Algorithmic Law and Infrastructural Bodies


It is tempting to imagine that each new infrastructure signals an equally new mode of power. Indeed, political and social theory today, obsessed with novelty, persuades us to mark shifts in the topographies of contemporary power as sea changes, moving from governmentality to environmentality, biopower to ontopower, (1), Empire to Stack. (2)

While not wishing to deny the evidence of our political-epistemological present that such frameworks name, the rush to condense them into singular, historical fault lines not only reproduces a modernist historical temporality that may no longer apply, but, more importantly, may also close us off from examining the contours of contemporary power more closely. As we know, power tends to augment rather than reinvent itself.

This is naturally one of the considerations when investigating emergent relations of architectures, natures and data. For me, such relations are most visible in the rise of resilient urbanism—a strange cocktail of smart city techniques mixed with an aesthetic of climate crisis, forging a clear relation between climate change and algorithmic law. For me, the key question posed by resilient urbanism is that of the status of the body: unlike in modern urbanism, it could be argued that one of the primary sites of urbanization in resilient urbanism is the body. It situates one of its innovations in the making-infrastructural of the body. This, of course, raises interesting questions regarding the emergent notions of subjectivity and interrogating agency and control in a space where law promises to become evermore algorithmic.(3) Yet for this reason, it also suggests a possibly under-examined historical relation between power and space that intersects in the human body. The body, as I’ll try to show in a very crude genealogy, can be seen with some reliability throughout history as a key articulation between space and power.

The influence of the stars on the body, 1533

Toward a spatio-political history of the body

Throughout western history, the figure of the human body has played a consistent role in both the way space is imagined and how power finds its form. The body is at once the object of power and its model—an articulation linking orientations of space with forms of power. For millennia, a perception of the human body as a divine replica can be seen offering itself as a consistent template for the organization of earthly affairs in the making of cities, architecture and states. In the works of Francesco di Giorgio Martini, e.g., Trattato di Architettura (1470), the body lends itself as an ideal model for architectural plans and to the organization of fortified cities. Here, the body served as a metaphor shaping early modern political epistemologies where the various parts and proportions of the body could correspond to an overall order of the state—in what Jacques Le Goff has called a ‘political physiology’. (4)

While it is beyond the scope of this paper to go into this history, it is fair to say that the tradition of turning to the body to discover models in which notions of beauty, truth, perfection and order reside, while obviously heterogeneous, remained relatively unbroken into and throughout early modernity. The body’s role as either a supreme metaphor, divine model or vessel of the eternal soul (Spinoza) frequently offered itself to both the ordering of space and the laws that govern it. That I mention this at all is to highlight a profound shift to the status of the body that would occur in the late eighteenth century, when completely new perceptions of it began to appear, articulating new relations between power and space.

Building on Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, as the body is cast as a biological organism within a population, and the political contours open up in the span between each, the body detaches itself from all notions of perfection. Instead, it is invested with a new epistemological capacity to speak, on the one hand, in the abstract and, on the other, to illuminate its imperfections. Scrutinized in the new light, the body became a kind of surface across which signatures of imperfection made themselves visible to the scientific eye—marks through which characteristics thought dangerous to the health of the population could be identified, compared and assessed. By the nineteenth century, early physiology had further revealed the body to be an inventory of separate organic and mechanical systems, each of which appeared to yield separate functions. Through this, the separation and rationalization of senses, as Jonathan Crary has argued, opened up new sites of technological intervention across the body, blurring the distinction between object and subject: the senses, in other words, became sites of technological manipulation. (5)

