Positions - Ross Exo Adams - Becoming-Infrastructural


Ross Exo Adams

Philippe Rahm, The Hot Death, 2006.

October 2017

It is hard to imagine how the many ruptures that have occurred in the composition of whatever may be called “normality” today do not render canonical architectural knowledge a distant constellation, receding from our present. Nor is it difficult to see how such ruptures are themselves a stern reminder of our need for new forms of knowledge altogether—forms that reject the assurances of a professionalized architectural discourse, and that call instead for a new horizon of common, intersectional and necessarily partisan modes of inquiry. For, what do the ongoing events of climate change, the displacement of peoples across the surface of the earth, the emboldening of racist violence, or the neocolonial plunder of the natural world have in common if not an emerging struggle over how the figure of the human in the world is to be understood?

The figure of the human body has played a consistent role throughout history in both the way space is imagined and how power finds its form. There is a history, yet to be written, in which key representations of the human body at once call into existence and justify certain modes of government while simultaneously suggesting ideal ways to organize the spaces of the world. Yet representations of the body that dominate any given period not only offer an ideal: they must also conceal secrets by which the masses of real, fleshy bodies may be governed; they must at once offer an exemplary figure and its inherent flaw or defect—both a universal truth to guide bodies and a ubiquitous site of intervention through which to coerce them.1 This is also a spatial matter: if the body can suggest certain inherent principles of justice and order by which to best organize human life, the body will inevitably inscribe itself into the spaces, architectures, and worlds of human experience. Representations of the human body, we might say, are coded diagrams that collect certain knowledges of the human condition in order to grant access to the ways in which power and space intersect.

Sketches from the Trattato di Architettura, Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1470).

Such a schematic history may begin with the many ancient traditions of depicting the body as a divine replica—a metaphor central to early modern political epistemologies, where its various parts and proportions could lend themselves to an overall order of the state in what Jacques Le Goff has called a “political physiology.”2 This model has offered itself to countless social orders and hierarchies across cultures. The body of the early Christian world, for example, torn between its resemblance to God and its mortal fate as a sinful prison for the soul, offered a model that could instruct, respectively, the organization of the Church (as Christ’s body) and the construction of a pastoral government. The exiled, mortal, eternally flawed body nevertheless revealed ideal geometries, proportions, and orders that could in turn be extracted as a kind of divine blueprint, giving itself as a model for architectural plans, fortified cities, and states.

This history would show how this paradigm of the body, whether a supreme metaphor, divine model, or vessel of the eternal, maintained its persuasive consistency until well into the eighteenth century when, challenged by a new epistemological horizon, it began to wane. The body that would appear in its place, no longer seeking its reflection in the perfection of the divine, emerges instead as a map of imperfections. By the nineteenth century, the body is seen as constantly in need of correction, which, through a new faith invested in technology, opens itself both to technology and as a technology itself. Eadweard Muybridges’ motion studies, for example, are just as much the mechanical documentation of the body within a large photographic apparatus as they are the depictions of the body itself as a mechanical object. This odd dichotomy would reverberate across the body’s new biological composition, giving rise to, on one hand, a body likened to a machine and, on the other, one that exposes new vulnerabilities as a member of a species, visible through new attributes (race, ethnicity, gender, the site of reproduction, and disease, etc).3 Idealized as an atom of individuality and charged with specific capacities for economic exchange, moral self-control of sexual exchange, and the like, it is a body invested with new epistemological capacities to speak, on the one hand, in the abstract (as a measure) and, on the other, as a biologically and psychologically penetrable surface, constantly exposed to its own defects. Precisely in this gap we see a radically new mode of government install itself in response to this new topography of the human condition, inserting its techniques in the new instabilities seen to reside in the bodies that now “freely” circulate throughout the state.

This new representational regime replaced divine metaphors for biological ones (organisms, organs, systems) as the tools that mediate a new relation between body, space and governance. The systematic coherence that emerges over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is unprecedented in part because it develops itself as a non-representational scheme—a form of power embedded in space that operates in and on life itself.4 The name for such a space-power for Ildefonso Cerdá was urbanización, a term he coined in 1861.5 As life in the nineteenth century was awakening to its new biological visibility and capitalist vitality, the urban would become its perfect spatial counterpart—a machine of machines that both appends the body and creates new relations of dependency—something captured in, for example, the way Cerdá inverts the calculation of density to the amount of “urbe” needed per body.6 For it to exist as such, human life now seemed to require this new universal, bio-economic space to support it. Its unprecedented expansion across the surface of the planet over the span of just two centuries stands as a testament not to capitalism or technology but to a regime of the body that naturalizes both.

Ildefonso Cerdá, Plan Cerdá (detail, showing eixample), Barcelona, Ildefonso Cerdá (1859).

