Infrastructuring the City (and its Leftovers)

A few months ago we had a discussion (here and here) about olympic stadiums and the fact that they are the products of large infrastructuring projects that remain long after the project is over. That was an eye opener — at least for me: it seems as if our (STS) focus on stability and material durability is biased; we tend to think that by building buildings we build a world of things that stand for us, our wishes, dreams, prejudices or our moral classifications. The whole “politics by other means is going into that direction. And the ruins of the olympic stadium in Athens (the 2006 one, not the antique one turned into a soccer stadium) reminded me that durability sometimes is a burden: what is build in steel and concrete is going to stay unless we “deconstruct” it. And even then the marks of it stay, leftovers are hard to avoid. Two days ago now I saw this:

A city divided by light

A city divided by light (Photo by Chris Hadfield, Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/10003467/Berlin-satellite-image-reveals-stark-east-west-divisions.html)

After 23 years,the city of Berlin is still divided — infrastructurally. On the one hand, a lot of the western part of the city still has gas lights: a relict of the cold war era where gas was easier to manage because it can be made from coal and storing or even delivering that was easier than providing electricity in times of a lock-down of the city surrounded by the GDR. But that is not the reason for that: To increase efficiency (and officially to avoid “capitalist/imperialist wastefulness”, I suppose) the GDR changed their preferred system of electric lighting to Sodium-vapor lamps (with a warmer and darker light), the FRG continued to use Mercury-vapor lamps (with that bluish lucid light). So: leftovers of projects of infrastructural politics, but not disturbing ones like politically incorrect street names, memorizing ones like memorials, problematic ones like the Athens olympic stadium. But mundane ones. There in every corner, unnoticed. What do they tell us?

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2 thoughts on “Infrastructuring the City (and its Leftovers)

  1. The idea of following-up on these gas lamps as mundane, leftover relics hidden-in-plain-sight is a great idea. Takes ideas like “stability” and puts them on their head; shows that there are benefits and liabilities associated with stability, and it also shows — and here is where the historic element appears to figure into the account quite importantly — stability can be used by a regime to impose on the future, no matter what the future holds. The stability is a way to extend the reach of a group, even if it is in ways that are unintelligible to contemporary civilians and passers-by. That might be a good lesson too about “erasure” … often groups are slowly alienated by their reduction from history books or slowly fall out of discussion in the political circles that make-up a country’s politics … and yet, full erasure involves massive infrastructure erasure too. Otherwise, they linger, designed too well to be easily discarded. In this case, perhaps the lamps — the dimmer ones — are more costly to dismantle than they are to run, in which case, the former world lives on in a particular way that “sheds light” on our infrastructural experiences….

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  2. We should try to put a list together of these sorts of cases and see what studying them brings if we hone-in on the idea of stability as “annoyance” or stability as “liability” (which even sounds a bit nice)…

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