Ironically, once relieved of its status as a model of perfection, the body would begin a new and far more pervasive relation with the way space could be organized. It was precisely in this same period that the city was to be radically rethought by, amongst others, Spanish engineer Ildefonso Cerdá. (6) Indeed, what Cerdá proposed was a new model that would replace the city altogether, a spatial template which he conceived as a continuous, limitless surface of technology, statistically distributing a catalog of domestic facilities across an endlessly expanding grid of infrastructure. The ‘urbe’, as he called this new space, would no longer have room for politics, its representation or even manifestations of it in walls, boundaries and limits. Instead, ‘urbanización’—a term he coined in 1861—would organize life as a constantly circulating, expanding, connecting space-process. Law in this space would not be felt by the strong arm of sovereignty, but by a vast array of subtle cues built into the spaces of the urbe itself—prompts that would act upon the body directly in order to permanently modulate its behaviors as it circulates through streets and as it rests within domestic spaces. (7) The body, understood as a biological, machinic component of the urbe provided a perfect measure of this space and could be seen even in the way Cerdá calculates its density: as amount of ‘urbe’ needed per body (8) Through such a space, the body could further open itself up to newer technological and infrastructural assemblages whose aim was its normalization. As life in the nineteenth century was awakening to its new biological visibility and capitalist vitality, the urban could become its perfect spatial counterpart—a machine that both appends the body, and creates new relations of dependency: for life as such to exist, it seemed to require a new universal, bio-economic space to support it.

Divisions of the Organs of Phrenology marked externally. Dr Johann Spurzheim, 1900.

By the early twentieth century, Le Corbusier’s ‘Modulor’ seems to revise a Renaissance conception of the body by instrumentalizing it as a universal measure—the body reduced to an abstract tool used to produce space. From Ernst Neufert’s extensive studies of the body, whose measurements are now pervasively embedded in the smallest details of contemporary urban space, to Otto Neurath’s Isotype, the body had become an abstraction doubling as both a measure against which abnormalities and anomalies of all sorts could be made visible and a means by which to construct spatial systems where standardization became indistinguishable from a normalization of life that inhabits it.

Through modern urbanism, what also becomes clear is that the body is also naked. It is deficient and in need of technological compensations. In this sense, architecture is seen increasingly as a necessary ‘prosthesis’ for the body—a technology whose separation from the body becomes, as a result, increasingly blurry. From the 1960s onward, we see this shift in thinkers like Reyner Banham whose fantasies about technology seek to eliminate architecture altogether, ‘liberating’ the body in space by providing permanent technological control over the atmospheres that surround it. (9) Archigram developed similar imaginaries of apparatuses that aim for complete integration of technology and body: a technological regime whose purpose is to amplify individual desire, to modulate levels of personal comfort and so on. The boundary between body and world disappears insofar as that boundary becomes occupied by an invisible technological medium, and ‘technology’ becomes evermore identical to the body, intervening on it permanently by serving its most banal needs and desires, comforts and solipsistic pleasures.

Der Mensch als Industriepalast – human body as a factory. Doctor Kahn, 1935.

In the midst of this postwar celebration of individualism, technology and the emergence of environmentalism, a growing body of voices, critical of modernist planning, called for a new approach to design that would forge a strange alliance between the humanist liberalism of a Jane Jacobs and the military-funded technopositivism of second-order cybernetics. This relation remained somewhat latent until very recently when the techniques of smart city urbanism could be fully adopted into a practice of design that takes the environment (both human and non-human) as its single site of intervention, and whose tool of design is nature itself: resilient urbanism. Yet while resilient urbanism may carry the legacy of this critique of modernism, as we will see in the case of Rebuild by Design (RBD), it may be better understood as modernism’s most radical project yet.


On its surface, RBD seems to respond to a certain tendency today of localist, community-oriented, DIY design. It appears very ‘bottom-up’, open-source and, in general, quite happy. It embraces the existing spaces and practices of everyday life in NYC, while conceiving of its interventions as protection against extreme weather. There are in total 10 different projects that stretch a collective site along the greater NYC coastal region, all of which embrace strategies which, in one way or another, construct new relations between urban life and water. RBD opens urbanism to include marine ecologists, climate scientists, and, tellingly, insurance experts into a new calculus of spatial organization in the age of uncertainty and extreme weather. Here, design becomes less a question of transforming space than of augmenting it—giving it over to new uses, exposing coastal areas to new activities, finding hidden opportunities for an eco-urban life to take root in the spaces that Sandy’s destruction inadvertently revealed. Further, there is a clear agenda to rewrite the human relation to nature as one of entanglement. Infrastructure, in this new conception of design—such as systems of flood mitigation, storm surge abatement—is to be designed with and inclusive of natural processes: no longer drawing a boundary separating society from nature, infrastructure is now what brings the two together. In its most pronounced examples, infrastructure and nature become indistinguishable from one another in so-called ‘nature-based solutions’. (10)