To call for such a history is, of course, an indictment of the present—an attempt to illuminate the preconditions of our moment that allow us to anticipate how the codes of the human body may once again be shifting. For my part, I believe that such a shift in the relations between body, power, and space is evident in a new mode of urbanism: so-called “resilient urbanism.” Resilient urbanism is essentially smart city urbanism having come of age in the era of climate crisis. If the smart city’s techniques aimed to optimize the city, resilient urbanism would adopt these techniques to manage crisis, conceiving the city and its surrounding environment as a single expansive space of data to be monitored and intervened upon in real time.7 Yet what makes resilient urbanism unique may have less to do with the technologies it deploys than in the cumulative effect they have on the bodies they organize: unlike its twentieth century counterparts, resilient urbanism situates one of its innovations in making-infrastructural the body. The body, in other words, is now a primary site of urbanization.

Resilient Bodies

Though impossible to locate precisely, the origins of resilient urbanism dwell amidst the Cold War cult of individualism in America and the simultaneous emergence of the environmental movement. In this space, a motley assortment of voices—from the bourgeois liberalism of a Jane Jacobs to the military-funded technopositivism of second-order cybernetics—coherent only in their rejection of modernist planning, would unwittingly set out the axes on which a radically new approach to urbanism could be plotted. Resilient urbanism today exists as a network of interests connecting an array of non-governmental initiatives with a host of new courses and degrees offered in top schools of design all aligned with a new attitude in governmental policymaking. It is perhaps captured most clearly in the Rockefeller-fueled mega-project, Rebuild by Design (RBD), currently under way in the greater NYC region.

SCAPE Landscape Architecture, “Zone 4: Oyster-Tecture,” New York City (2010).

On its surface, RBD seems to respond to a certain tendency today of localist, community-oriented, DIY design. It appears very “bottom-up,” open-source and, in general, quite happy. It embraces the existing spaces and practices of everyday life in NYC, while conceiving of its interventions as protection against extreme weather. There are in total ten different projects that stretch a collective site along the greater NYC coastal region, all of which embrace strategies that in one way or another construct new relations between urban life and water. Opening urban design as a collaborative effort between architects, marine ecologists, climate scientists, and, tellingly, insurance experts, design becomes less a question of transforming space than of augmenting it—giving it over to new uses, exposing coastal areas to new activities, finding hidden opportunities for a “hopeful” eco-urban life to take root in the spaces that Sandy’s destruction inadvertently revealed.8 Further, there is a clear agenda to rewrite the human relation to nature as one of entanglement. Infrastructure, in this new conception of design—such as systems of flood mitigation and storm surge abatement—is to be designed with and inclusive of natural processes: no longer drawing a boundary separating society from nature, infrastructure now appears as the thing that brings the two together. In its most pronounced examples, infrastructure and nature become indistinguishable from one another in so-called “nature-based solutions.”9

Yet RBD is also a highly technological space. In as much as it blurs the boundary between infrastructure and nature, it also blurs the line between environment and technology. Indeed, resilient urbanism may be understood as the smart city retooled to mitigate the effects of climate crisis. In this sense, it expands the application of ubiquitous sensing to include the monitoring of and communication between natural ecologies of the NYC region. Nature-based infrastructures, much like their traditional urban counterparts, are now to be laced with networks of sensors and ubiquitous computing. Furthermore, RBD aims to expand its monitoring capacity by encouraging a culture of “ecological stewardship” to take root in the coastal communities throughout the New York City region. In total, the broad application of environmental sensing is an effort to transform an entire coastal region into a data-intensive and extensive site. As a mode of urbanism, its use of these infrastructures aims to integrate ecosystems and weather patterns through vast new algorithmic techniques of analysis and intervention.

While the full aim of making the NYC region “smart” is never stated directly, a number of proposals make clear that the combination of smart technologies with the eco-cybernetic, “nature-based solutions,” constitute a system of crisis management geared to guide bodies that inhabit the region in the event of crisis. Nature, bodies, and infrastructure are to be monitored continuously (what one team calls its “situation analysis”) in a space defined by its propensity to crisis. This is why almost all projects go to great lengths to integrate a lexicon and history of environmental crisis into the banality of everyday urban life, through placards marking out flood levels, apps, and displays that purport to monitor levels of risk in real time. Here, “stewardship” reveals another side: its other aim is to provide a vast new trove of data to be farmed at the interface of human life and ecology. When nature-based solutions are seen as data intensive infrastructures, their local practices of care double as techniques to expand the quantity of data that can be mined to correlate the uncertainties of human life and extreme weather as a means to manage both.10


Is it plausible to think that resilient urbanism could mark not only the emergence of a new body, but also assist in fundamentally altering the relations between power and space that traverse it? If the rise of the urban in the nineteenth century was a telling response to a new conception of the body, what sort of body might resilient urbanism reflect?

