Speaker: Benjamin H. Bratton: Epidermis, Interface, Alter-Cosmopolitanism: The City as Layer within a Planetary Stack


Infrastructure, as much as law or discourse, produces the fragments from which political subjectivity is identified, interpolated, codified and enforced across scales, from the intra-personal to the interfacial to the transcontinental. It links the extrapolation of territorial sovereignty from an interior zone drawn by the formal borderline in one setting to the mega-urbanization of human settlement in another. In contrast to perspectives that locate the political in a realm transcendent of the polis itself, we might say that, especially now, plumbing trumps code.

Now that humans are a majority urban species, now that urbanism has become comparative megaurbanism, now that geopolitical consortia of cities have the lead over slow confused federations of nation-states in the governmental response to climate change, and now that the management of urban networks presupposes their embedding within information and energy Clouds, it is opportune to reevaluate what sorts of real, last-instance sovereignties can be derived directly from urban systems, surfaces and interfaces. To do so requires the situation of the urban within a larger context of exourban and xenourban forms and forces, and for this talk, that is to think of the City as a interdependent layer within a planetary-scale software/hardware stack.

Emergent infrastructural sovereignties (like those which appear in cloud computing’s distortion of national geography) seep through the surfaces of the pervasive urban fabric: not only of buildings and roads but also of weirder grids that connect the economies, energy and hydration sources, information interfaces and dense data archipelagos, all of which which differentiate and prioritize how humans interface the world and the world them. Is this aggregate steel-energy-information megaenvelope, ubiquitous but massively centralized, then a larval condition from which another, more plasmic, alter-cosmopolitanism, human and inhuman, can be derived or designed? (Subjects not of this city, but of the city, the uneven mesh that delaminates jurisdictions.)

If so –even partially so– then the types of geopolitical sovereignty that may emerge through the technical relations of this composite urbanity are still un-guaranteed. The scenario described is neither a prediction nor a recommendation. If the interfacial surface of the urban fabric can interpolate a durable cosmopolitical subject, then it is also a potential technology of capture and control, and its universality a measure of the hermetic totality of the interiority it provides.

Our design brief is to accelerate the available repertoire of accidents that might puncture that totality but at the same time leave in tact some alien genre of universal political presentation trailing in its wake: not a Kantian zombie globalism but a geophysical hypermaterialism for which the right to the city, and to the stack, is an essential suffrage.

Benjamin H. Bratton

Benjamin H. Bratton is a theorist whose work spans Philosophy, Art and Design. He is Associate Professor of Visual Arts  and Director of D:GP, The Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego. His research is situated at the intersections of contemporary social and political theory, computational media & infrastructure, architectural & urban design problems, and the politics of synthetic ecologies and biologies. Current work focuses on the political geography of cloud computing, massively-granular universal addressing systems, and alternate models of ecological governance. His next book, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, is forthcoming from MIT Press. Most recent selected texts include: “What We Do is Secrete: On Virilio, Planetarity and Data Visualization,”“Geoscapes & the Google Caliphate: On Mumbai Attacks,” “Root the Earth: On Peak Oil Apohenia” and “Suspicious Images/ Latent Interfaces” (with Natalie Jeremijenko). More texts here.