By Paul Trauttmansdorff & Nina Klimburg-Witjes
Making sense of infrastructures of in/security
Transnational infrastructures are today envisioned and promoted as solutions to various kinds of security risks and threats, in areas such as border management, surveillance, cyber-crime, or health diplomacy. At the same time, the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed once more the multiple controversies, problems and disfunctions around health, data and diplomatic infrastructures, through which European states seek to tackle insecurities brought by the virus. For example, when explaining its so-called “Security Union Strategy”, the European Commission argued that a “constantly changing security landscape” would require “tools, infrastructure and environment in which national authorities can and do work together effectively to tackle shared challenges”. (1)
During the online workshop Making Europe Through Infrastructures of In/Security (12-13 November 2020), an interdisciplinary group of scholars attended to infrastructures in the context of European policies and discourses of in/security. (2)The ubiquity and pervasiveness of security in our contemporary societies requires us to explore how infrastructures relate to the realities and imaginations of threat and risk as well as to the politics of fear and economies of insecurity. So, what exactly can or cannot be counted as an infrastructure of in/security? And, when is an infrastructure of in/security (cf. Star & Ruhleder, 1996)? When we organized this workshop, we wanted to probe into the multiple legacies and envisioned futures of infrastructures in and for Europe, as objects of political desire and promise (Larkin, 2013). At the same time, we found it important to revisit how infrastructures of in/security configure political practices and social values, include and exclude certain groups of users, as well as enact “Europe”, a concept that is essentially “contested and unclear” (Schipper & Schot, 2011, p. 205).
Materiality, Plasticity, Multiplicity
In five thematic sessions and a public panel discussion, the workshop thus set out to explore the relations and organized practices of infrastructures of in/security that are made through and for Europe. We discussed how their mutually constitutive relationship can be mobilized to unpack current technopolitical developments and the contemporary constitution and topographies of Europe. In inspiring conversations, infrastructures were analyzed as sites that both materially embed and reconfigure power relations, while signifying and encoding future(s) of in/security. The conversations during the workshop reflected the many ways in which infrastructures of in/security are designed, envisioned and assembled, and how infrastructures can (or must!) be thought of in their multiplicity to decode what is assumed to be “European”. Although we cannot do justice to all the different objects, agents and sites of security infrastructures that were presented and discussed, we like to briefly highlight two core themes that came up at the workshop.
First, how infrastructures draw together both material practices and social imaginations of (in)security, and allow to explore processes and practices of making Europe in their “conceptual plasticity and […] undeniable materiality” (Carse, 2016, p. 35). This became especially visible in contributions that dealt with the various transnational border and migration infrastructures, such as the ongoing buildup and technological expansion of biometric databases for the surveillance of migrants. Several presentations pointed to the massive material and social investments, at both local and transnational level, that aim to create and maintain “European” border infrastructures. Various “agents of infrastructuring”, from policy officials, agency representatives, maintenance and repair workers, to private industry actors, must here be continuously aligned, molding and altering infrastructure, to govern these machineries of inclusions and exclusion. In her talk at the Panel Discussion, Annalisa Pelizza enhanced this view by describing the data-based management of third-country populations on the move as contemporary forms of alterity processing. The identification and classification of “others” would hereby co-constitute emergent European orders, thus representing an arena in which the process of “infrastructural Europeanism” (Schipper & Schot, 2011) plays out in multiple and contested ways.
The workshop contributions also touched upon plenty of other large-scale infrastructures of in/security: the assembling of rockets, the making of cloud infrastructures, or the re-making of biosecurity facilities, which reflect broader visions and processes of European technopolitics and European (dis)integration. As Johan Schot argued in his keynote at the Panel Discussion, like the transnational construction of roads or railways, they contribute to the emergence of infrastructural Europeanism in the age of security. But they can also decenter powerful players such as the European Union by front-staging the multiple organizations, rules, procedures, standards across Europe (Kaiser & Schot, 2014, p. 4).
This brings us to a related, second observation: infrastructures might reveal what John Law might call “collateral Europes” (cf. Law, 2011)—its multiple reality as composed by distinct routines, discursive practices, material artifacts and institutions. Contributions at the workshop thus also drew our attention for example to the making of alternative infrastructures that contest or challenge both the social and material infrastructures of the state. Practices of infrastructuring, in this sense, do not have to simply power, but can also act as a way of placemaking that challenges, re-imagine and reconfigure hegemonic spaces. Almost inevitably, they pose the question on how infrastructures also enact alternative Europes. Inspiring discussion thus centered around the manifold attempts of “making Europe” in diverse infrastructural arrangements. In her keynote on infrastructures of non-knowledge, Claudia Aradau pushed this conversation further by proposing to add the vocabularies of disjunction, disconnection and decomposition in order to our established conceptual repertoire of assemblage, re-configuration, composition or association. To disjoin or to decompose infrastructure is not to exclude, destroy, eliminate or neutralize, as Aradau stated. The prefix ‘dis’ or ‘de’ can mean to render ‘apart’ or ‘asunder’. By rendering error and fake asunder, by taking truth and authenticity apart, these infrastructural disjunctions might then produce new hierarchies and social orders.
