Multispecies Infrastructures: A Starter Kit

Description

This starter kit brings two emergent fields into conversation: multispecies studies and critical infrastructure studies. What can they gain from each other? The two fields are natural allies in that they share the same agenda of decentering human exceptionalism. They break boundaries, smash hierarchies, and instigate radical futures. While multispecies studies seeks to reveal the knotty histories of how we “become with” other life forms, from gut bacteria to the garden snake, critical infrastructure studies aims to study our increasingly built environment of physical, material objects – “how we make them and how they make us” (cisstudies.org). The two fields adopt positions at the opposing ends of the spectrum to look back at human emergence. And yet, humans are not the only builders in the world. This starter kit takes seriously the infrastructural question: For whom? It asks: what are the creative and critical zones where the vital and the material meet each other? What happens in those zones? How can we leverage these fluid ontologies to coax into being more just futures?

The starter kit is meant to be provocative rather than exhaustive. It offers a few curated readings and objects to take the infrastructural and multispecies explorations forward. I begin with two ethnographic readings that frame the two lines of thought. They are followed by foundational readings curated around existing humanities disciplines to ensure broad interdisciplinary participation. Then I offer a gallery of objects – from mundane to the sublime – as a sort of online exhibition. Sometimes their infrastructural quality is obvious; at other times they demand an exercise of your infrastructural imagination.

Framing

Foundations

Critical Theory
  • Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991.
  • Jane Bennett, “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory 32, no. 3 (2004): 347-72.
Literature
  • Oswald, Alice. Dart. Gardners books, 2002.
  • Rubenstein, Michael, Bruce Robbins, and Sophia Beal. “Infrastructuralism: An Introduction.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 61, no. 4 (2015): 575-586. doi:10.1353/mfs.2015.0049.
Film and Media Studies
  • Cahill, James Leo. Zoological Surrealism: the Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
  • Parikka, Jussi. Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Peters, John Durham. “Of Cetaceans and Ships; or, The Moorings of Our Being.” In The Marvelous Clouds, 53-114. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
History
  • Innis, Harold A. (1930). The Fur Trade in Canada : an Introduction to Canadian Economic History. Toronto ; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
  • Roy, Rohan Deb. “An Introduction: Nonhuman Empires.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (2015) 35 (1): 66–75.
Anthropology
  • Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2015.
  • Helmreich, Stefan. Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2015.
Art History
  • Aloi, Giovanni. Speculative Taxidermy: Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and Art in the Anthropocene. New York : Columbia University Press, 2018.
  • Heise, Ursula. “From Arks to ARKive.org: Database, Epic, and Biodiversity.” In Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species. Oxford: OUP 2016.
Religious Studies
  • Mikhail, Alan. The Animal in Ottoman Egypt. Oxford: OUP, 2013.
  • Govindrajan, Radhika and Cassie Adcock. “Bovine Politics in South Asia: Rethinking Religion, Law, and Ethics.” South Asia: The Journal of South Asian Studies (2019): 1-13.

Gallery

Exhibit 1: Mundane Household Objects

These random objects are foraged from my house on a typical given day. They are richly multispecies and provoke infrastructural thinking. Where do they come from? How did they arrive at my house and in this exhibit? Where would they end their journeys?

Exhibit 2: The Rock Edicts and Pillars of King Ashoka
 English (translation)
 1. Ten years (of reign) having been completed, King
 2. Piodasses (Ashoka) made known (the doctrine of)
 3. Piety (εὐσέβεια, Eusebeia) to men; and from this moment he has made
 4. men more pious, and everything thrives throughout
 5. the whole world. And the king abstains from (killing)
 6. living beings, and other men and those who (are)
 7. huntsmen and fishermen of the king have desisted
 8. from hunting. And if some (were) intemperate, they
 9. have ceased from their intemperance as was in their
 10. power; and obedient to their father and mother and to
 11. the elders, in opposition to the past also in the future,
 12. by so acting on every occasion, they will live better
 13. and more happily." (Trans. by G.P. Carratelli) 

Bilingual (Greek and Aramaic) inscriptions by king Ashoka at Kandahar (Shar-i-kuna). 
(3rd century BCE). Preserved at Kabul Museum. 
Source: Imaging, World. "Greek and Aramaic inscriptions by king Ashoka." Ancient History Encyclopedia. 

The rock edicts and pillars of the South Asian emperor Ashoka (3rd Century BCE) provide a glimpse of an ancient multispecies imaginary through infrastructural inscriptions. They persist into the present through the modern Indian state’s adoption of the Ashoke Stambha (pillar) as national emblem and circulation through modern infrastructures of currency and postal stamps.

Exhibit 3: Literature and Infrastructures
Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium Sheet
Raskolnikov’s Dream
Mikhail Shemyakin, Raskolnikov’s Dream, illustration to “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1964. Pencil on paper.

Raskolnikov had a fearful dream. He dreamt he was back in his childhood in the little town of his birth. He was a child about seven years old, walking into the country with his father on the evening of a holiday. It was a grey and heavy day, the country was exactly as he remembered it; indeed he recalled it far more vividly in his dream than he had done in memory… Click to read the full dream

Coleridge’s Albatross
Engraving by Gustave Doré for an 1876 edition of the poem. “The Albatross” depicts 17 sailors on the deck of a wooden ship facing an albatross. Icicles hang from the rigging. Source: Wikimedia Commons

"At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.'

'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?'—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS."
Click to read the full poem
Shakespeare’s Bear
Source: Screenshot from Youtube. Shakespeare Factory, Exit Pursued by a Bear

“Farewell!
The day frowns more and more: thou’rt like to have
A lullaby too rough. I never saw
The heavens so dim by day. A savage clamour!
Well may I get aboard. This is the chase!
I am gone for ever.”
[Exit, pursued by a bear]

from The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene III, Lines 56-61, In The RSC Shakespeare, Ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. The Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007.
Read the full soliloqui of Antigonus here.

This exhibit features multispecies moments from canonical literary works to provoke object oriented and infrastructural thinking going beyond merely symbolic reading. They range from botanical preservation, to carriages, ships and navigation, and stage direction to encourage novel means of reading these canonical literary texts. 

Exhibit 4: The Great Silence

Screenshots from the video story “The Great Silence” written by Ted Chiang and filmed by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla juxtaposing parrot extinction and the Arceibo telescope in the Rio Abajo forests of Puerto Rico. See the full story/film here on Vimeo. 

Exhibit 5: Explore.org

Screenshots from Livecam viewing of animals from the website explore.org.

Exhibit 6: Building, Dwelling, Thinking

Built environments of nonhuman species. Images: Wikimedia Commons

Exhibit 7: Oceanic Soundscapes
Song of the Humpback Whale
Underwater Music, evoking – Ocean

From Stefan Helmreich’s Sounding the Limits of Life

Sonar

This exhibit creates a brief soundscape of the ocean through artistic and recorded sounds to provoke thinking about communicative infrastructures underwater for both humans and marine creatures. You can play them all together to have a medley effect that is often the ocean. It closes the gallery with a sense of the sublime to contrast with the mundane with which this exhibition began. 

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