The supply chain is an enduring global imaginary. It implies a linear, manageable, and reliable relationship between the sites where raw materials are mined, the factories and refineries where they are then processed, and the retailers and other outlets where the products they are used to create are delivered to consumers. Supply chains tell a story about how commodities are produced and delivered, how they move through and around the world. Yet, the rationalized system of extraction, production, and consumption that the metaphor of a supply chain implies does not actually exist. At its best, it is an accounting measure used by large retailers and industrial operators to manage vendors and displace costs and risks onto others. More often, the supply chain is a term used to obscure the otherwise unruly and cacophonous network of raw materials, labor, logistics, processing, and manufacturing required to keep modernity as the Global North understands it humming along.

As a conceptual and managerial tool, the supply chain emerged in the 1990s through the work of analysts at Walmart, JB Hunt, and other large retailers and logistics companies. 1 It remains the foremost method for thinking about the movement of materials, labor, products, and other commodities (things) in the 21st century. There are even executive education programs that exist solely to train new generations of supply chain managers at leading schools of business around the world. 

Conceptually, the supply chain is object-focused and reductive. It describes a set of discrete things and sites, linked together through highly sophisticated systems of control and surveillance that make it possible to track, say, a kilogram of lithium as it moves from a mine to processing facility to battery manufacturing plant to an electric vehicle and to one’s household. 2 As imagined, it is easily measurable, monitorable, and manageable. Breaks in the chain are often described as disruptions–breaks from the norm of an otherwise reliable and predictable system. But, as Miriam Posner argues, supply chains only appear to work as well as they do largely because of “strategic gaps in our knowledge about them.” 3

  • 1LeCavalier, Jesse. The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
  • 2Link to Rare Earth Minerals text
  • 3Posner, Miriam. “Breakpoints and Black Boxes: Information in Global Supply Chains.” Postmodern Culture 31, no. 3 (2021).

These strategic gaps show that this way of imagining and managing the supply chain imaginary bears little resemblance to how things actually move through and around the world. Material flows are not so linear and neat; shipping and processing operations are not so easily managed. Disruptions are less a set of episodic shifts in the reliability and predictability of a supply chain and more a feature of the world’s robust-yet-fragile system of production, extraction, and just-in-time delivery and consumption. Things do not always move neatly and predictably from one link in a chain to the next through a set of closed-off pathways. Rather, things have a tendency to escape the boundaries of a supply chain, moving outward, upward, and otherwise well beyond the prescribed pathways of supply chain managers through unsanctioned, informal systems and sanctioned, transnational infrastructural systems alike. 4 Their movement is halting and disjointed, not smooth and frictionless. It is shaped less by managerial prowess and more by the unmanageable social, technical, and political bottlenecks that divert, disrupt, and otherwise upend the movement of goods around the world–a phenomenon Anna Tsing describes as “awkward connections” in global capitalism. 5 The metaphor of the supply chain is a performative practice, intended to obscure these awkward connections which, in reality, are the necessary choke-points from which the global logistics industry stages and broadcasts its claims of frictionless movement down smooth, linear paths.

Scholars of logistics like Deborah Cowen and Alexander Klose have shown how the knowledge structures underlying the supply chain concept emerge from the military histories of logistics. 6  This militarized history has had far reaching effects, and has embedded very specific modes of knowing and doing that have normalized and standardized militarized logistical structures across vast swaths of everyday living, from containerized shipping, to the functionally impenetrable single-body design of the iPhone. Thinking about the world in terms of chains requires metaphors of bondage, separation, and control. Klose illustrates how thinking like a chain means thinking in terms of perpetually broken, separated links. Chain-thinking “must proceed from this constitutive separation of interrelated things.” 7 This separation is endemic to the system, as multinational corporations maintain precarious control over their supply chains by isolating nodes from each other, a process Anna Tsing calls “niche segregation.” 8 Niche segregation intends to eschew responsibility for labor and ethics abuses from the wider system to individual links in the chain. It incentivizes a kind of strategic ignorance of the more complex inner workings of a company’s flow of things. 9 In such a model, corporate managers are able to reap the benefits of an exploitative global supply chain system while avoiding responsibility for any violence or unethical practices that may occur at any individual link in this alleged chain. Thus, the proper functioning of a global supply chain depends largely on misunderstanding the actual material landscape that things move across in order to maintain an object-focused metaphor of militarized control, all for the express benefit of wealthy corporations. An internationalist Green New Deal must break these metaphors of bondage and imagine new landscapes of how things move across a damaged, changing, and uncertain world. 

