do other professionals such as those that work at Internet service providers. As outsiders to these epistemic communities, we are made aware of zones when we transgress in or through them as we are breaking rules or borders that define these communities define and in part communicate to us.

It is through our actions and transgressions that we enact and inscribe interzones in our subjective world, but it is through our reactions and transgressions also that they are territorialized and deterritorialized in our social world. Zones, then are constructs of our purported, construed, and communicated phantasmal objectivities and beyond that they are the aesthetization of our shared needs and satisfactions. By recognizing them, we transform them in to actants in our social world, and by communicating our experience of them, we construct them as codes and conventions that add meaning to that social world.

One way to imagine these infrastructural manifestations is through thinking about them as substrates.

People commonly envision infrastructure as a system of substrates—railroad lines, pipes and plumbing, electrical power plants, and wires. It is by definition invisible, part of the background for other kinds of work. It is ready-to-hand. This image holds up well enough for many purposes—turn on the faucet for a drink of water and you use a vast infrastructure of plumbing and water regulation without usually thinking much about it. (Star 380)

As substrates, these infrastructures form a pragmatic regime, or zone through which we pass, which exists underneath the strata that is our everyday life. The faucet is part of the strata of our everyday lives, like the sidewalk, while the pipes and the standards of plumbing form a space of expertise as they do with sidewalks. The operations of expertise cultures on specific sets of infrastructures helps to disperse and fragment the knowledge of the various strata involved, especially the substrates.

Experts knowledgeable of these substrates will have come to their knowledge by transgressing the borders, by witnessing and inscribing the objects, the aestheticisations, and the other border processes with meanings that the community of experts share amongst themselves and isolate from the public at large (Illich et al. 15–20). Expertise becomes complicit in the processes of the zone and its interzones. This complicity, if reflexive, will come to question the system of integrated world capitalism in which this zone is established as a form of semiological warfare against other zones and regimes (Guattari, “The Three Ecologies” 1989 137). In other words, experts on infrastructural zones have to come to terms not only with the knowing of the previously unknown, but also the know-how that the unknown plays into the broader culture and capitalist system in which it operates.

However, while experts might zone in on infrastructural zones and their contexts, most people continue to be zoned out. Even for experts in infrastructures, some infrastructures get far less investigation than others, and like all zones, they eventually are forgotten and experts become ignorant of them (Hunsinger 277–79). 

The challenge of knowing or bringing attention to the infrastructural zones and their interzones is a challenge of territorialisation and thus of subjective awareness. Knowingly operating with subjective awareness within them is a form of semiological warfare that we can perpetrate, because by establishing the semiological subjective space, we reconstruct a system of interpreting and governing the territory and thus establishing political importance and awareness of our techno-semiological existence. For the territory to be won, the war and its strategies have to be taken to the public arena and brought forth in political discourse as a purposive politics. We must resist the temptation to forget and remain ignorant, which as Ulrich Beck points out, relegates this political space to corporations and other non-public entities as a form of subpolitics. We need to take back the politics and subpolitics of infrastructure and recognize the choices or lack thereof that we are making across all ecological systems (Beck 38; Beck, Giddens and Lash 24–36).

In conclusion, this exposition on zones, interzones, and infrastructures is meant to challenge us to rethink our subjective positions in relation to zones, their aesthetics, and their legitimation as functions of semiological warfare. We need to find new opportunities to make a mess of these spaces, to transgress, and create new spaces of autonomy for ourselves and future participants in the zones. We have to move beyond the appreciation of “this is a street-corner” and into the realm of “this is our street-corner and we know how it works.” This act will create a new interzone, which will be a new space of possibility for our lives. We cannot rely on our everyday experiences to guide us through these zones or the construction of interzones, because they will certainly only reflect our normal, accepted behaviors within the established pragmatic regimes and as such, lead to an ongoing ignorance of the operation of these interzones and infrastructures. Our challenge is to transgress and thus deterritorialise these semiological zones, and perhaps through this transgression transform the interzones into zones better reflecting our aesthetics, our desires, and our satisfactions.

References 

Baudrillard, Jean. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis, Missouri: Telos Press, 1981.

Beck, Ulrich. Democracy without Enemies. Malden, Mass.: Polity, 1998.

Beck, Ulrich, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash. Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.

Edwards, Paul. N. “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems.” Modernity and Technology. Eds. Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg. Cambridge: MIT P, 2004.

Gieryn, Thomas F. “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists.” American Sociological Review 48.6 (1983): 781–95.

Guattari, Felix. “The Three Ecologies.” New Formations 8 (Summer 1989): 131–47.

———. The Three Ecologies. Translated by Gary Genosko. London: Athlone Press, 2000.

Hunsinger, Jeremy. “Toward a Transdisciplinary Internet Research.” The Information Society 21.4 (2005): 277–79.

Illich, Ivan, et al. Disabling Professions. London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1977.

Star, Susan Leigh. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43.3 (1999): 377-91.

Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39.” Social Studies of Science 19.3 (1989): 387–420.

Star, Susan Leigh, and Karen Ruhleder. “Steps towards an Ecology of Infrastructure: Complex Problems in Design and Access for Large-Scale Collaborative Systems.” Proceedings of the 1994 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Work. North Carolina, 1994. 253–64.

Thévenot, Laurent. “Rules and Implements: Investment in Forms.” Social Science Information 23.1 (1984): 1–45.

———. “Pragmatic Regimes Governing the Engagement with the World.” The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. Eds. Theodore R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny. New York: Routledge, 2001. 56–73.