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Seeing through Infrastructure

Sudha Vasan ( is at the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi.

The Promise of Infrastructure edited by Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta and Hannah Appel, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018; pp 264, 1,984


The Promise of Infrastructure is an important intellectual intervention. It brings together a coherent and substantive discussion among scholars who have been influential in debates on the infrastructural turn in North American anthropology. It brings critical engagement with the framework (infrastructure) through an innovative ethnographic method.

Two aspects of the infrastructural turn in academia are significant—one, a shift in the nature of the object that is studied, and two, the promise of a new theoretical framework or vantage point that produces better understanding of society. The object of ethnography here is a network or a system, rather than a single development project or community. These essays make a strong case for this as the intimate gaze on infrastructures as experienced in marginal social locations illuminates spatial and temporal connections and lived experiences. The introduction sets up a nuanced engagement with infrastructure as an analytic as much as an object of ethnography. It draws from diverse and multiple theoretical lineages and offers a promising critical review of the potential of infrastructure. Infrastructure in anthropology has been wedded to three popular theoretical traditions—biopolitics, science and technology studies and techno-politics (as an earlier review essay by Larkin [2013] recognises), and the ethnographic essays in this book broadly follow this pattern.

Mundane material infrastructures such as roads, water pipelines, electricity lines, oil pipelines, sewage systems are dense, social, material, aesthetic and political formations that form and connect our embodied experiences and future expectations. This premise is coherently and repeatedly elaborated in each chapter of the book, with three sections engaging respectively with temporality, politics and promise of infrastructures. Four chapters following the introduction extend the spatial focus of infrastructural studies to emphasise infrastructures as spatio-temporal objects. Hannah Appel, through ethnographic attention to lives of oil-funded development in Equatorial Guinea, shows how developmentalist narratives of linear progress are confounded by attention to infrastructure’s actual life courses. Akhil Gupta conceptualises infrastructures as things in motion or mobile assemblages in time. This temporality leads him to say that projects are not “unfinished” but in fact are future in ruins. The visibility of infrastructure, such “ruins,” serves a pedagogical role—a biopolitical project of creating citizens who share the goal of inhabiting a modern future. In a similar vein, Penny Harvey explores the promise of road infrastructure in Peru, through the expectations of people who anticipate it. Through what appear as unfinished promises, she argues, “The when of infrastructural form will always imply a deferral; a further waiting, a renewed or even crushed expectation” (p 99).

Symbolic intimacies of energy infrastructures in Vietnam are elucidated by Christina Schwenkel in a creative and engrossing ethnography that shares poetry and aesthetics in everyday lives. While the theorisation on promise and biopolitics adds to the coherence of the book, it is dissatisfying as it seems to downplay the distinct Vietnamese history that shines through in the ethnographic detail. If what Larkin says later in this book “Objects are not simply material assemblages wholly autonomous from aesthetic fields and the political nationalities that accompany them” (p 197) is taken seriously, perhaps these energy infrastructures may reveal more about specific anti-imperialist struggles and popular nationalisms.

Two chapters, first on infrastructures in post-Apartheid South Africa (Antina von Schnitzler), and the second on water pipes in Mumbai (Nikhil Anand), examine contemporary protests demanding resources distributed by infrastructures. Both argue that infrastructure provides an epistemological vantage point and a different purchase on politics, one that is less linear, and notices the affective and the embodied:

[T]he persistence of this administrative-infrastructural terrain—the affective registers of anti-apartheid struggle that simply could not be erased, the embodied stances of defiance towards the state and the intransigent subjectivities that lived on after the end of apartheid. (p 142)

Limits of Micropolitics

The last three chapters of the book are broader and a more general rumination on the promise of infrastructure. Here, Brian Larkin persuasively argues against the separation between the material and the discursive, and between the one downside of this focus on micropolitics is that it emerges as an all-encompassing alternative to broader democratic politics or political economy rather than in a dialectical relation with it. For instance, the focus on slum-dwellers and subaltern politics of water in Mumbai seems to sever its connection to the politics of continuous unhindered water material and form of infrastructures.

Geoffrey Bowker makes an interesting case for examining knowledge infrastructures in the same framework as water pipelines and roads. He points out that, “Often our awareness of infrastructure arises at its strain or breakdown” (p 212). He echoes a theme that emerges evocatively in the book—of failed promises, ruins, debris, incomplete infrastructures.

New infrastructures are promises made in the present about the future ... Suspended in the present, they symbolise the ruins of an anticipated future, and the debris of an anticipated or experienced liberal modernity. (p 27)

Partly anticipating this, both the introduction and last chapter (Dominic Boyer) address the questions of: Why infrastructure? Why now?

It is striking that the conceptual rise to intuitiveness of infrastructure roughly parallels the crisis and stasis of neoliberal governance since 2008. (p 223)

Crumbling infrastructure in the post-welfare-capitalism phase in advanced capitalist countries is one reason infrastructure becomes visible as a directly experienced, as well as a useful analytic category. This, however, is one condition of infrastructure under current capitalism. The other is the deep entanglement of industrial and finance capital with extensive infrastructure projects that promise secured returns to capital, primarily in the non-Western world. This role of capital as one, but not the sole, driving force behind the infrastructural has practically no space in the analytical framework of this work. Focus on infrastructural time, an important contribution of this book, will also be enriched through engagement with other dimensions of time such as time–space compression of capital (Harvey 1990).

This edited collection establishes the contribution of ethnography’s intimate gaze through infrastructure as a theory. However, the gaze of ethnography is almost completely on regions and peoples where public infrastructures were/are not ubiquitous. The emphasis on “strain and breakdown” and “biopolitics” seems peculiar in contexts where people demand intervention of a reluctant state and display agency in demanding infrastructures. This raises doubts that a critique of the “completeness” of infrastructures perhaps misreads the discourse of infrastructure, which may be neither singular not static nor consistent. Ethnographic attention to the making of infrastructures and its promises to the elite would offer a significant dimension to this debate.

Lastly, in spite of anthropology’s periodic engagement with reflexivity, some of its persistent ideological infrastructures become evident in textual silences. For example, the United States (US) Air Force, becomes the Air Force (p 104) in an ethnography on North Vietnam whose own Air Force is invisible; while affective intimacies are perceptively elaborated, the anti-imperialism of Vietnamese opposition to the US aggression is absent. The relationship of North Vietnamese state and the Communist Party with people is reduced to a promise of “socialist modernity,” as if their leadership and success in the anti-imperialist struggle are irrelevant. While embodied defiance to the state is registered in South Africa, the continuing and gaping racial separations between the white minority and other racial groups that is “liberalised” away by the rainbow constitution of post-apartheid state goes unnoticed.

Overall, however, this book presents a combination of insightful theorisations and an engaging ethnography. Attention to infrastructural time and the materiality of infrastructures that emerge from ethnographic attention are significant contributions of this collection that future studies can ill afford to ignore. It is essential, critical reading for all scholars and students of society.


Harvey, David (1990): The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Larkin, B (2013): “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 42, pp 327–43.

Updated On : 29th Nov, 2019


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