The resurgent impact of the Covid-19 delta variant in Fall 2021 has amplified the pandemic’s supply chain disruptions. Stock has run out. Shipments have slowed. Prices have risen. Consumer demand is at levels that – in some areas – exceed all prior demand, with temporary price fluctuations giving way to rampant inflation. In this context, an absence of clear explanations for uneven distribution has provided a formative canvas for false, misleading and sometimes dangerous claims about the state of global supply. Refracting an array of imaginaries built around the obtuse operations of global logistics, narratives surrounding the supply chain have become a site for contested claims about the interconnected nature of contemporary life. Dislocated images of empty shelves circulate, their ubiquitous use in polarized political debates such that they have been flagged as misinformation. Photographs of vinyl sheets and cardboard inserts in awkward approximation of absent goods are mocked by some, but suggest to others signs of deliberate subterfuge. Even mundane maritime maps are assembled as evidence of – commenters claim – countries “under attack.”
Here the manifest becomes an accounting of injuries. I think this provides a better model for unraveling the global supply chain than transparency. Rather than allow transparency to remain as a form of corporate responsibility, with “mapping the supply chain” an exercise in corporate power, “making out its manifest” might now attempt to account for our value, and our injuries. It records the places where labor has been exploited, where the earth has been plundered, where waste overruns into rivers, and poison bleeds into the air. It is not a proclamation from on high, but an admonition from below. Not an attempt at supply chain resilience, but an opportunity for supply chain reconciliation.
Merging visual representation with textual listing, the mail-order catalogue brought the anticipation of availability to the work of supply. As it did, it crystalized the expectations of capitalism for contemporary consumer culture. This essay surveys some examples of this form around this moment of transformation: as the catalogue form gave way to the catalogue function, and the raw stuff of supply transformed into an operative relation—an ontological object defined not by material presence, but by the potential for supply.
This article interrogates the emergence of the supply chain, and the logistical modes of operation it entails, as metaphor for managing the digital distribution of data – adapting approaches from the critical study of logistics in order to re-incorporate the political, social, and environmental attachments that ‘digital supply chains’ attempt to obfuscate. To this end, it considers discourses around power and cultural politics that mirror critiques of traditional logistical infrastructures. Instead of conflict minerals, for example, conflict domains; in place of security concerns around cargo containers, data containers; rather than workers on the factory floor, labourers in a digital network of ‘sweatshops.’ These comparisons reveal differences between traditional supply chains and their digital counterparts – the most troubling of which is their infrastructural instability. With components that can be replaced while retaining their essential shape, those who depend on digital platforms can find themselves open to all sorts of redirected entanglements.
The history of a product is told by the marks of its making. The stamps and seals of an object once encoded an originary identity connected to an individual craft hall and craftsperson, promising that an object had been “made in” Sheffield, for example, or Solingen. But beyond these obvious indications was the language of assembly itself: The unfinished sides, unraveled threads, and slips of hammer and chisel that until recently marked our manufacture. Heavily accented and regional, this was a kind of communication visible to all but comprehensible only to craftspeople. These were the human signs of production.
Fruits and vegetables, milk and meat—even the grain to feed the animals that provide them—all seem set to unravel. But when these chains—sick and weakened—stumble and fall, the result is not just the empty space on store shelves. In this breakdown we find an entirely unfamiliar state. The supply chain is an act of assembly, but now—it seems—is time for something else. This is a time of disassembly.
This article examines the origins not only of the media that underlie logistical operation, but the techniques that have shaped and structured them. To do so, I focus on the logistical technique of assembly. Not just of parts, but of places and people. Assembly, here, becomes an ur-mediative technique, one produced both before and beside the attendant media functions of storage and transmission. Long before its instantiation in the operations of contemporary software systems, I examine how this logistical technique emerged in the confines of sites like the ancient storehouse. As I do, I consider how the abstract forms of mediation developed there made warehouses accessible as a new kind of virtual assembly, precipitating the instrumental order critical to the operation of the global supply chain.
This chapter engages with the logistical legacies of the Bauhaus and their implications for the future of remote production in artistic practice and industrial manufacturing. Taking the Bauhaus as a site of investigation into the possibilities of distribution, mobility, and assembly, it argues that its legacy is a form of design that is both obfuscating and instrumental.”
When Western eyes follow the snaking path of the supply chain to its distant ends, they find there surprisingly familiar things. In what should be a diverse and many-faceted site, there is a reliable regularity. They sometimes find factory floors, rows of workers, hands gloved and faces masked, and they attempt, then, to offer an unmasking. But the site I am concerned with is the one comprised of massive markets filled with endless items, stored in booths and boxes waiting in preparative purchase. It is here that we find the liminal site of global logistical assembly. In the space of the Shenzhen markets in southern China and the digital designs of Alibaba, we find a history of Western fascination with the “Oriental bazaar” that has produced the imagination of a logistical territory which promises an approach to the otherwise inaccessible landscape of global supply.
This article examines the ways of knowing that govern public constructions of knowledge in the manufacture of the mobile phone—its cultural meaning, sociality of labor, and environmental consequences. It does so to consider the “material epistemology” of the mobile phone, the way in which one comes to know these devices, especially through the devices themselves. In modern manufacture, the incorporation of corporate supplier audits and investigative reporting into public discourse reveals an epistemology of production that is primarily imagined, rather than historically and ethnographically realized. Although the public epistemology of the mobile supply chain is built from the model of the telephone and telegraph, these networks were themselves mystified, displaced, and obscured. This is illustrated by examining material and conceptual differences between the historic supply chain of the telephone manufacturer Western Electric, and those imagined for contemporary companies like Apple.