In order for the modern, deficient, exposed, and machinic body to be uniformly governed in the emergent horizon of biopower, space had to be universally transformed into a functional instrument. Yet for early urbanists like Cerdá or Haussmann, this was never given by an overt mandate: space, in other words, was not to be remade as an outcome and representation of some new power structure; rather, the construction of a new spatial order they contributed to would assist in providing a template on which a new, non-representational power-in-space could discover its techniques. For this reason, urbanization for Cerdá, Le Corbusier and many others, remained an ideal project—a “historical duty” of “mankind”—driven by an imperial urge to reify nature and modernize the world. This is perhaps most explicit in Cerdá’s work, in which urbanización is at once construed as the prehistoric root of humanity and its inevitable future.11 The teleological temporality in which the urbe is thought lends itself as a concrete program to “progress,” captured by the fact that the urban is also a process whose endpoint Cerdá eagerly imagined as a single urban space stretching across the planet. The body, both drawn into and dependent upon this space, as Cerdá’s work attests, is a bio-economic dividual, whose multiple divisions dutifully reflect those that organize the urbe.12 Both body and urbe are joined in their reduction to the binary functions of a capitalist world order—circulation and dwelling, economic accumulation and biological recuperation, waged consumption of labor power and its unwaged reproduction.13 This divided body finds its moral compass in the universal history that motivates the nineteenth century’s economic sociology and its desire to reconstruct the world as an ‘apolitical’ space of unlimited, planetary circulation. Yet far from apolitical, the body had become at once a universal measure of the urban and the object of its biopolitical techniques of normalization and control. At first this happened implicitly, as the nineteenth century architectures and infrastructures that were meant to immunize bodies from themselves, from nature, from disease and insurrection. Then, in the twentieth century, it became explicit in the work of Neufert, Neurath, Corbusier, Dreyfuss and others, in which the body became both a norm used to construct urban space and the irregular objects that the urban aimed to systematically correct.

Resilient urbanism clearly marks a departure from this history. Aesthetically, it rejects any of the aseptic spaces of twentieth century urbanism, or even the idea that space is being transformed, and instead embraces a non-modern attitude that affords romantic, nostalgic relations to a kind of found-object urban space. Its understanding of nature as edgeless and entangled—both process and resource—widens its object of design from the built environment to simply the environment. In this way, bodies, ecologies, and infrastructures become the vectors of a “natural,” distributed agency, suggesting a mode of governance no longer seen as external to life, but rather built into a participatory form of self-governance internal to the contours of social and natural complexity.14

But these observations only cover over a deeper shift. Indeed, what fundamentally marks a departure from the history of modern urbanism is the way in which resilient urbanism reimagines the body. The environment can only be taken as a site of intervention by, at the same time, suggesting a body ontologically internal to it, marked by its malleability and responsiveness to its environment across many scales. Its entangled, more-than-human relation to its environment thus opens the body up as a site of urban design. The expanded use of ubiquitous sensing technologies, as sociologist Jennifer Gabrys has written, unwittingly turns bodies of resilient urbanism into sensors operating within its cybernetic form of knowledge and algorithmic modes of control.15 No longer simply the subject of urban design, the body now doubles as its object—as infrastructure—making everyday life indistinguishable from its permanent technological modulation. Resilient urbanism, we could say, is the urbanization of the body.

Post-Historical Bodies

If modern urbanism implemented strategies that sought to eliminate the possibility of crisis, resilient urbanism, we can say, is a project that integrates crisis in its tactics; crisis is not something to exclude, but its very condition of possibility. Resilient urbanism is an urbanism of crisis management. The blurring of bodies, natures, and infrastructures reveals a power-in-space built not on standards, norms, or the rule of law, but as a means to engage crisis as its “reality,” a condition whose contours can be endlessly extracted from the incomprehensible quantities of data that now constitute the knowledge of the urban—a knowledge of effects without causes.16 By conceiving the body as a site of urbanization in a space made visible as an arena of crisis, resilient urbanism coincides with the birth of a post-historical body—a steward of complexity bound up in the machinic feedback of a nameless, invisible algorithmic governmentality.17

Bjarke Ingels Group, “Reverse Aquarium,” Rebuild by Design, New York City (2014).

