Diffracting the Mediterranean. Rethinking infrastructural environments beyond human scale

28.01.-29.01.2021, Workshop, OI Beirut

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Horden & Purcell (2000), in their seminal work ‘Corrupting the Sea’, suggest what is common to the Mediterranean is not a shared set of characteristics but rather a shared set of problems: the problem of risk and how to manage it to protect communal livelihoods. The combination of errant climate and disjunctive topography produced a series of micro ecologies that forced its inhabitants to establish extensive trade networks with their neighbors so as to hedge against bad crops, bad season, changing weather conditions and natural or man-made catastrophes (see also Lahoud, 2017). 

Implied in this characterization of the Mediterranean is not only a rejection of the idea of the Mediterranean as a self-evident, coherent spatial and cultural unit, but a peculiar methodological proposition for rethinking the propensity of infrastructural relations beyond the human scale. What Horden & Purcell effectively suggest is a post-humanist ontology for interrogating what grounds collective life in particular places, while remaining attentive to the material agency of nature, climate and bio physical activity in sustaining world building relations across social, biological and geological strata and scales. 

This workshop interrogates how contemporary architectures of circulation – special economic zones, roads, communication networks and data satellites - articulate to these historically situated ecologies and infrastructural relations, tracing their variously materializing, onto-epistemic effects. Modern colonial histories of the Mediterranean give vivid testimony how the introduction of new technologies, i.e. radio, telegraphy, undersea cables, meteorological instruments and grand geo-engineering designs radically changed the course and direction of flows in the interest of colonial capital and power, ushering in a period of scientificisation and weapponisation of knowledge and environments  that brought the metabolic life cycle of the region and sea ever more firmly under European control. As Valeska Huber (2015; 2012;) observed, the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) transformed the Mediterranean from a closed sea into a central passageway between Europe, Africa and Asia.  This not only allowed for ever larger areas of the world to be brought under colonial administration but opened the local biosphere to inhabitations by ‘tropical’ species from the Indian Ocean while at the same time disrupting the spiritual pathways of local travelers and pilgrims trying to cross the three continents via the Red Sea. Fearful of the spread of disease as much as of the expansion of Islamist resistance against colonial rule, British administrators imposed rigid medical checks that forced non-European passengers and cargo to undergo lengthy physical inspections, pathologizing animals, landscapes and bodies as source of risk under the pretext of disease prevention and health care. 

Others traced Europe’s infrastructural incursions through the lens of missionary activity and military-scientific operations, documenting how they gradually transformed the Mediterranean into a site of ongoing scientific observation – an open laboratory - where new knowledge about climate, disease, crop productivity and desertification could be created and tested in grand agricultural and climate engineering designs (Cagliotti, 2019; Mahony & Endfield, 2018; Lehmann, 2015;  Livingstone, 2005). Nurtured by racialized fears of unfamiliar weather patterns, these experiments were decisive for the emerging geographies of European imperialism, providing the knowledge and tools necessary for re-scripting local ecosystems in the interest of colonial settlements, trade and capital (Yusoff, 2019; Livingstone, 2002; Mathe-Shires, 2001). 

How do contemporary infrastructures in the Mediterranean articulate to these political ecologies of colonial relations? And how can we map and understand their multi-scalar, intersectional effects?  

Each of the invited speakers to this workshop responds to these questions from a different disciplinary viewpoint and methodological perspective. Participants include Sarah Green, social and cultural anthropologist at the University of Helsinki and her co-researcher Samuli Lähteenaho. Together they are working on the ERC funded study ‘Crosslocations’, led by Sarah, using the concept of ‘relative positioning’ and ‘locating regimes’ to map how the changing values and significance assigned to particular places affect individual and collective life chances, wellbeing and their environmental, social and political conditions across the Mediterranean. Further participants include, Munira Khayyat, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo, who interrogates how technologies of death, such as land mines, are thwarted by the lively, resistant, multi-species ecologies of the borderland between South Lebanon and Israel. Next in line is Alaa Attia, PHD researcher at the Department of Anthropology, University Toronto, who uses walking as embodied method to explore the topography of pilgrimage roads in Sinai as a source of counter knowledge in the struggle of Sinai Beduines against a hyperbolic infrastructure project led by foreign investors and the Egyptian state. Running under the name of NEOM the project promotes itself as a start-up company the size of a country, promising to become a leading global hub for future energy research, the design of artificial ecologies and groundbreaking genetic research. And finally, via skype we will be joined by Asia Bazdyrieva and Solveig Suess, a team of young visual researchers with a background in Art history and bio chemistry, who use planetary-scale sensory networks—satellites, surveillance cameras, cellphones — as a vastly distributed camera to interrogate the anticipation of infrastructure and trade. Combining documentary filmmaking with ethnographic research Asia and Solveig follow the distribution of Earth observation systems and data networks as they expand across vast regions between China and Europe above and below the ground.

The main aim of bringing such a diverse group together is to exchange views and experiences with different methods for mapping the propensity of infrastructural relations and to engage in a wider discussion about the possibilities and challenges of interdisciplinary approaches aimed at understanding the colonial entanglement of infrastructures, connectivity and ecological formations on a more-than-human scale. 


Cagliotti, A. M. (2019). The Climate of Fascism: Science, Environment, and Empire in Liberal and Fascist Italy (1860–1960). [book project in progress]. American Academy of Rome.

Horden, P., & Purcell, N. (2000). The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History. London: Blackwell Publishers. 

Huber, V. (2012). Connecting colonial seas: the ‘international colonisation’ of Port Said and the Suez Canal during and after the First World War. European Review of History:, 19(1), 141-161. doi:10.1080/13507486.2012.643612

Huber, V. (2015). Channeling Mobilities: Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond, 1869–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lahoud, A. (2017, March 1). Mediterranean Tomorrows. Transmediale 2017. Berlin, Germany. Retrieved Jan 6, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ureCOkxtxvA&list=PLsMNXfJ0G5icnOdrx5_XgTN-Ldh9Q_U82&index=15

Lehmann, P. (2015). Reading Imperial Skies: Climatology and the Limits of Colonial Planning. New York: Paper presented at the 129th Annual Meeting American Historical Association.

Livingstone. (2002). Race, space and moral climatology: notes toward a genealogy’,. Journal of Historical Geography, 28(2), 159–180.

Livingstone, D. N. (2005). Scientific Inquiry and the Missionary Enterprise. In R. Finnegan, Participating in the Knowledge Society. Researchers byond University Walls.

Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Mahony, M., & Endfield, G. (2018). Climate and colonialism. . 2018;9:e510. WIREs Clim Change, 9(e:510), 1-16. doi:10.1002/wcc.510

Mathe-Shires, L. (2001). Imperial Nightmares: The British Image of “the deadly climate” of West Africa1840–74. European Review of History, 8(2), 486–500.

Yusoff, K. (2019). White Utopia/Black Inferno: Life on a Geologic Spike. e-flux, 97.