PRINT March 2015


Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft

Promotional rendering for King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia, 2014.

Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, by Keller Easterling. London and New York: Verso, 2014. 252 pages.

KELLER EASTERLING’S Extrastatecraft is the latest installment in her vitally important ongoing analysis of the rapidly changing physical and political landscapes of twenty-first-century capitalism. Over the past decade and a half, the prolific Easterling has undertaken substantive studies of this subject through a rapid-fire set of essays, lectures, and books. Earlier volumes—such as Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades (2005)—mined a heterogeneous archive of critical theory, architectural history, and political economy, mapping these fields onto a series of modern commercialized landscapes, from the nineteenth-century metropolis to contemporary corporate campuses and chain resorts. The result is something like a detournement of the voyage pittoresque, in which Easterling’s travelogues produce novel and highly charged reinterpretations of seemingly banal or empty spaces on the map. Subsequent entries, including the substantive 2007 essay on the United Arab Emirates in the journal Perspecta from which Extrastatecraft takes its central concept and title, and more recent manifestos on techniques for reformatting the basic terms and spatial tropes of real estate development, such as Subtraction (2014), have continued to develop this method.

Throughout her work, Easterling’s mastery of multiple rhetorics (including that of the theater, an early crucible for her intellectual and aesthetic formation) has aided her in providing a vital alternative to tired debates about architecture’s putative “autonomy” or “agency.” These debates are the product of a recurring anxiety within architectural culture about the individual architect’s waning influence: When most urban plans, most buildings, most products—along with most political struggles, wars, and governance—all administered without the aid of architects, what is to be done? With sincere sympathy for the plight of the architect, but with its own inimitable spin, Easterling’s work decisively moves the question of the contemporary relevance of architecture out of the cloistered studio and into the spaces and apparatus of contemporary global capital. Such a new form of engagement demands that architects, urbanists, and political activists of all stripes work collaboratively to develop a heterogeneous and flexible set of tools for understanding subjects once thought beneath the notice or at least outside the remit of the artist-intellectual.

This is not to say that there is an inconstancy to Easterling’s unusual methods; on the contrary, Extrastatecraft marks her most explicit and synthetic statement yet about how to make sense of the complex contemporary phenomenon so often simplistically labeled “globalization.” Today, this all too familiar term is little more than a catchall to describe everything from the expanding reach of multinational corporations and NGOs to the erosion of state authority to the rapid obliteration of cultural specificity by generic architectural and urban typologies, normalizing economic practices, and universal ecological crisis. By eschewing the tendency toward a language of abstraction that obscures complex and disparate circumstances, and instead taking such phenomena seriously as the concrete effects of equally concrete political and aesthetic programs, Easterling not only reveals the magical strangeness of such realities but also opens up new strategies and tactics of response. Indeed, one of her most refreshing achievements here is to clear away the mythological bluster that continues to characterize what she terms “left or right politics [or] the politics of resistance” in favor of an attitude simultaneously more cynical and more utopian. The book, which pulls together materials from a rich panoply of her shorter essays, lectures, studio courses, and theory seminars, assembling them alongside insightful glosses of pivotal primary materials and secondary literature, is a primer for the thoughtful negotiation of the brave new world in which both professionals and academics find themselves working today. That the reader—particularly the art historian, architect, urban planner, or real estate agent to whom much of the book’s generous pedagogical energy is directed—may be caught off guard by his or her own ignorance of the machinations of global capital’s various actors is but a side effect of an otherwise healing tonic.

All of which is to say that Easterling emphatically refuses to take the temptingly lazy approach, which would be to address globalization by simply lampooning its symptoms, such as the empty mantras of corporate discourse, or decrying its effects, such as the outrageous moral injustices of labor practices in so-called free economic zones. (Indeed, those well-known critics who play these games—and who meanwhile traverse the globe in business class on the lavish-honorarium gravy train, such as Saskia Sassen, Mike Davis, and Manuel Castells—come in for some harsh, if respectfully oblique, criticism here.) Instead, she makes the ascetic and correct (if apparently perverse) move of engaging analytically with the toxic combination of inane babble and blithely exploitative transnational power plays in an attempt to determine how the world actually works and, more important, what, if anything, we ought to do about it.

