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Setting things in motion: body as infrastructure

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River of Fundament: Darjeeling, India. Image by author.

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It begins and ends with the body.
— Paul Rodaway, 1994, 31

If infrastructure is that which sets things in motion (1) surely bodies are, at their most fundamental, infrastructural. In fact, aren’t bodies the original information networks, electricity grids, sewers, and highways? Couldn’t it be said that cities are modelled on how bodies ‘work’? Erik Swyngedouw (2) takes the metaphor of metabolism to describe the city, but what happens if we do the reverse, what happens if we think about bodies as infrastructures?

Infrastructures have received a lot of attention recently in the social sciences, primarily from anthropologists, geographers, and political ecologists. Brian Larkin, an anthropologist at Columbia University describes infrastructures as “networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas” and that they “comprise the architecture for circulation" (3). Tied up in ideas of modernity, infrastructures have come to represent progress, as triumphs over Nature (capitalized here to suggest its “deceptive artificiality" (4), pushing things where we want them in order to continue to grow. Yet, according to Larkin, infrastructures are analytically unruly because they are simultaneously present to the senses, yet displaced in the focus on the matter that they move around. This displacement (or the intrinsic non-location of infrastructures) tells us something a little deeper about the nature of objects. Larkin hints at what this could be when he uses the verb infrastructural somewhat synonymously with the term causal, yet stops short of further exploration. For example, is a highway infrastructural if there are no cars to drive on it? Or is it just bitumen? Is a sewer infrastructural if there is no waste to flow through it? Or is it just a concrete cylinder? Is an electricity grid infrastructural if there is no electricity current traveling along it? Or is it just a web of copper wires? One particularly helpful way of thinking about causality, and by association infrastructures, is with the new materialist theory of object orientated ontology (OOO).

OOO, in an exercise that stretches the limits of logic even by those philosophers who incepted it and their followers, recognizes that objects are intrinsically withdrawn, “irreducible to their perception or relations or uses" (5) floating in a non-temporal non-local space that is everywhere and nowhere. Ecologist Timothy Morton argues that this is the realm of aesthetics, and that the realm of aesthetics is also the realm of causality. This is to say that the ways we (humans and all other things) specify objects, is not through the objects themselves but through the sense of an object. It is in the aesthetic, sensual realm that we experience causal influence. This space is non-temporal and non-local. For example, when a paleontologist discovers a dinosaur footprint from 65 million years ago, they are coexisting in a non-temporal, non-local, configurative space, through what Morton has termed interobjectivity (6) (though perhaps it should be called intraobjectivity). The paleontologist can influence the footprint and the footprint can influence them, “in a shared sensual space" (7). It is here, in this space, that art is practiced. Art is, as Morton states, the study of causality. It is the will and the patience to explore the rift between an object and the experience of an object. This cannot be done without a body.

Paul Rodaway (8) suggests that bodies are those things that provide access to the world beyond itself, and that they are essential to a geographic experience of the world. According to Rodaway, the human body gives us, in itself and in relation to the other senses (haptic, olfactory, auditory, visual and gustation), four key tools with which we make sense of the world: orientation, measure, locomotion, and coherence. These four tools could also be understood as geometry, scale, mobility, and structure. With these tools the body acts as a compass, a yardstick, a motor, and a system of parts to help us understand other systems and their parts. Everything we experience is shaped by these tools, and unlike an eye or an ear, these tools exist within and around us.  Thought of in this way, bodies become a lot more than just skin and organs. The body is the anchor to the aesthetic ship of life. The body holds onto memories, ideas, fears, desires, representations of who we were, who we are, and who we might be, bringing the past, present and future into sharper focus. It provides movement through time and space, both literally and contiguously through other objects. It enables sense and to be sensed. It is both an object and not an object. In other words, without a body, we don’t have art.

Thinking about the body as infrastructure helps us to think of bodies within an OOO framework. Within this framework bodies emerge as the sensuous objects that enable us to consider that what we call consciousness and what we call things, at the same time. The body is an object, an object that we are persistently within and removed from. The body is important to artistic practice because it transports us to the aesthetic (causal) realm. The body is art; a moving beacon of thoughts, pulses, fluids, electrons and emotions, that will, like the lighthouse (9), shine across the sea as a warning or an invitation.

Lighthouse. Image by author.
Lighthouse. Image by author.