Settler infrastructuralisms

review by Jordan Kinder

Review of Rafico Ruiz’s Slow Disturbance: Infrastructural Mediation on the Settler Colonial Resource Frontier. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2021. Sign, Storage, Transmission Series. 240 pp.

Infrastructures mediate social and ecological relations. This observation sits at the center of ongoing work in the interdisciplinary confluences that comprise materialist media studies. Materialist media studies names a wide-ranging tendency within contemporary scholarship that emphasizes the unique materialities of specific media—from the storage capacities of hard drives and the energy systems fueling data centers to the ways that the production and distribution of different media are entangled with environmental histories, natural resources, and energy extraction. As Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski write in the introduction to their field-defining collection Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, a materialist approach to media infrastructures interrupts the fetish of media content by bringing into view the oft-invisible “resources, technologies, labor, and relations that are required to shape, energize, and sustain the distribution” of media across “global, national, and local scales” (5). This focus on media infrastructures has also brought with it efforts to expand notions of what constitutes a medium as such. Numerous critics have argued that we should abandon a narrow conception of media defined in terms of a limited set of sociotechnical forms and objects (e.g., print, film, radio, television, etc.) and instead consider all infrastructures themselves as media. Retrieving the shared etymology of medium and milieu, the infrastructural turn in media studies pushes us to think more capaciously about the very parameters of media.[1] [open endnotes in new window] In John Durham Peters’s terms, media are thus best understood as “enabling environments” (3) that shape relations between and among humans and the more-than-human world. From the purview of the infrastructural turn, infrastructure troubles any clear distinction between medium and environment, technology and nature.

And yet, despite what may seem to be an explosion of interest in infrastructure in our current conjuncture, from another angle it would appear that attention to infrastructure is nothing new. Indeed, questions of infrastructure have long figured prominently in political and theoretical movements both on the ground and on the page. Within movements informed by the Marxist tradition, for instance, the forces and relations of production—often referred to as the base or, sometimes, the infrastructure— have been conceived as a premiere site of class antagonism. However, in its analytic trajectories, materialist media studies has at times existed in a fraught or even hostile relation to historical materialism. The reasons for this hostility are plenty, tethered as they are to larger conflicts between new and historical materialisms.[3]

These hostilities arguably include a perceived privileging of the human and of economic relations by historical materialism, with the alleged consequence of overemphasizing structural determinations over open-ended processes and underemphasizing the complex agencies of more-than-human actants. However, in the midst of contemporary struggles over extractive capitalism and extractive infrastructure, from pipelines to megadams, the need for a renewed encounter between more specific historical materialist and more general materialist media studies approaches to infrastructure is more urgent than ever. Crucially, such struggles against extractive infrastructure and ecological degradation have been led by Indigenous peoples and, as Indigenous scholars and activists insist, contemporary forms of environmental violence must be understood within the context of historical and ongoing modes of settler-colonial dispossession.[4] How, then, might unearthing the sedimented histories of settler infrastructure allow media critics to better address urgent issues of decolonial, ecological justice today?

Turning to what he frames as a “minor” episode of infrastructural settler-colonial place-making, Rafico Ruiz’s Slow Disturbance: Infrastructural Mediation on the Settler Colonial Resource Frontier examines the contours of frontier expansionism and settler community formation in a historic enterprise of Canada’s national mythology: the Grenfell Mission. The Grenfell Mission—a branch of Britain’s Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen (commonly known as the Fishermen’s Mission)—was a philanthropic organization founded in 1892 by English-born medical missionary Sir Wilfred Grenfell. The Grenfell Mission’s purpose was to offer medical and social services to the settler communities of northern Newfoundland and Labrador located in what is today known colonially as Atlantic Canada. Incorporated as the International Grenfell Association (IGA) in 1914, the mission managed the region’s healthcare until 1981 when it was placed under provincial control. (Newfoundland did not join the Canadian Confederacy until after World War II.) Its legacy carries on today in the name of the Labrador-Grenfell Regional Health Authority, a non-profit organization that “offers funding for community projects and initiatives that serve to enhance the general well being [sic] of the residents” of northern Newfoundland and coastal Labrador (“About IGA”).

The Grenfell Mission ultimately played an instrumental, if historically overlooked, role in settler community relations as this fisherfolk community labored in an early wave of resource extraction and exhaustion: the Atlantic cod industry. It is difficult to exaggerate how the cod industry’s rise and fall impacted social, economic, and ecological life in Newfoundland and Labrador. For centuries, the cod industry was the economic foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, but overfishing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to its virtual extinction in the region. A federal moratorium on the practice in 1992 would cement the industry’s collapse and, some thirty years later, it shows little signs of recovery (Smellie).

The cod industry has also been central to the settler-colonial mythologies that underwrite Canadian national identity and, more specifically, to the staples thesis that would come to define the study of Canadian political economy. Developed by the Canadian political economist and pioneer of media studies Harold Innis, the staples thesis describes economies that rely primarily on the export of raw materials rather than their manufacture (385). Despite critiquing the staples economy in his analysis, Innis’s formulation itself has contributed to a kind of settler-colonial mythmaking by, for instance, overlooking the vibrant, non-capitalist Indigenous economies that exist against and alongside settler colonial, capitalist ones (Pasternak and Scott 207). In tandem with his political-economic writings, Innis helped to establish a prominent tradition of Canadian media and communication studies known as the Toronto School.

