Shannon Mattern on Scaffolding + Infrastructures

I really enjoyed Shannon Mattern’s essay. While reading it I realized that I know her from The New School’s Media Studies Dept. where I completed my first MA. Her bio is worth a read. She also was the MC for my commencement from the Media Studies program there — a truly lovely ceremony, complete with cap & gown & diploma handshake and my aunt who graduated from Hunter College in the 1940’s in attendance.

Shannon’s work is very complex, as the theoretical nature of this essay demonstrates. She’s very interesting to converse with as I’ve had the occasion to do.

Regarding the essay, I particularly like her closing academic pep talk about us as practitioners in our fields “transform[ing] criticality into generativity”. Her commencement address was similarly inspiring in tone.

I have many additional observations on this reading which I will add via editing this post.

Continuing on, Mattern advocates for DHers and our colleagues as “critical-creative practitioners” (a moniker I like) to go beyond the representation of infrastructure to the design of infrastructure [our]selves” so that we’re approaching infrastructure as a generative structure [which is] a framework for generating systems/environments/objects and cultivating individuals/communities that embody values we want to define in our society. (7)

This is a tall order organizationally speaking, but approachable on the individual level of our classrooms, projects, and as members of group projects.

I like how SM acknowledges the “entangled soft and hard infrastructures that often propel ‘making’ in our fields”, and lead to institutional forces that seek branded theories, methods and churn out grad students, like us, eager to discover the ‘new big thing’ via conferences, etc. and the “infrastructure” travel these require with its inherent sustainability sub-issues of fuel, jet fuel, diesel, electricity, and the environmental impact of these.

I also like how SM takes a bold step in acknowledging that liberal conceptions of labor, knowledge, and taste that many theoretical and aesthetic movements “actually embody” often fail to match up to their professed politics. The legendary waste in the fashion and film industries, while many of its leading design professionals and celebrity consumers profess to be “green” and/or shame others in different industries is an outrageous form of hypocrisy.

Therefore, I think keeping “infrastructional ecology” in mind is indeed a great motivating force for us DHers as “critical-creative practitioners” to contribute practices that embody a political economy aligned with the liberal values of our chosen field’s theories. Maybe this is the “NEXT new big thing….?”

2 thoughts on “Shannon Mattern on Scaffolding + Infrastructures

  1. Dax Oliver

    Carolyn, I also liked Mattern’s comments about how the politics of infrastructure sometimes contradict the politics of finished products. It makes me think of the surprise and reflection that occurred when the abuses in Apple’s overseas factories were first made widely known.

    1. Carolyn A. McDonough Post author

      Dax, thank you for mentioning Apple. Mattern is quite courageous, in my opinion, in encouraging us as practitioners to look toward such contradicting abuses, and does so without “naming names”. It’s tricky business because we all have some level of carbon footprint involvement, so while none of us can be 100% critical, we can work toward raising awareness as Mattern does. For example, the fashion industry drives me nuts because I appreciate the artistry and history of fashion but hate what it has become and its anti-ethos (my phrase) of disposable consumer culture. I attended the GC Presents Disrupting Fashion event, and to the panel’s credit, they led off the discussion with the specific example of Burberry, Britain’s largest luxury label by sales, revealing in its July 2018 annual report that it had burned 28.6 million pounds (as in PHYSICAL pounds, not currency pounds) or about $37 million, of clothing and cosmetics, but that it will stop this “brand protection” practice. Talk about being a slave to fashion. The brand has enslaved itself to the vicissitudes of trend and fad. DISGUSTING. BEYOND OUTRAGEOUS. But then, the discussion went right into the ongoing excesses of fashion via a vis the panelist’s projects, interests and artistic possessions, many of which, it is almost embarrassing to write, are openly wasteful with the sole objective of creating something “cool” for a celebrity.

      I really try to point such egregious contradictions out to my students and my daughter, so that their eyes are open as consumers, and I’m very glad that Burberry will stop burning clothes. I hope H&M will follow suit (all pun).

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