Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Elemental Infrastructures for Atmospheric Media: On Stratospheric Variations, Value and the Commons

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Elemental Infrastructures for Atmospheric Media: On Stratospheric Variations, Value and the Commons

Article excerpt


This paper draws together ongoing efforts to recast the materiality and meaning of infrastructures with recent critical and creative engagements around questions of the elemental. In doing so, the paper develops the concept of elemental infrastructures in order to grasp how the elemental is not just a material resource acted upon or transformed by infrastructures but is becoming part of the generative ontology and condition of infrastructural capacities. The argument of the paper is developed via a discussion of recent experiments with contemporary forms of atmospheric media in which different configurations of the elemental, from helium to stratospheric winds, are being worked together in order to shape new infrastructural arrangements. In speculating with these experiments, the paper considers what it might mean to develop an expanded sense of infrastructural value from variations in an elemental commons.


Atmosphere, commons, elements, infrastructure, media, stratosphere


This paper draws together two research trajectories. The first concerns ongoing efforts to recast the materiality and meaning of infrastructures, particularly those that emphasize how infrastructures are more than technical arrangements and how they modify the affective capacities of different forms of life (Berlant, 2016; Larkin, 2013; Starosielski, 2015; Stewart, 2014). The second trajectory revolves around recent critical and creative engagements with questions of the elemental as a differentiated category designating, variously, a chemical entity, an environmental milieu or a shifting ontological condition (Adey, 2015; Cohen and Duckert, 2016; Engelmann, 2015b; Galloway and Thacker, 2007; Squire, 2016). By drawing these trajectories together, the aim of the paper is to explore what it might mean to think of the elemental not just as a material resource or 'substrate' (Star, 1999) acted upon or transformed by infrastructural systems or networks: the elemental, I argue, needs to be understood as infrastructural. In developing this claim, I propose the concept of elemental infrastructure in order to speculate about how specific configurations of the elemental, through ongoing experiments, might be reworking the generative conditions in which infrastructural capacities are valued.

This discussion is developed via an engagement with infrastructures that underpin contemporary forms of 'atmospheric media' (Hansen, 2012, 2015). Following a range of scholars (see, for instance, Adams, 2016; Ash, 2015; Cardona, 2016; Groening, 2014; Hermida, 2010; Leszczynski, 2015; Morais, 2015; Parikka, 2015; Rickert, 2013; Thrift, 2008b), I understand atmospheric media here as media that are now more ambient because their infrastructures and devices have become part of the background of life, operating below thresholds of sensing. At the same time, they have an enhanced capacity to generate affective foregrounds as spacetimes of variable extensity and intensity (Hansen, 2015). My aim here is not to engage with the affective or experiential qualities of these media but to explore how their infrastructural arrangements and capacities are becoming atmospheric in an elemental sense. I am interested in how they are being reworked through experiments with the conditions, properties and capacities of different elemental entities and forces, from helium to stratospheric winds. Paralleling recent accounts of the excessive materiality of atmospheres as both affective and meteorological (Adey, 2013; Anderson, 2009; Ash, 2013; Ingold, 2015; McCormack, 2008), my speculative proposition here is not a metaphorical one: I am not arguing that the effects of contemporary atmospheric media are analogous to meteorological phenomenon because they are becoming more cloud-like. Instead, and taking my cue from efforts to reveal the infrastructures of 'cloud geographies' (Amoore, 2016; Ash et al., 2016), I want to speculate on the possibility that media infrastructures are making new kinds of use of the movement and materiality of the elements in order to generate different kinds of value. …

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