While Ruiz’s approach to media extends the work of Innis and his fellow-travellers, Slow Disturbance’s careful attention to the imbrication of the Grenfell Mission’s infrastructure with colonial processes marks Ruiz’s break with Innis’s implicit reification of Canadian settler histories and worldviews. According to Ruiz, the Grenfell Mission was an institution whose Protestant evangelical principles and commitments were expressed and enacted through infrastructure. These principles and commitments performed the work of care and repair for settler communities, which materialized through infrastructural relations including

Through a close examination of these varied practices informed by archival analysis and ethnographic fieldwork, Slow Disturbance offers a vocabulary for environmental media studies that synthesizes a number of recent trajectories in materialist media studies. At the same time, it produces a method that tracks the infrastructural undercurrents of settler colonialism and extractive capitalism. What Ruiz thus offers is a longer historical view of extractive capitalism and its entanglements with settler colonial media through a sustained study of the Grenfell Mission and its “minor histories of mediation” (5).

At its core, Slow Disturbance presents what Ruiz describes as a “transmedia story” (172) that aims to unsettle “the promises of extraction” (173). In employing the notion of transmedia to describe his archive, Ruiz draws on an expanded conception of media, one which includes not only traditional audiovisual forms (e.g., cinematic storytelling) but also hospital buildings, cooperative finance programs, and aerial mapping techniques. In so doing, he tracks how the Grenfell Mission contributed to settler-colonial placemaking from the 1880s to the 1950s. Proposing a method of “slow historiography,” Ruiz suggests that such an approach opens “up possibilities for thinking through the relational emergence between affective settler infrastructure and archival work” (30). Here, “affective settler infrastructure” describes those material, social, and technical systems that provided care, maintenance, and repair to the settler population.

In this essay, I zoom in on a set of key conceptual and historical lines of sight that comprise Slow Disturbance in order to clarify some of the book’s conceptual building blocks while also detailing its theoretical and methodological contributions. These contributions in particular reveal tensions in the colonial, extractive capitalist world-building that mark the present—that is, a persistence of settler-colonial relations through the building of infrastructure in the face of broken and waning promises of extraction. In exposing these tensions, Ruiz ultimately historicizes the reproduction of settler colonialism through resource extraction and, accordingly, challenges the presentism within many analyses of extractive capitalism today.

Mediation on the resource frontier:
navigating settler infrastructuralisms

Tracing the life and afterlife of the Grenfell Mission, Ruiz fashions a conceptual anchor to which much of Slow Disturbance’s analysis is tied: infrastructural mediation. For Ruiz,

“Infrastructural mediation is a means to examine how colonial lifeworlds, subjectivities, and affects come into being through the design, building, maintenance, and repair of infrastructures that respond to resource frontier-making projects as settler media-making projects as well” (4).

Infrastructural mediation draws on varied understandings of mediation as an active, indeterminate process that shapes relations, and the concept sees in infrastructure the staging ground for this process. But mediation is a fraught concept with sometimes competing definitions. Ruiz provides a brief genealogy of resonant and dissonant notions of mediation as they have been employed in media studies by engaging Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska’s Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process, from which he derives his own concept of mediation. Against what they perceive as a static and more structuralist concept of mediation employed within Marxist tendencies in media studies, Kember and Zylinska develop a vitalist approach inspired by the French philosopher Henri Bergson wherein

“mediation can be seen as another term for ‘life,’ for being-in and emerging-with the world” (23).

Following Kember and Zylinska, Ruiz posits mediation as a relational, affective, and open-ended process, rather than as an encounter between two already constituted entities (for example, between nature and technology, or between the ocean and the built environment). However, in my view, such vitalist orientations are not necessarily in antagonism with those Marxist approaches to mediation where mediation names a complex social relation and lived process as much as a structure.[5]

In fact, while Ruiz explicitly invokes Kember and Zylinska’s vitalist definition of mediation, his is arguably a mediation that more directly maintains its links to historical materialism. Ruiz’s account of mediation remains attuned to economic structures and class relations as much as it does to indeterminate and affective ones. Indeed, within processes of colonial, extractive capitalist world-building, infrastructure emerges as a site where media meet political economy. It is in this meeting of the political-economic and the infrastructural from which Ruiz develops the central concept of infrastructural mediation that underwrites Slow Disturbance. Infrastructural mediation, then, pinpoints the entangled character of media, labor, and environment—the very processes and relations that constitute a resource frontier. Leaning on pathbreaking media theorists such as Lisa Parks, Nicole Starosielski, and John Durham Peters, Ruiz proposes that we should approach the resource frontier as itself a medium:

“Resource frontiers make this tension between a given environment, mediating processes, and a labouring anthropos apparent; they are, like many media, always in between, relaying, caught in the making” (9).

