- Russell ColdicuttRussell ColdicuttDuke University PhD Candidate, Department of English
Infrastructure is the artificial foundation on which any form of social life depends. When it works well, infrastructure fades into the background of social interactions as though a feature of the landscape, at once obvious and invisible, that runs on its own. Composed of the technologies and systems responsible for extracting and distributing resources, infrastructure provides human populations with the materials they need in order to make a living and reproduce their way of life. Although it often blends into the natural environment, infrastructure’s technological domination of space facilitates and directs flows of people, objects, and information within this space and, in this sense, completely displaces nature. It does so by choreographing the movement of human actors within the space it governs, limiting what these actors can see, hear, or feel, and often preventing them from sensing how that space controls their movement. So defined, infrastructure refers not only to the roads, conveyances, pipes, and fiber-optic cables that distribute goods, services, information, and pleasure to a population but also to the production of the very categories that identify those units of information as either people or things. As it limits what information a person gathers in the way of experience and how they organize it, infrastructure imposes those same limits on the lives people imagine for themselves as opposed to others. This means that infrastructural control extends well beyond an individual’s personal experience to manage the cultural abstractions and fictional narratives available to that individual not only for making sense of this world but also for imagining alternatives to it. Hence its importance for literary studies.
Infrastructure has always shaped the way that literature is produced. In addition to the infrastructures that contribute to a literary work’s production—from the printing presses to the global supply chains that connect readers with books—literary form also provides texts with their own narrative infrastructure. Consider the novel’s dependence on specific formal conventions to unfold a world around a representative human character over time and through space, so that readers will recognize that narrative as a novel. Such a narrative must create an artificial space where characters interact according to the protocols governing any number of modern spaces. This artificial infrastructure space must exercise control over the unfolding of a plot that ensures its (even inverse) homology to the infrastructure that limits the historical time and space in which the novelist writes. Insofar as the Bildungsroman and domestic fiction both divided the 19th-century reader’s world into public and private spheres that could interact dialectically, its narrative infrastructure supported the interrelated routines of production and reproduction. Alternatively, a novel or other literary text will test the reigning infrastructure to expose the means by which it governs human behavior. One witnesses this in novels written during the early 21st century, many of which are intent on showing how a complex layer of technological infrastructure and extranational regulations work in tandem to turn certain locations into powerful zones for the production of capital.