Welcome to the seventeenth issue of The Funambulist. Borrowing a part of its title from a book I wrote seven years ago (Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence), Weaponized Infrastructure intends to examine the ways through which infrastructure is always (deliberately or not) serving political projects at a territorial scale. Settler colonialism, described in several geographical contexts throughout this issue, certainly constitutes such a project, and infrastructure usually acts as the first materialization of its violence on indigenous territory, before architecture itself. French General and colonial administrator Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934), often seen as a key strategist of French colonialism in Vietnam, Madagascar, and Morocco, is reported to have said “a construction project is worth a battalion” (1928). The articles written by Deborah Cowen (whose work strongly influenced the editorial line of this issue), Solveig Suess, Begüm Adalet and Zannah Mae Matson will make that clear in the respective contexts of Turtle Island, Central Asia, Kurdistan, and Colombia.
In the last few months, I took a bus about a dozen times between Philadelphia and New York on the New Jersey Turnpike — an aggressive name due to its tolls, but that we could understand in another way as we will see below. Each time, new elements, of what may be commonly interpreted as the monotonous and politically benign landscape of New Jersey’s industrial aesthetics, appeared as being fully part of a regional/national capitalist and militarized spatial apparatus: petroleum silos proudly reading “colonial pipeline,” gigantic Amazon warehouses in which exploited workers’ 10-mile daily walk is monitored and regimented by electronic sensors, an El Al Israeli plane protected by police cars on Newark airport’s tarmac, a New Jersey National Guard base with its vehicles ready to deploy, the so-called “Combat System Engineering Development Site,” in which the US Navy may have developed the missiles that exploded on Syrian ground the night before the photograph presented here was taken.
And then there’s the highway itself. Although preliminary designs for the New Jersey Turnpike were made in the 1930s, its construction started in the late 1940s in a historical context of Cold War-induced militarized and capitalist reorganization of the United States’ territory. Between 1936 and 1950, General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Trucks, and the Federal Engineering Corporation purchased the street cars and electric trains of 45 cities, proceeding to systematically destroying them in order to create an exclusive dependency on the automobile industry that these corporations represented. Later, in 1956, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, conceived by the Eisenhower administration, reinforced this dependency by constructing 41,000 miles of interstate highways. The fact that the words “Defense” and “Highways” are associated in the name of this legislation gives us an explicit vision of how infrastructure and military interests collide with various degrees of intentionality. Imagined as a way to spread the U.S. population
and resources at the scale of a country (see The Funambulist 2, Suburban Geographies, Nov-Dec. 2015), to facilitate the potential evacuation of cities in the context of nuclear warfare, and to enable a quick deployment of the National Guard, this new infrastructure implemented an effective territorial scheme blurring all differentiation between civil and military landscape.
At the scale of cities, infrastructure is another marker and enforcer of state violence. The deliberate lack of maintenance or access to the infrastructure of survival such as the one providing running water, as residents in Flint or Detroit, Michigan are currently experiencing is certainly a potent instance of such violence. Another consists in urban highways. Remaining in the U.S. context, these pieces of infrastructure have been documented for their historical role in social and racial segregation, as well as in the splintering of Black communities whose neighborhoods were split by such highways as it was in the case with State Route 40 in Baltimore (Johnny Miller, “Roads to nowhere: how infrastructure built on American inequality,” 2018). Highways maximize the movement of a selected population — in particular the white suburban middle and wealthy classes working in city centers — while simultaneously constituting a significant obstacle to all movement perpendicular to its own, thus acting as a form of wall or urban canyon.
What then can be the forms of resistance to infrastructure as an enforcement of structural violence? In other words, what are the modalities through which infrastructure can be also used as a weapon for those subjected to this violence? Drawing a benevolent critique of the various anticapitalist
movements that “occupied” various spaces of many cities of the Global North between 2011 and 2013, The Invisible Committee regretted the symbolical nature of most of such spaces (To Our Friends, 2014). We could indeed wonder what would have been the effects of Occupy Wall Street if we had not tried to occupy Wall Street as a symbolic site, but Wall Street as an infrastructure, a warehouse near the New Jersey Turnpike (the same cited above!), where the stock exchange servers and their financial warrior algorithms operate. The 2011 shutdown of Oakland’s commercial port by the Oakland Commune (a movement built on a frustration by Occupy’s tactics and function), as well as the various closures of highways Black Lives Matter succeeded to trigger since 2014 certainly contrasts with these symbolic actions. Similarly, The Invisible Committee, despite its anonymity, is suspected to be the “Groupe de Tarnac” that sabotaged some of the TGV’s (France’s high-speed train) catenaries in 2008.
In the Italian Alps, activists have also organized since 2003 against the infrastructure that would accommodate the TAV (Treno Alta Velocita, also high-speed train) between Lyon and Turin. They found accomplices in France with the various ZAD that found its impetus starting in the early 2010s. Appropriating the acronym “ZAD” originally drafted by the French government to signify “Deferred Development Area” (Zone d’Aménagement Différé), and transforming it into “Zone to Defend” (Zone À Défendre), thousands of ecologist activists have moved on the sites of Notre Dame des Landes and Sivens to respectively fight the projects of an airport and a dam. While the fight against the Sivens dam project was successfully won in 2015 (after the French police killed one demonstrator), the ZAD in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, despite having also won its struggle against the airport project, is still struggling to continue its alternative existence as I’m writing these words, a few days after the French police entered the site and destroyed the many architectures built by the activists. Although this issue intended to give an appropriate room to their fight, the current surge of state violence against them postponed such a contribution. I nonetheless wish you an excellent read.