This difficult task involves direct analysis of the various spatial products of global capital, or what Easterling calls “infrastructure space.” Extrastatecraft is organized around three broad case studies: the rapid proliferation of the “Free Trade Zone” (FTZ, or “Zone” in her shorthand); the expansion of broadband wireless networks in the “developing” world, particularly Africa; and the increasingly global and intimately biopolitical reach of the International Organization for Standards (ISO), which is responsible for establishing and regulating standards applying to everything from the measurements of shipping containers and credit cards to the organization of monetary systems and administrative methods. As Easterling points out, each of these cases exists at the intersection of “transportation, communication, management, trade, and development networks.” All also operate across national borders and beyond the reach of traditional structures of political control—hence the extra of the volume’s title. Both regulators and the (willing or unwilling) regulated require a model of political power that exceeds conventional definitions of state power in order to effect change in such a world.

It is on this last point that Extrastatecraft offers its most provocative and perhaps problematic statements. Bracketed by a short introduction and a shorter afterword, each of the six chapters—“Zone,” “Disposition,” “Broadband,” “Stories,” “Quality,” and the summary entry “Extrastatecraft”—follows a similar narrative arc. First, Easterling reintroduces the reader to a given example of infrastructural development. Its core, often hopelessly banal qualities are described. Then begins the real work of denaturalizing this entity through a sequence of breathtakingly efficient historical analyses (the reader desirous of an in-depth account will need to consult the footnotes and their referents, as Easterling wears her erudition lightly in favor of pressing the story forward), followed by an examination of it as a political instrument deployed toward multiple and possibly contradictory ends. The text then arrives at Easterling’s main point, which is to explore alternative forms of subverting these strange new zones by deconstructing the latent Manichaeanism of conventional political thought.

Avoiding traditional geopolitics, which is inevitably constructed around military metaphors (such as the current perplexing injunction to provide Ukraine with “lethal aid”), Easterling outlines a different dynamic: “The aggressions within infrastructure space often occur with no defining moments and no satisfying declaration of an enemy. The consequential evidence may be found in the innocuous details—an invisible buildup of neglect or a silent form of attrition. Avoiding binary dispositions, this field of activity calls for experiments with ongoing forms of leverage, reciprocity, and vigilance to counter the violence immanent in the space of extra-statecraft.” Indeed, Easterling’s chapter on “Quality” not only skewers the vapid gurus, logic, and jargon of management consulting but also draws on highly original research in the social sciences to provide architects and urbanists with a new critical purchase on the ISO and its attendant NGO-industrial complex. Per Easterling, the ISO is not just a regulatory agency administering an extrastate biopolitical regime in or against the interest of a global public but a slippery body that oozes progressive rhetoric even as it serves as a “multiplier” of transnational corporate networks and FTZs, allowing them to “spread” and grow.

In the face of such duplicitous actors and amoral institutions, Easterling argues, it is necessary to monkey with the very “spatial software” that they produce. Precisely because of the gap between what institutions say and what they do, designers and critics of all stripes have an opportunity to rewrite the various fictive texts—reconfiguring the geometric logics of real estate development (rezoning the Zone, one might say) or reprogramming management dogmas—that the author sees as the operating systems running the hardware of global capitalism. Such work can provide concrete images of other possible worlds. The strongest chapter in the book, “Stories,” delves deeply into such fictions, yielding one of the most satisfying and terrifying summaries of the inadequacies of rational discourse in the face of capitalism since Adorno and Horkheimer wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment that “the task of cognition does not consist in mere apprehension, classification, and calculation, but in the determinate negation of each immediacy.” But Easterling’s analysis also holds out the promise of reprogramming our putatively rationalist machinery, and perhaps finding a more humane politics in the process. If there is a shortcoming to this excellent book, it is that the precise mechanics and moral principles of this new and experimental spatial software never come into crystalline focus. But most readers, I imagine, will view the fact that there is no ready solution as an important virtue of Extrastatecraft. There are two additional comforts: that Easterling is still on the case, and that there is more to come.

John Harwood is an associate professor of modern and contemporary architectural history at Oberlin College in Ohio.