From Ruin to Revolution: Firing up the Ethnographic Imagination

Review by Natalia Kovalyova
December 2, 2019

The Promise of Infrastructure

by Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel
Published 2018

Duke University Press

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The Promise of Infrastructure is a stellar collection of essays by anthropologists and social scientists who explore roads, buildings, bridges, water meters, pipelines, power stations, and other structures which we encounter on a daily basis but whose contribution to the production of difference we frequently overlook. Focusing on the mundane (for instance, water taps) instead of the grandiose (for example, dams or a power grid), the essays dislodge the familiarity and unpretentiousness of infrastructures and foreground the network of long-established social categories that have formed around them. Collectively, the authors argue that those structures enable certain social occurrences, while rendering other occurrences impossible, and weigh in on how we experience the present and what we expect of the future.

Geographically, the volume is oriented toward the Global South and presents case studies from Equatorial Guinea, Peru, Vietnam, South Africa, and India, to name a handful of locations, where infrastructures are marked by the colonial legacy and where the unwillingness of the white men who“rema[de] the planet for their own convenience and luxury” (p. 239) to give them up in exchange for a common future can be cast into sharp relief. Thematically, the volume is divided into three sections, focusing on time, politics, and promise, respectively, with the “Introductory Note” discussing three precursors that laid the ground for the analysis of social implications of infrastructure, namely, science and technology studies, development studies, and urban geography, although the theoretical lineage of the volume also includes Marxism and post-colonial studies.

The essays gathered in the section on time address a specific temporality of infrastructure that makes it fluid, always changing, and betraying the appearance of having been completed. They emphasize that post completion infrastructures rely on maintenance and on the invisible labor that goes into their upkeep. For instance, in Chapter One, Hannah Appeal points out that despite their relative longevity, infrastructures often threaten to malfunction if not properly maintained. Relatedly, in Chapter Two, Akhil Gupta uses the metaphor of a ruin and argues that when infrastructure fails, it is the future that turns into a ruin. Since in the light of this metaphor infrastructure is always on the way to becoming a ruin, he proposes to approach it as a process of a particular kind – that of managing and controlling the populations via the control of various infrastructurally underpinned, so to speak, chains of distribution (e.g. food, water, or electricity) (pp. 65-67). Echoing the idea of distribution of public goods, Penny Harvey emphasizes in Chapter Three the importance of understanding infrastructures in context because of a certain degree of open-endedness and unpredictability of social and political outcomes that different contextual configurations allow.

The essays in the section on politics examine everyday infrastructures such as water meters in South Africa and the water system in India to demonstrate how those acquire political meanings, participate in a racial economy (Chapter Five), and buttress political agency when they become the sites of socialization and collective organization (Chapter Six). Such a capacity to gather the publics “around wells and tanks” (p. 159) complicates the previous accounts of publics formation in which the publics were imagined to be called into being primarily by discursive means. Additionally, Christina Schwenkel draws the readers’ attention to affective ties that infrastructures can generate and to new social worlds that they help create long after becoming obsolete or turning into ruins (Chapter Four). Her case study based in Vietnam demonstrates how grand projects of socialism continue to elicit political commitments even after the political regime itself long ceased to be.

Finally, the section on the promise of infrastructure explores the conditions under which it could help reshape the everyday experiences, political rationalities, and sensitivities. Brian Larkin’s essay (Chapter Seven) recalls his prior work on the use of radio in Nigeria and on its potential for the formation of new political subjects via its impact on what Raymond Williams called a “structure of feelings,” that is, a particular social experience of “actively lived and felt” meanings and values (p. 185-186).

In Chapter Eight, Geoffrey C. Bowker discusses a type of infrastructure different from those covered in the rest of the volume — knowledge infrastructure, to be precise — and teases out its dependence on other infrastructures, or, as he prefers to label it, its fit with them. Drawing on Timothy Mitchell’s proposition (2011) about a direct relationship between the form of energy we consume and the social theories we develop, Bowker points out that contemporary scholarship still relies on the 19th century technologies and modes of expression that privilege textual formats (such as journal articles, monographs, conference papers) and that discourage new forms of knowledge expression.

Concluding this section and the volume itself, Dominic Boyer (Chapter Nine) offers an argument that since infrastructures enable the storage and expenditure of energy (broadly defined), they “can be viewed in terms of political energy” as well (p. 227). On this view and echoing Penny Harvey’s point about the analytical importance of context, infrastructures do not produce a predetermined effect and could be “revolutionary as well as conservative” (p. 231). Therefore, Boyer urges us to strive for revolutionary infrastructures as “a process of personal and civilizational re-becoming” (p. 239) and to take a “consciously willed and willful effort” not to reproduce infrastructures with a trailing legacy of racism, colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, and similarly troubling heritage.

Since the revolutionary promise of infrastructure is not a given, contextual factors responsible for its leaning one way or the other call for a closer analysis, especially because Boyer does not specify how infrastructures that once supported the practices of exclusion and discrimination can shed them and develop a set of new practices and social relationships uncontaminated by the past or what can ensure that the old practices do not get reproduced in and by new infrastructures. To start answering these questions, this volume encourages scholars to focus on the local and away from the overarching generalizations about how infrastructures are deployed politically. In its turn, the contextual embeddedness of infrastructure checks the revolutionary optimism and urges to develop a nuanced understanding of diverse factors and practices that help shape new publics and new political subjects.

To this end, it emphasizes thinking with infrastructure rather than about it in order to illuminate and (possibly) resolve many conceptual entanglements. Calibrating this new way of thinking, scholars would need to pay attention not only to technical affordances of infrastructures and social and political networks around them but also to stories, metaphors, analogies and narratives through which this new way of thinking is being fleshed out.

A few long-standing concerns in the studies of infrastructure are present in the volume only as passing mentions, for instance, the interplay between maintenance and repair work (especially of mobile phones and other electronic devices that are frequently outsourced to the Global South) or the relationship between maintenance and sustainability (are contemporary infrastructures built to last for a shorter period of time and by such “planned” obsolescence to encourage innovation or are they getting more durable and therefore requiring long-term investments in maintenance?). Digital infrastructure – including the internet – has also fallen outside the scope of the volume, making the question of persistent invisibility of digital infrastructure and digital labor even more urgent. Finally, privatization of services and of infrastructures that deliver them (for instance, running water, sewage treatment, garbage collection, etc.) is touched upon several cases in the volume but deserves a closer analytical attention to reveal how ownership intersects with infrastructural temporality, impacts the living conditions of different social groups, and is involved in publics formation. Anyone interested in pursuing further research on such topics will find in this volume a solid launching pad.

Natalia Kovalyova (Ph.D., UT Austin) studies the relationships between discourse and power in a variety of contexts from presidential communication to academic writing. Her most recent research focuses on the role of the media in producing, maintaining, mending, or challenging social cohesion. She is a member of the National Communication Association, Rhetoric Society of America, American Political Science Association, and the International Society for Political Psychology.

© 2019 Natalia Kovalyova