Ephemeral Infrastructures

Recently we’ve been writing about Paul Edwards’ (2006) notion of infrastructural globalism, or how “‘the world’ is produced and maintained” through infrastructures that are aimed at spanning the globe. Walking around London after the bodies conference, I came back to thinking about how different infrastructures come to be seen as ephemeral or obdurate, and how they come to be seen as belonging to specific places or scales, like London or the globe. Digital infrastructures, like data standards, and organizational infrastructures, like work protocols, are often said to be ephemeral and indistinct, and this can be seen in the very notion of saving something to “the cloud”. But as Nicole Starosielski shows in The Undersea Network, digital infrastructures involve numerous hard drives, servers, satellites, and cables that run along the ocean floor.

This doesn’t exclude the possibility of more ephemeral infrastructures. It just means that they don’t line up with some common sense notions about which aspects change of certain infrastructures change across space and time, and which aspects are easily visible, and for whom. At the bodies conference, I presented on how the bodies of some victims were recovered after the Titanic sank in 1912. Radio was such a new technology at the time, that it was unusual to hear about a sinking so soon after it occurred. So it was rare to be able to recover any bodies, let alone rescue survivors, and to some extent the recovery workers had to make up the procedures as they went along. These practices later circulated and became part of forensic disaster recovery in later disasters. So ultimately they weren’t as ephemeral as they seemed at the time they were performed on a ship in the open ocean.

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Cruise ships are interesting because they are one way of encapsulating a part of one society. Focuault’s characterization of Bentham’s prison is reminiscent of a spaceship–an organized complex to sustain human life. Cruise ships are mobile spaceships of their own, a theme park in place of a prison. In recent years, there have been many debates over cruise ships because they have become so large–much bigger than the Titanic, or the Statue of Liberty for that matter–and have such a huge environmental impact.

It’s interesting to compare the sizes of cruise ships and cities, however, because the majority of the ship floats above the water, so most of its infrastructure, and its structure more generally, is immediately visible. Many large cruise ships dwarf the city buildings next to their docks, especially in Venice (above), but this is partly because so much of the infrastructure in many cities is located underground. Even in Venice, where construction doesn’t extend far below the surface due to the high water table, you might get a different view of the city if you could see all of the underground (or underwater) posts that keep the buildings from sinking beneath or floating away.**

These less visible infrastructures of cities also have their ephemeral side. I get made fun of when I travel because I spend an unreasonable amount of time taking pictures of maintenance hole covers, also known as manhole covers (top). The interesting thing about these covers in London, or at least near St. Pancras where these images were taken, is that they include a host of information and design that is evocative, if not technically useful any longer. Many have the names of their makers stamped into them. One of them dates itself to 1890, while another advertises telegraph lines that once lay, and maybe still lie, underneath. Putting names on access points to cable infrastructure is less surprising in a context where businesses advertise on city walls, like the Thomas B. Treacy funeral home we spotted in Islington (above).

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Some of the cables that run through these metal covers come out into the open along transportation lines. Similar cables are visible along the tracks on the Docklands Light Railway (above left), pointing to the interdependence of communications and transportation, as Simone M. Müller and Heidi J.S. Tworek have argued. The organization of cables for transmitting information has been extended to the organization of information itself. Shannon Mattern has looked at knowledge infrastructures of a kind that are made very visible in the British Library (above right), where the center of the building is dominated by clear stacks of highly visible, and even mobile. But the books themselves aren’t easily accessible. They are well preserved to be sure, so their materiality is not ephemeral. They are parts of stacks of information that is catalogued and organized. But they remain behind glass and are unavailable for the kinds of ephemeral attachments that were long associated with libraries, like for example absent-mindedly picking a book off a shelf and flipping through it. Like coming into contact with information without registering for an account and logging in.

Still other kinds of infrastructures are not governed by material artifacs, although their memories might be inscribed in them as palimpsests. Speaking of the relationship between communications and trade under capitalism, we also stopped by the Museum of the Order of St. John. The knights of St. John were a military and religious order during the crusades, and they later were kicked out of the Levant, ending up in Cyprus and Malta, and eventually back in England. They took a more cosmopolitan view of their missionary role, as is clear in this quotation from the museum wall, attributed to Fulcher of Chartres in 1108 CE:

We used to be Westerners; now we are Easterners. You may once have been a Roman or a Frenchman; here, and now, you are a Galilean or a Palestinian.

In case this sounds too friendly, it’s important to remember that their goals was to spread Christianity through military conquest. They also served, in some ways as the antecedents of today’s military contractors and cosmopolitan financial elite. In contrast to the attempts to build durable infrastructures of walls and colonial states, they and other related orders were the adaptable vanguard, thoroughly international and even global, who built relationships and laid down practices and routes that made violent conquest possible. Not unlike militaries that build schools and other humanitarian service infrastructure, historically the Order of St. John was known for building hospitals, and today the organization publicizes their humanitarian mission, training people in first aid and disaster response.

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This brings me to the final example of ephemeral/durable infrastructure, which is the “Laerdal model” that was long used to train responders in resuscitation, or CPR (above). The head above dates to the 1960s. It was molded from the death mask of an unidentified girl who drowned in the river Seine. Her head model has become a part of a circulating infrastructure of training and practices that have saved uncountable lives. Even so, it’s disturbing to think of how many people’s mouths have touched these resuscitation dummies of someone who never knew the purposes to which her body’s likeness would be put. Her likeness is ephemeral in the sense that others have replaced it on the dummies themselves, but it’s durable both in its materials, and because its circulation enabled the spread and continued use of CPR. In addition to the names of businesses on brick walls and round metal covers on the ground, it’s also another way that a kind of individuality was added to the often invisible and anonymous infrastructures that channel both bodies and words.


*Side notes: I debated whether to show the image of the resuscitation dummy at all, and I wasn’t able to verify or find the credit for the embedded image of the cruise ship in Venice. Other than the photo of the cruise ship, I took all of the images in this post.

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