In short, the resource frontier is a medium that is itself mediated by multiple media infrastructures, from architectural spaces to financial networks to the cinema. To view the resource frontier as a medium and hence as a process, then, helps us understand that settler colonialism and extractive capitalism are never settled project. Consequently, this view helps us imagine how the reproduction of these projects might be disrupted. Through this capacious account of media and mediation, Ruiz explores how settler colonial and extractive capitalism became sedimented in the built environment. For the Grenfell Mission, infrastructural mediation was thus a specifically settler infrastructural mediation in which the care of some and the dispossession of others were mutually bound through the medium of the resource frontier. As Ruiz highlights, the mission’s material interventions in Newfoundland and Labrador intensified settler-colonial processes of dispossession. These forms of dispossession included the displacement of Indigenous peoples through the construction of new buildings, as well as active participation in genocide through the operation of residential schools.

Slow Disturbance’s attention to materiality and the built environment allows Ruiz to tell a transmedia story of settler colonialism that moves from hospitals to cooperative finance, from aerial cartographic practice to filmmaking. In each of these cases, the materials of the Grenfell Mission take centerstage, serving as the dramatis personae of Slow Disturbance with as much force as the human actors it portrays. These agents include fisherfolk laborers, merchant capitalists, and the fish themselves—all of whom are entangled in the shadow of Indigenous peoples whose presence haunts the settler-colonial machinations of the mission’s enterprise. Since the mission was formed to fulfill roles of care and support on the resource frontier, it participated in ensuring what I would call a kind of settler social reproduction.

It sought to offer services of maintenance and repair to settlers who were ultimately neglected by the British Empire at the same time as these people were quite literally feeding the Empire. Constructing both hard and soft infrastructures, the mission performed these services in the shadow of exhaustion and abandonment that far exceeded the capacities of the mission under the weight of capitalism’s contradictions. So, while the mission certainly played a central role in the production and reproduction of settler life under extractive capitalism, it did so in a tenuous capacity. The people’s fates were sealed by the trials and tribulations of a boom-and-bust economy that, in its final iteration, landed on bust as the cod industry dried up due to cycles of overfishing beginning in the late nineteenth-century. In Ruiz’s transmedia story of the Grenfell Mission, the myth of extraction is laid bare as the mission attempted to address the failings of both Empire and extractive capitalism in delivering the good life to a settler population.

Chapter 1 focuses on the Mission’s development of medical infrastructure as a means to ensure this reproduction. Because laboring fisherfolk were subject to extreme, harsh conditions at work and home, the mission sought to provide the means of reproduction for these settler communities, given that it was these laborers who were ultimately feeding the British Empire through the cod industry. In Chapter 2, Ruiz moves from his analysis of medical infrastructure to the system of cooperative finance institutionalized by the mission as it established the Red Bay Cooperative and built a cooperative store in 1896. This cooperative formed in the political-economic setting of a transition from merchant to industrial capitalism.

Here, questions of debt sit at the center of Ruiz’s treatment of the cooperative, which ultimately sought to create an alternative to the truck system. Truck systems are modes of remuneration for laborers where work is paid out in unconventional forms, such as company scrip, and the term “truck” refers to an early use of the word to mean barter or trade. In the case of Newfoundland and Labrador, this system saw workers being paid in goods rather wages or being advanced goods in ways that left them beholden to predatory merchant employers. Grenfell saw the negative impacts of this system firsthand and sought to develop a more equitable financial infrastructure. As Ruiz observes,

“This was part of the mission’s projected reforms on these coasts [of northern Newfoundland and Labrador]—to reshape and extend the fisherfolk’s extraction-reliant financial lives by educating them through the tenets of cooperative action” (81).

In this chapter and throughout Slow Disturbance, Ruiz intervenes in a historical presentism that often inflects analyses of extractive capitalism. And, as he analyzes the case of the Grenfell Mission’s financial infrastructuralism, he does so in an intricate accounting of the cooperative’s role in reshaping the economic relations of northern Newfoundland and Labrador. More specifically, Ruiz analyzes how what he calls “debt subjectivities” shaped social and economic relations and how Grenfell sought to reshape the deleterious consequences of the economic order of the day. Deployed in this way, debt subjectivities describe the ways in which debt—whether produced through goods advanced by employers or small receiving loans from merchant capitalists—was a constitutive condition of social relations in Newfoundland and Labrador’s staples economy. These subjectivities were tied to the existing labor conditions, where surplus value was extracted from fisherfolk with little regard for their bodily and financial health. Both bodily and financial health, then, were avenues through which the mission pursued its Protestant evangelical infrastructural project of reproducing settler subjects and life-worlds.  In this way, the Grenfell Mission served an integral function in maintaining the conditions for the resource frontier to take shape.

Frick Coal Company scrip, ca. 1874, which would be used for purchases at a company store. This kind of arrangement between worker and employer is precisely what Grenfell sought to challenge through the creation of cooperative stores (Wikimedia Commons). One of the Grenfell Mission’s cooperative stores in St. Anthony, Newfoundland, with a banner on its façade reading “Faith Hope and Abide But the Greatest of These is Love.” Photo taken between 1932 and 1937 (PF-372.062, Maritime History Archive).