Infrastructures, borders, and the pandemic. A reflection for the summer term 2020

by Estela Schindel
April 21, 2020

In recent years, the research on migration, borders, and borderlands has experienced a strong orientation towards questions of infrastructure, materiality, and logistics.(i) This development can be related to several factors in the social sciences at large. On one side, approaches that depart solely from the assumption of the ‚container‘ nation-state seem not to be able to account alone for the complexity of a globalized world anymore. In this new emphasis the focus lies rather on the multiple ways in which circulation, transport structures, and timing are being organized, since they shape the global mobility more intensively than what had been long assumed, often surpassing national or supranational sovereignties. In this perspective, infrastructures are considered privileged sites for qualitative social research: not the unseen background for the study of social relations and practices, but objects deserving scholarly attention in their own right. This tendency, on another side, coincides with the growing interest on materiality that led to the so called „material turn,“ „logistical turn“ or „infrastructural turn“ in the social sciences: scholarly approaches that focus on the largely underestimated ways in which non-human actants deploy their influence, or even agency, upon social life. Under the influence of such perspectives, logistics and infrastructures have acquired new relevance in the fields of cultural anthropology, urban geography, capitalism studies, science and technology studies (STS) as well as in critical studies of migration and borders.

With this transformation in mind, the seminar „The EU Border Regime. Discourses, Infrastructures, Practices“ aims at offering Viadrina Master Students a perspective about the European borders that relates these theoretical-conceptual approaches to empirical findings from the field. Recent research on migration has been paying attention to the ways in which material infrastructures, including vehicles, logistics, and timings, shape the terrain where border enforcement is being deployed and the right to mobility is being disputed. The original goal of the seminar was thus to give a closer look to these elements in the broader analysis of the EU border regime.

When the seminar was designed in 2019, nothing could anticipate that precisely the questions of infrastructure and logistics would become as crucially relevant as they are revealed to be in these days. As the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading though, it seemed to confirm the extent to which infrastructural networks dramatically shape the world we are living in.

As social scientists we are not entitled to value the COVID-19 disease in clinical terms. But for attentive news readers it is rather apparent that, at least in the initial phase, the risk of the pandemic seemed to be not only related to the lethality of the new Coronavirus itself, but rather to the enormous challenges of preparing the sanitary systems for facing the peak of infection in the population. Not the treatment itself was the main concern, but the worries over the capacity to provide adequate care on time. What could be known through the media was that the disease could be to a certain point contained provided that enough intensive care space and clinical resources were available and, especially, as long as they are able to keep up with the pace of the disease’s spread. Besides medical and sanitary questions, the reports were all about planning, logistics, deliveries, and timing: how many beds, respiratory equipment, and surgical masks were available? How many items would be needed when and where according to the rate of contagiousness and how could shortages be prevented?

As the global circulation has been slowed down to a minimum and national borders, also inside the European Union, were aggressively (re)activated, the chains of global supply became a problematic issue in themselves. The paradox of a seemingly borderless world for the seamless circulation of commodities, parallel to the harsh defense of geopolitical borders when it comes to sensitive public issues–a paradox border scholars had been long alerting about–has now become evident and deadly crucial. In this context, middle and long term planning, logistics, and infrastructure became critical not only for governments and corporation but also for individuals in the everyday: alone the fear that there could be scarcity of toilette paper or disinfectant led German supermarkets to run out of them for a short while.