Yet RBD is also a highly technological space. In as much as it blurs the boundary between infrastructure and nature, it also blurs the line between environment and technology. Indeed, resilient urbanism may be understood as smart city urbanism retooled to mitigate the effects of climate crisis, and in this sense, it expands the application of ubiquitous sensing to include the monitoring of and communication between natural ecologies of the NYC region. Nature-based infrastructures, much like their traditional urban counterparts, are now to be laced with networks of sensors and ubiquitous computing. Furthermore, RBD aims to integrate the monitoring process into the coastal communities by encouraging a kind of ‘ecological stewardship’. In total, the broad application environmental sensing is an effort to transform an entire coastal region into a data-intensive and extensive site.

While the full aim of making the NYC region ‘smart’ is never stated directly, a number of proposals make clear that the combination of smart city technologies with the eco-cybernetic ‘nature-based solutions’ will deliver a system of crisis management, geared to guide bodies that inhabit the region in the event of crisis. Nature, bodies and infrastructure are to be monitored continuously as a means to manage risk (‘situation analysis’). This is why almost all projects go to great lengths to integrate a lexicon and history of environmental crisis into the banality of everyday urban life. Here, stewardship reveals another side: it provides a vast new trove of data to be farmed at the interface of human life and ecology; when nature-based solutions are seen as data

intensive infrastructures, it vastly expands the quantity of data that can be mined to correlate human life with extreme weather. (11)

It is inevitable that integrating ecosystems and weather patterns into the knowledge of an urbanism will only drive contemporary urbanism toward an algorithmic form of knowledge and mode of intervention. Many of the consequences of this are well known: in the shift from planning to scenario-based design; issues of privacy and wholesale profiteering of data markets; the way ICT infrastructures situate control in an invisible background, a coded algorithmic environment where law and governance coincide with information and behavior. Yet RBD suggests something even more profound. As I have written elsewhere, RBD sets out an agenda to ‘design’ not only space, but law: design has now shifted fully to the environmental management of life, which, to work, requires a trans-scalar coordination of law. Here, urbanism and algorithmic law coincide to present a totalizing, ubiquitous and invisible form of governmentality never seen before. 

Page from Ernst Neufert Architects’ Data, first published in 1936.

History, urbanization and the body

The rise of the urban was a telling response to a new conception of the body in the nineteenth century: In order for the modern, imperfect and exposed body to be universally governed in the emergent horizon of biopolitics, space had to be universally transformed into a functional instrument—a machine of machines. For early urbanists like Cerdá or Haussmann, space was not to be remade as an outcome of a new, overt power structure; rather, the construction of a new spatial order assisted in giving form for which a new, non-representational power-in-space could discover its (cybernetic) techniques. For this reason, urbanization, for Cerdá, Corbusier, and many others, remained an ideal project—a ‘historical duty’ of ‘mankind’—driven by an imperial urge to reify nature and modernize the world. This is perhaps most explicit in Cerdá’s work, in which urbanización is at once the prehistoric root of humanity as well as its inevitable future. (12) The teleological temporality in which the urbe is thought lends a concrete

program to ‘progress’, captured in the fact that the urban is also a process whose endpoint Cerdá eagerly imagined as a single urban space stretching across the planet. The body, both drawn into and dependent upon this space, as Cerdá’s work attests, is a bio-economic dividual (13) whose multiple divisions dutifully reflect those that organize the urbe: both body and urbe are joined in their reduction to the binary functions of a capitalist world order—circulation and dwelling, economic accumulation and biological recuperation, waged consumption of labor power and its unwaged reproduction. This divided body finds its moral compass in the universal history that motivates the nineteenth century’s economic sociology and its desire to reconstruct the world as an ‘apolitical’ space of unlimited, planetary circulation. The body becomes at once a universal measure of the urban and the object of its techniques of normalization. At first this happens implicitly: through the architectures and infrastructures that are meant to immunize bodies from themselves, from nature, from disease and insurrection. Then, in the 20th century, it becomes explicit in the work of Neufert, Neurath, Corbusier, and others: the body is both a norm used to construct urban space and the irregular objects that the urban aims to correct.

A project by landscape architecture office SCAPE uses Rebuild by design strategy to revitalise Barnegat Bay in New Jersey, 2016.

