Class 1 (English 238 – Fall 2020)

Class Business

  • Enrollment
  • Introductions

Plan for class:   :   course concept    course structure    discussion

Course Concept

Infrastructure supports, connects, separates, constrains, frees, transforms, communicates, and stores who we are. It reinforces and reshapes the stresses between dwelling and work, center and margin, high and low, and local and global that make a society. Yet it is normally mute. Until something breaks, decays, or, as in heritage infrastructure, needs to be remembered or recapitalized. Then it speaks. Especially at moments of ruin or risk, infrastructure speaks eloquently about those who otherwise leave little textual evidence behind but instead a dreadful or artful material history — tracks at a border wall, inscriptions on the walls of the Angel Island immigrant cells, or graffiti on a bridge. Infrastructure is the literature of those whose identities are made by being acted on by the medium of infrastructure, even as they make themselves by acting in, and against, infrastructure. People on the “right” side of the wall, the cell, the tracks, and so on are also subjects of infrastructure — for example, each time they get in a car and just drive, or boot their computer and just browse. . . .

Ultimately, the session hypothesizes that in late modernity the experience of infrastructure is increasingly the operational experience of culture itself. That is, the word “infrastructure” may now give us the same kind of critical purchase on the complexity of social experience that Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, and others sought when they reached for their all purpose word “culture.”

BladerunnerMad Max: Fury RoadMad Max: Fury Road

This course explores the hypothesis that critical infrastructure studies is one of today’s renewed forms of cultural criticism and media theory. Looking at the world from the point of view of infrastructure — and of the people (and creatures) who at once shape and are shaped by infrastructure — allows us to ask different questions than those posed in the frame of “culture” or “media.” We’ll think broadly about the things, platforms, passageways, containers, and gates — material, mediated, and symbolic — that structure who we are in relation to the world and each other.

  • Ideas (GeistesgeschichteArrow right  Language   Arrow right  Culture   Arrow right  Media

Course Structure


  • Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “Scale and Diversity of The Physical Technosphere” (2017)
  • Bill Brown, “Thing Theory” (2001)
  • Jane Bennett, “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter” (2004)
Ian Bogost, first chapter on “Alien Phenomenology” in Alien Phenomenology, or, What It’s like to Be a Thing (2012)

(A) Things

Table with measures of the technosphere by Zalasiewicz et al.

Table with measures of the technosphere by Zalasiewicz et al.
Cf., Colin N., Waters, Jan Zalasiewicz, et al., Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) for the Anthropocene Series (2018)


Jane Bennett, pp. 349-350

On a sunny Tuesday morning, June 4, 2002, in the grate over the drain to the Chesapeake Bay in front of Sam’s Bagels on Cold Spring (which was being repaved), there was

one large men’s black plastic work glove
a matted mass of tree pollen pods
one dead rat who looked asleep
one white plastic bottle cap
one smooth stick of wood


Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man (1947), from chap. 13

(quoted in Sarah Wasserman, “Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and the Persistence of Urban Forms,” PMLA 135.3 (2020): 539)

Quotation from p. 539 of Sarah Wasserman, “Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and the Persistence of Urban Forms.” PMLA 135, no. 3 (2020): 530–45.


Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940)

Thesis 9

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.


Your things (2020)

  • [TBD]

Thing Theory & Critical Infrastructure Studies

Bill Brown, p. 5

On the one hand, then, the thing baldly encountered. On the other, something not quite apprehended.

But the very semantic reducibility of things to objects, coupled with the semantic irreducibility of things to objects, would seem to mark one way of recognizing how, although objects typically arrest a poet’s attention, and although the object was what was asked to join the dance in philosophy, things may still lurk in the shadows of the ballroom and continue to lurk there after the subject and object have done their thing, long after the party is over.” (p. 3)

“As they circulate through our lives, we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture—above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things.” (p. 4)

“A thing, in contrast, can hardly function as a window. We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily.” (p. 4)

Zalasiewicz et al, pp. 10-12

The technosphere as defined here comprises our complex social structures together with the physical infrastructure and technological artefacts supporting energy, information and material flows that enable the system to work, including entities as diverse as power stations, transmission lines, roads and buildings, farms, plastics, tools, airplanes, ballpoint pens and transistors.

Bill Brown, pp. 9-10

The question is less about “what things are for a given society than about what claims on your attention and on your action are made on behalf of things. If society seems to impose itself on the “corporeal imagination,” when and how does that imagination struggle against the imposition, and what role do things, physically or conceptually, play in the struggle? How does the effort to rethink things become an effort to reinstitute society?”

The Question of Media

Claes Oldenburg, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X
Claes Oldenburg, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X

“As a souvenir from the museum of twentieth-century history, [Oldenburg’s] the Typewriter Eraser reminds us that if the topic of things attained a new urgency in the closing decades of that century, this may have been a response to the digitization of our world—just as, perhaps, the urgency in the 1920s was a response to film.”  (Brown 16)

“New media-perspectival painting, printing, telegraphy—each in its way newly mediates the relation between people and objects, each precipitates distance and proximity.”  (Brown 16)

Things from the Bottom Up

John Unsworth (“Scholarly Primitives: What Methods Do Humanities Researchers Have in Common, And How Might Our Tools Reflect This?” (2000)

“We here provide a first step in developing a taxonomy of physical components of the technosphere. Progress in scientific understanding of the biosphere and of geology began with classification of organisms and of rock strata, early efforts being based on assessments of morphology, size, composition and other easily defined metrics, by Linnaeus, Buffon, Cuvier, William Smith and others.” (Zalasiewicz et al. 11)

Verbs related to “infrastructure” (in a window of two words before or after) in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) (520 million words of American English usage from 1990 to 2015 representing a range of popular, journalistic, fictional, scholarly, oral, and other language)

Infrastructure verbs from COCA corpus
Infrastructure verbs from COCA corpus
Infrastructure verbs from COCA corpus
Infrastructure verbs from COCA corpus
Infrastructure verbs from COCA corpus
Infrastructure verbs from COCA corpus

Bottom-up Coda (or Tailpiece)