And as we, like millions of teachers around the world, set up for teaching online in the next weeks or months, it is the crucial role and related vulnerability of digital infrastructures what suddenly comes to the fore: How to cope with the simultaneous e-learning of all universities and schools in the country? What platforms will best manage the unprecedently intense use of online resources? How to make national, university wide and personal networks compatible with each other? These questions have been concerning us during the last weeks and may still do for a while. They point out at the complexity but also the vulnerability of network infrastructures and they concern most current activities both on the private sector and the public administration. Of course, such concerns are minor if compared with the multiple ways in which the capacity and flexibility of infrastructures and logistics are now in direct relation to the possibility of providing appropriate health care where is needed. Media reports during the peak of the disease spread in Italy referred to medical personnel forced to choose which patients to ’save‘ because intensive care beds would not be enough for all. Reporters from Spain informed about the drastic logistical bottleneck suffered by the usually invisible branch of funeral services, with their personal and operational capacity overwhelmed by the peak of deaths concentrated in short time.(ii)

Around the world the calculations about benefits and risks of public sanitary measures are carefully evaluated in terms of management of circulation, mobility, exposure, and resources. In Germany, the government press conferences abound in detail about statistical models and prognoses of capacity limits along disease’s spread variables. Infrastructural capacity and contagiousness become the main vectors of top level, intensively pondered political decisions.

Research on this field indicates that during their regular operation infrastructures tend to remain invisible, or at least opaque and unknown–the very term „infra“ suggesting what is „below“ or „underlying“ human agency and therefore hidden from view. It is often because of a disruption or disturbance that their fragility becomes visible. This was the case with the sanitary infrastructures in the context of the current pandemic.

The urgency revealed, as well, the extent to which infrastructures are a terrain of power and contestation that puts in evidence „differential archaeologies of differential provisioning.“(iii) This perspective on infrastructure allows us to rethink governance and citizenship „not at a distance but pressing into the flesh, through questions of intimacy and proximity“, and to show how the making and management of difference–like class, race and gender–is entangled in the technics and politics of everyday life.(iv)

In terms of researching and teaching about the EU borders, this perspective means thus including logistic operations, corridors, and their coordination into the picture: emerging formations that are increasingly influential and that demand a wider analytical vocabulary. It has been scholarly established that borders cannot be seen as fixed lines separating stable geopolitical units anymore, but as processual assemblages that are under continuous rearrangement. Where more classical approaches see only governments and borders, the ‘logistical gaze’ prioritizes mobility and circulation. Migration and borders research needs thus to put walls, fences and enforcement measures in relation with the persistence of movement and transit. Ports, routes and hubs, but also practices, logistics and infrastructures of the EU border regime will thus be object of the seminar in this infrastructurally challenging semester.

While no one can yet predict how long and how deep the consequences of the present pandemic will be, one of its effects will certainly have been to remind us of the decisive role and the intrinsic vulnerability of infrastructure, logistics, and delivery chains in the present globalized condition. The question of to whom will resources be distributed and from whom will be withdrawn makes infrastructure a terrain of power and contestation.(v) This is dramatically the case when it comes to mobility and borders. The present crisis is making visible to what extent these questions are all but neutral, and material infrastructures rather reflect and transport social questions related to inequality, distribution, and justice.

(i) I owe this awareness especially to the Workshop „Cataloging Logistics“ organized by Manuela Bojadzijev and Sandro Mezzadra at the Institute for European Ethnology of the Humboldt University in May 2016.
At our university border infrastructures have been previously object of study and teaching by colleagues working with the Viadrina Center B/Orders in Motion, especially Hannes Krämer.
Concepts presented here are based partially on the results of the mentioned workshop, as well as on the introduction to the following volumes, that will be discussed introductorily in the seminar:
Appel, Hannah; Anand, Nikhil und Akhil Gupta (Hg.). 2018. The Promise of Infrastructure. Durham & London: Duke University Press; Harvey, Penny; Brun Jensen, Casper and Atsuro Morita (Hg.). 2017. Infrastructures and Social Complexity. A companion. London & New York: Routledge. Useful material can be found also in the website Logistical worlds:

(ii) The quarantine and isolation measures are disrupting the burial and mourning rituals in profound ways, whose consequences we only may be able to assess later on, a sensitive issue that is related to but goes beyond the question of infrastructure as discussed here.

(iii) Appel et al. p.2.

(iv) Ibid.

(v) Ibid.

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