Post-history and the urbanization of the body

On its surface, resilient urbanism appears to depart entirely from this. It does so by situating nature as edgeless and entangled—a process rather than resource; it aesthetically suggests a non-modernism, affording romantic, nostalgic relations to urban space that can sustain the irrationality of social desires and moods; it takes the environment as its object of design, thus treating bodies and ecologies as equivalently ‘natural’, reentering them as the site and driver of design; and finally, because bodies now constitute a part of the environment, it suggests the evaporation of governmental control and the rise of a participatory self-governance of social and natural complexity. (14)

But of course, these observations cover over a deeper shift. Indeed, we could say that resilient urbanism is a further iteration of modern urbanism, completely integrating the body by urbanizing it—by making it infrastructural. Its expanded use of ubiquitous sensing technologies would, as Jennifer Gabrys has written, unwittingly incorporate citizens as sensors within its infrastructural form of knowledge and modes of control, (15)  taking technological mediation of life to the next level, and thus completing what modern urbanism could not.

However, it is precisely by doing so that resilient urbanism introduces a radically non-modern ontology and we see the emergence of something entirely new: the making environmental of sensing technologies expands ICT networks beyond urban ecologies, into the surrounding non-human natures, thus shifting the task of these ‘smart’ infrastructures from an urbanism of ‘efficiency’/‘optimization’ (16) to what can only be understood as an urbanism of crisis management. If modern urbanism implemented strategies that sought to eliminate the possibility of crisis, resilient urbanism, we can say, is a project that integrates crisis in its tactics. Crisis is its condition of possibility, not something to exclude. The blurring of bodies, nature and infrastructure reveals a power-in-space built not on rules, standards and norms, but on the premise that all forms of knowledge and modes of operation can be extracted from the contours and patterns of incomprehensible quantities of data: a knowledge of effects without causes. (17) This shift not only allows crisis to be redefined according to whichever anomaly may be algorithmically elevated, but indicates a new proximity of crisis to contemporary life. By turning the body into a primary site of urbanization, in an environment made visible as a perpetual space of crisis, resilient urbanism paradoxically participates in constructing a truly non-modern ontology in which the historical body, driven by universal teleologies, gives way to what we might call the ‘post-historical body’, a steward of complexity bound in the machinic feedback of algorithmic law.

By understanding resilient urbanism as an augmentation of modern urbanism rather than a radical departure from it, we are able to see how its non-modern effects are due not simply to the novelty of environmental sensing and the turn to ICT infrastructures, but to how these technologies arrive at and articulate a real, historical, social and political sensibility toward climate change. In post-history, Vilém Flusser writes, “the present is the totality of the real.” (18) Post-history, we could say, coincides with the urbanization of the body as the body becomes no longer a site of infrastructural control, but infrastructure itself—a shift which profoundly inscribes crisis into the practices of everyday life in as much as it also imprints a new post-historical time in the spaces of the urban. In the post-history of RBD, crisis is the new metric of time, translating it into statistical thresholds of the unprecedented, and displaying its unfolding for all to bear witness. Our exposure to time as the unfolding of crisis, as well as our becoming-infrastructural, de-historicizes the human condition. Here, the modern urgency to accelerate toward a universal, predestined future gives way to a static anxiety of an endless and totalizing present. Here the previous and the possible replace history and futurity and the body becomes “its own statistical reference”. (19)

I would like to suggest that this situation is perhaps only as desperate as we allow it to be. Indeed, what the resilient machine might point to is to see the post-historical as not a totalizing temporality of the endless present, but rather a moment destituted (20) of its teleological sensibility and one radically open to freely experiment with new cultures of the body (21) (Wakefield) that explore more autonomous forms of life and that, in turn, may generate wholly new temporalities and may open out to a radical new horizon of political resistance irreducible to its subsumption as data.

Text is based on presentation held at the conference Architectures, Natures, Data: The Politics of Environments. This is an earlier version of a text that will appear as “Becoming-Infrastructural” in e-flux Architecture.

ROSS EXO ADAMS is Assistant Professor of Architecture & Urban Theory at the College of Design, Iowa State University. His research looks at the historical and political intersection of circulation and urbanization and he has published widely on relations between architecture and geography, political and legal theory, ecology and philosophy. He is author of Circulation and Urbanization, forthcoming in 2018.