  • 4Arboleda Martín. Planetary Mine Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 2020.
  • 5Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • 6Cowen, Deborah. The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014., Klose, Alexander. The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015. 
  • 7Klose, The Container Principle, p. 181.
  • 8Tsing, Anna. “Supply Chains and the Human Condition.” Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 2 (2009): 148–76.
  • 9Posner, Miriam, “See No Evil”, Logic, no. 4 (2018): 215-230. Republished at:

The supply chain is not and never was the whole story. Having evolved, alongside business science, out of the field of military logistics in the 1960s, supply chains have always posed as manageable pathways of production, seductive in their clean, linear movement. 10 But this alleged linearity is in reality a disorderly palimpsest of black boxes, the connections between which have grown more complex and opaque over time, such that it is now basically impossible to know a supply chain from beginning to end. 11 It is also nearly impossible to reconstruct them from the ground up, as they depend on vast networks of capital and resources to which only a select few have access. 12 This is partly a problem of transparency, of being able to see what is actually going on. But more than that, it is a problem of how to think about supply chains in the first place.

The deeper issue is epistemological–that is, it is a question of knowledge and how metaphors are built to describe the world–and concerns how we come to know our relationships, and how we operationalize that knowledge. To this end, Field Notes seeks to move beyond the concept of the supply chain, eschewing its linear alpha and omega, in favor of more dynamic concepts that can more readily address the practices of maintenance, repair, and care, which undergird, all too often invisibly, the miasma of messy relationships we call the supply chain. 13 This project develops a framework through which to attend to the complex intersections of people, things, and ecosystems, not as distinct areas of concern, but as a recursive, interdependent process of co-production. 14

  • 10Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics. 
  • 11See Tsing, “Supply Chains and the Human Condition” and Posner, “See No Evil”.
  • 12Thwaites, Thomas. “The Toaster Project.” The toaster project, n.d.
  • 13See Jackson, Steven J. “Rethinking Repair”, in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, eds. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Bosckowski, & Kristen Foot. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014, 221-240. Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Mattern, Shannon, “Maintenance and Care” Places Journal (2018),
  • 14Turnhout, E., Metze, T., Wyborn, C., Klenk, N., Louder, E., “The Politics of Co-production: Participation, Power and Transformation”, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 42 (2020): 15–21.

This framework proposes a new topology to replace the chain as the dominant paradigm through which to understand global mobilities: the supply matrix. We use the term matrix because, unlike network, assemblage, or supply chain, a matrix can be multi-dimensional, while simultaneously implying a power structure holding it together; a matrix is a constructed and designed way of being and relating. Unlike a supply chain, in which analysis occurs largely in two dimensions (upstream to downstream), the supply matrix is volumetric, its characteristics informed by far more than just its nodes, edges, and paths. Relations are precariously placed along these nodes and edges by the power and political economy of resource supply chains [sic], but these relations are also indirectly influenced by the matrix’s other, less immediately salient attributes (such as scale, ideology, ecological feedback, etc.). What swims in the voluminous space between the nodes and edges, the bumpy and imperfect paths? Crucially, while the metaphor of the supply chain is object-focused (meaning, the perspective through which we understand the supply chain is that of the commodity and its movements through the linear space of extraction, production, and consumption), the supply matrix is relation-focused. It is not focused specifically on the commodity, but rather the relations that hold together the conditions for that commodity to move in the first place. This perspective places practices of labor, maintenance, and care in the foreground of this imaginary, emphasizing the importance of what Keller Easterling calls interdependent “interplay”, to the form and function of the larger supply matrix. 15

A supply matrix is a constantly shifting, semi-porous structure of processes that work through each other, oftentimes indirectly. Supply chains are like this too–hard to see, hard to describe, with indeterminate shapes. But in shifting metaphors from chain to matrix, the attention and visibility moves from objects to relations, which can help yield greater visibility to these obscure and seemingly ghostly processes. Attending to the indirect effects of these processes is essential to better understanding the multitude of ways commodities are touched and changed in their life cycles. Supply chains are rife with strategically unknown “unintended outsides,” but supply matrices attempt to cultivate and know these outsides. 16 Through careful attention to the multi-scalar, material practices and processes of movement, energy production, and resource extraction, this kind of matrix-thinking can help cultivate a sense of what Thea Riofrancos calls “supply chain solidarity,” and build a way to a more collective understanding of the things that make life itself go round, the mineral bedrock from which they emerge, and the colonial histories and path dependencies continually reinscribed into this emergence. 17

  • 15Easterling, Keller. Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World. London: Verso, 2021.
  • 16Cooper, Zane Griffin Talley. “Of Dog Kennels, Magnets, and Hard Drives: Dealing with Big Data Peripheries.” Big Data & Society, (July 2021).
  • 17On supply chain solidarity and extractivism see, Aronoff, Kate, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea N. Riofrancos. A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. London; New York: Verso, 2019. and Riofrancos, Thea. Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.