In post-history, Vilém Flusser writes, “the present is the totality of the real.”18 If resilient urbanism corresponds to the emergence of a new form of governance, its effects cannot be due simply to its use of environmental sensing or its large-scale rollout of ICT infrastructures. What matters is rather how these technologies make legible a historical, social and political sensibility toward climate change, technology, nature, life, and politics, thus producing it as reality. The body of post-history is not a catalyst for this, but serves as both its representation and the diagram for its reproduction. This body, made visible in its eco-cybernetic urbanization, is no longer a site of infrastructural control, but infrastructure itself—a shift which profoundly inscribes crisis into the experience of everyday life. In the space of post-history, crisis is the metric of time, experienced as statistical thresholds of the unprecedented and displays of its endless unfolding for all to bear witness. Our exposure to post-historical time, as well as our bodies becoming-infrastructural, de-historicizes the human condition just as it depoliticizes climate change, presenting it as an inevitability for which a new, spectacular optics must be designed. In this space, the modern urgency to accelerate toward a universal, predestined future gives way to a static anxiety of an endless and totalizing present in which “stewardship” substitutes for political agency. Here, tendencies and speculation replace history and futurity and a new diaphanous body-of-effects emerges, coherent only as its digital shadow, registered by its flickering illumination in data space. Yet the experience of an endless present is also the endless production of future scenarios.19

The body of post-history, transparent and entangled, is thus also a permanent tourist of its own speculation, seduced by images that trade this for a future world ironically animated by fleshy, vibrant bodies brimming with love, intimacy, agency, and consequence—traits which may also reveal a new, somatic horizon of our coming political resistance.


In this regard, Michel Feher’s extraordinary work charting neoliberalism through a history of eroticism has been instructive in setting out this position. See his 2013-2015 lectures at Goldsmiths, “The Age of Appreciation: Lectures on the Neoliberal Condition,” .


Jacques Le Goff, “Head or Heart? The Political Use of Body Metaphors in the Middle Ages.” In: Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part III, Michel Feher ed. (New York: Zone Books, 1989): 12-27.


See, for example, Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor, Energy, fatigue and the origins of modernity (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992).


Ross Exo Adams, Circulation and Urbanization (London: Sage, 2017).


Ildefonso Cerdá, Cerdá: The Five Bases of Urbanization, Arturo Soria y Mata, ed. (Barcelona: Electa, 1999).


Ildefonso Cerdá, Teoría de la construcción de las ciudades aplicada al proyecto de reforma y ensanche de Barcelona y otras conexos (Madrid: Instituto Nacional de la Administración Pública and Ayuntamiento de Madrid, 1859) § 1500.


Some of the most insightful critical analyses of smart city urbanism can be found in Jennifer Gabrys, “Programming Environments: environmentality and citizen sensing in the smart city,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32:1 (2014). For an excellent look at its relation to cybernetic discourse, see Maros Krivy, “Toward a critique of cybernetic urbanism: The smart city and the society of control,” Planning Theory (April, 2016): 1–23.


See Orit Halpern, “Hopeful Resilience,” e-flux architecture (April 19, 2017), .


For more on the implications of nature-based solutions in the context of resilient urbanism, see Ross Exo Adams, “An Ecology of Bodies.” In: Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary (New York City/Zürich: Columbia Books on the Architecture and the City/Lars Müller Publishers 2016): 181–190.


See Rebuild by Design, “Policy by Design: Promoting Resilience in Policy and Practice” (June 2014), .


Ildefonso Cerdá, Teoría general de la urbanización (Madrid: Imprenta Española, 1867). See also Ibid., Adams (2017).


Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 3–7.


Ibid., Adams, (2017).


David Chandler, “Beyond neoliberalism; resilience, the new art of governing complexity,” Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses, 2:1 (2014): 47–63.


See chapters in section III of Jennifer Gabrys, Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016) 183-265.


Antoinette Rouvroy, “The end(s) of critique: data-behaviourism vs. due process.” In: Privacy, Due Process and the Computational Turn: The philosophy of law meets the philosophy of technology, Mireille Hildebrandt and Katja De Vries eds. (London: Routledge, 2013).


Antoinette Rouvroy, “Algorithmic Governmentality and the End(s) of Critique,” lecture, Society of the Query #2, Institute of Network Cultures, Hogeschool van Amsterdam (8 November 2013), .


Vilém Flusser, Post-History trans. Rodrigo Maltez Novaes (Minnesota: Univocal, 2013), 119.


Orit Halpern, Jesse LeCavalier, Nerea Calvillo and Wolfgang Pietsch, “Test-Bed Urbanism,” Public Culture, 25:2 (2013): 272–306.

Positions is an independent initiative of e-flux Architecture.

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Positions is an initiative by e-flux Architecture.

Ross Exo Adams is an architect, urban theorist and historian whose research looks at the history and politics of urbanization. He has published and presented widely at the intersections of architecture, geography, political theory and ecology. He is currently Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urban Theory at Iowa State University. He is author of Circulation and Urbanization, forthcoming from Sage.


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