New old questions?
Throughout the workshop, some familiar questions recurred, proving once more relevant for future research on infrastructures of in/security. A much-debated issue concerned the visibility and invisibility of infrastructures. Much work in STS has not only illuminated the tendency of infrastructures to fade into the background and silently perform boundary and classification work, but also how infrastructures can become present and come to the fore, being exposed as grand public spectacles or technological failure. But what is our own role as scholars in rendering infrastructures of in/security visible, and when we define, trace, and criticize them in our work? An interdisciplinary gathering of scholars such as this one can pose these questions, but only provisionally reflect on them. What are the binding elements of this chain of association Europe—Infrastructure—In/Security, and how does our work contribute to these links and/or disconnections?
Infrastructures of in/security, explored as “dense social, material, aesthetic, and political formations” (Anand, Appel, & Gupta, 2018, p. 3), moreover allowed us to critically reflect on “Europe” and on the various moments, in which what is “European” either becomes visible or is silently inscribed into technologies and practices. As integral parts of today’s European technopolitics, infrastructures of in/security are as much sediments of the past as they are articulations of desired futures. We believe that a promising approach to unpack the different visions and realities of Europe that these infrastructures of in/security entail is to think of what Annemarie Mol (2002) described as “ontological politics”. (3) Infrastructures must thereafter permanently envisioned, performed or enacted, at heterogenous sites, places, and times, in need of constant negotiation and coordination. How and when does infrastructure stand for and materialize what visions and technopolitics of “Europe”? When do infrastructures of in/security contribute to linking and de-linking certain versions of Europe? Two days are never enough to arrive at answers to these questions but the workshop made it clear once more that there are promising avenues to be explored through interdisciplinary conversations on infrastructures of in/security.
Find here a video of the keynote presentations during the panel discussion.
(2) This workshop was jointly organized by the Department of Science & Technology Studies, the Department of Political Sciences and the Department of Sociology of the University of Vienna, in the interdisciplinary framework of the program “Knowledge, Materiality, and Public Spaces” of the faculty of social sciences. We would like to thank the participants for their thought-provoking papers and presentations during the workshop. We would also like to thank Annalisa Pelizza, Claudia Aradau and Johan Schot who gave the keynotes for a Panel Discussion, as well as Ulrike Felt for her moderation and role as discussant.
(3) In her book The Body Multiple, Mol attends to how different versions of atherosclerosis, different versions of this particular object, are handled in hospital practice. By showing how the different enactments of an object in different parts of the world need constant coordination to become a coherent object.
Anand, N., Appel, H., & Gupta, A. (2018). The Promise of Infrastructure (N. Anand, H. Appel, & A. Gupta, eds.). Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Carse, A. (2016). Keyword: Infrastructure: How a humble French engineering term shaped the modern world. In P. Harvey, C. B. Jensen, & A. Morito (Eds.), Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Companion (pp. 27–39). https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315622880
Kaiser, W., & Schot, J. (2014). Writing the Rules for Europe. Experts, Cartels, and International Organizations. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.
Larkin, B. (2013). The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annu.Rev. Anthropol., 42, 327–343. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-092412-155522
Law, J. (2011). What ’ s Wrong with a One – World. Heterogeneities, 1–14.
Mol, A. (2002). The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. In Medical Anthropology Quarterly (Vol. 18). https://doi.org/10.1525/maq.2004.18.4.520
Schipper, F., & Schot, J. (2011). Infrastructural Europeanism, or the project of building Europe on infrastructures: An introduction. History and Technology, 27(3), 245–264. https://doi.org/10.1080/07341512.2011.604166
Star, S. L., & Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information Systems Research, 7(1), 111–134. https://doi.org/10.1287/isre.7.1.111
Nina Klimburg-Witjes is a post-doc researcher at the Department of Science & Technology Studies, University of Vienna. In her work at the intersection of STS and Critical Security Studies, she explores the role of technological innovation and knowledge practices in securitization processes, with a particular focus on sensors, infrastructures and space technologies. Tracing the entanglements between industries, political institutions, and users, Nina is interested in how visions about sociotechnical vulnerabilities are co-produced with infrastructures of in/security. Among her recent publications is the edited volume “Sensing In/security – Sensors as Transnational Security Infrastrcutures” together with Geoffrey Bowker and Nikolaus Poechhacker (forthcoming 2021). The book investigates how sensors and sensing practices enact regimes of security and insecurity. It extends long standing concerns with infrastructuring and emergent modes of surveillance by investigating how digitally networked sensors shape practices of securitization.