PUBLISHED: Maja 91 (autumn 2017) with main topic  Shared Space
HEADER: Sketches from the Trattato di Architettura, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1470.


Michel Foucault can be credited with developing the concepts of ‘governmentality’, ‘environmentality’ and biopower. His work on biopolitics and biopower identifies a form of modern power that emerged in the late eighteenth century by tying together political economy as a form of knowledge, population as its subject-object, and “mechanisms of security” as its means of intervention. The result is, as Foucault has shown, a form of political power that, taking “life under its care,” expands its realm of intervention across “the whole surface that lies between the organic and the biological, between body and population” (Society Must Be Defended, p. 253). These concepts, closely linked to what Foucault called ‘governmentality’, help to explain the rise of statistics, the massive investment in data collection, and the new technologies of power that, from the nineteenth century onward, helped to solidify a new political epistemology whose state knowledge is based on biological depictions of the human body and of population. For more on this biopolitics, see, among others, Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (New York: Picador, 2003). While Foucault never managed to coin the oft-cited term of environnementalité (translated in English as ‘environmentality’) himself, he introduced the concept behind the term in the notes that follow one of his final lectures in his Birth of Biopolitics. See Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979 (New York: Picador, 2008), pp. 260-261. On the notion of ‘ontopower’, see Brian Massumi, Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception(Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).


Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).


For more on the notion of algorithmic law, see Mirielle Hildebrant, Smart Technologies and the End(s) of Law (Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015).


Le Goff, J., 1989, “Head or Heart? The Political Use of Body Metaphors in the Middle Ages,” in Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part III, M. Feher, ed. (New York: Zone Books, 1989) 12-27.


Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On vision and modernity in the nineteenth century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 1990).


Ildefonso Cerdá, Teoría general de la urbanización, y aplicación de sus principios y doctrinas a la reforma y ensanche de Barcelona (Madrid: Imprenta Española, 1867).


Ross Exo Adams, Circulation and Urbanization (London: Sage, in print).


Ildefonso Cerdá, Teoría de la construcción de las ciudades aplicada al proyecto de reforma y ensanche deBarcelona y otras conexos (Madrid: Instituto Nacional de la Administración Pública and Ayuntamiento de Madrid, 1859) § 1500.


See Reyner Banham, “A Home is not a House,” in Art in America no. 2 (1965) 70-79.


For more on the implications of nature-based solutions in the context of resilient urbanism, see my piece Ross Exo Adams, “An Ecology of Bodies,” in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary (New York City/Zürich: Columbia Books on the Architecture and the City/Lars Müller Publishers 2016) 181-190.


See Rebuild by Design, “Policy by Design: Promoting Resilience in Policy and Practice” (June 2014),


Ildefonso Cerdá, Teoría general de la urbanización (Madrid: Imprenta Española, 1867). See also Ross Exo Adams, Circulation and Urbanization (London: Sage, in print).


Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” in October 59 (1992) 3-7.


David Chandler, “Beyond neoliberalism; resilience, the new art of governing complexity,” in Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses, 2:1 (2014): 47-63.


See chapters in section III of Jennifer Gabrys, Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016) 183-265.


For a discussion on optimization and efficiency as the rhetorical driver of smart city urbanism, see Maros Krivy, “Toward a critique of cybernetic urbanism: The smart city and the society of control,” in Planning Theory (April, 2016) 1-23.


Antoinette Rouvroy, “The end(s) of critique: data-behaviourism vs. due process” in Privacy, Due Process and the Computational Turn: The philosophy of law meets the philosophy of technology, Mireille Hildebrandt and Katja De Vries (eds.) (London: Routledge, 2013).


Vilém Flusser, Post-History trans. Rodrigo Maltez Novaes (Minnesota: Univocal, 2013) 119.


Antoinette Rouvroy and Bernard Stiegler, “The Digital Regime of Truth: From the Algorithmic Governmentality to a New Rule of Law” in La Deleuziana: Online Journal of Philosophy no. 3 (2016) 9.


On destituent power, see Giorgio Agamben, “What is a destituent power?” in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, trans. Stephanie Wakefield, 32:1 (2014) 65-74.


See Stephanie Wakefield, “Field Notes from the Anthropocene: Living in the Back Loop” in The Brooklyn Rail, June 1, 2017: