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Tracés, n°35/2018

Tracés, n°35/2018

Infrastructures, techniques et politiques

Edited by François Jarrige, Stéphane Le Courant, Camille Paloque-Bergès


Infrastructures, technology and politics

Making a first appearance in the second half of the nineteenth century, the term « infrastructure » has surfaced again in a spectacular fashion at the dawn of the twenty-first century, due to globalization and ecological emergencies. There The semantic inflation may well testify of multiple efforts to rethink exiting infrastructures and understand new planning projects that emerge almost everywhere in the world. At the same time, there is a considerable increase in the scholarly use of the word, with a continuous flow of studies producing collections, specialized journals and research collectives around infrastructures as a central issue. In the Anglo-American world especially, Infrastructure studies and a series of « Infrastructural turns » have made a mark on the social sciences. However, there is a tendency to use the word in an abstract way to describe diverse realities and phenomena. If infrastructure usually refers a big-sized technological and material system supporting activities of circulation and networking – such as railway and automobile traffic, or, more recently, transfer of digital data –, the word still carries uncertainties and ambiguities about what it exactly refers to, as well as the concept it covers which is continuously questioned.

This issue of the Tracés journal is seeking to present and delimit today's uses of the word « infrastructures », starting with is material definition, as well as underlining, with a series of situated case studies, how infrastructural technical layouts, supposedly enduring, are associated with changing political and social issues. If articulating technics and politics is far from a new, today it is crucial to insist upon it in order to seize the infrastructural as an object of research again. While industrial, institutional, financial infrastructures of the Silicon Valley have become a model for numerous places around the world, while « smart cities » come with the spreading of new urban infrastructures for surveillance and control, human and social sciences cannot just comment upon the phenomenon: they have to explain it and show the concerns it raises. Thus, we will, in this issue, start with a minimal definition of infrastructures as something that structures societies materially, while staying aware of dimensions that could be viewed as immaterial at first sight, such as information and language. Indeed, reflecting critically about infrastructures requires understanding them in their informational and discursive context. Interrogating infrastructures helps thinking about how technopolitical configurations infer and produce social structures. As enduring technical structures – designed or thought of as such – not prone to immediate change and appropriation, infrastructures shape social uses and through this process, they materialize political programs. Keeping distance with the seeming neutrality of innovation carried by public powers and the discourse of technician ethics, this issue of Tracés aims at exploring the conditions and forms of constraints contained in technological infrastructures. The goal is to help reflecting on infrastructures in a perspective that tends to stay in the background: their instituting powers.