The Promise of Infrastructure

Advanced Seminar

November 2–6, 2014

The Promise Of InfrastructureThe Promise Of InfrastructureAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Nikhil S. Anand, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Environment and Society, University of Minnesota; Hannah C. Appel, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles; and Akhil Gupta, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles. Photograph by William Geoghegan.The Promise Of InfrastructureAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Nikhil S. Anand, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Environment and Society, University of Minnesota; Hannah C. Appel, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles; and Akhil Gupta, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles. Photograph by William Geoghegan.

Infrastructures are at once technopolitical systems and cultural forms, designed to move people and things. Pipes, roads, and electric grids have long promised modernity to their subjects. That promise is contingent, however, as infrastructure’s assemblages are always haunted by breakdown. This tension between aspiration and failure, technological progress and its underbelly, makes the everyday life of infrastructure a productive location to examine the entanglements of technology and biopolitics in social life. This seminar drew on ethnographic research to theorize infrastructure as cultural forms and materializations of certain ideas of order and social inequality in cross cultural contexts.

Seminarians took a look at multiple infrastructures in radically different geographic, cultural, and political spaces from Equatorial Guinea to Vietnam, India to the U.S., and Peru to Nigeria. Discussions ranged over topics such as lead pipes, offshore rigs, half-built roads, radio transmission infrastructures, wind turbines, water meters, and smokestacks. “Despite this geographic and empirical diversity, both participants’ papers and the conversations they produced congealed around a few key topics, marking exciting new directions in anthropology,” write co-chairs, Nikhil Anand, Hannah Appel, and Akhil Gupta:

“Ethnographic attention to infrastructure—from public toilets to municipal water systems, from roads to leaded homes—forces us to rethink governance and citizenship not at a distance but pressing into the flesh, through questions of intimacy and proximity ... At stake ... is not only how infrastructures interpellate specific types of citizens, but how the immediacy and intimacy of infrastructures enable citizens to hail the state ... Through pipes, wires, and concrete, infrastructures can provide people with a direct point of connection through which “to hail the state to recognize them as publics.” Infrastructure does not allow state power to disavow itself. On the contrary, it is an intimate form of contact, presence, and potential.”

The edited volume titled, The Promise of Infrastructure, is forthcoming through SAR Press.

Nikhil S. Anand, Chair Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Environment and Society, University of Minnesota A Public Matter: Water, State, Biopolitical Intimacy
Hannah C. Appel, Chair Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles Infrastructural Time
Akhil Gupta, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles The Future in Ruins: Thoughts on the Temporality of Infrastructure
Geoffrey C. Bowker Professor, Department of Informatics, University of California, Irvine Sustainable Knowledge Infrastructures
Dominic Boyer Professor, Department of Anthropology, Rice University Infrastructure, Potential Energy, Revolution
Catherine Fennell Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University Wasted House, Leaded World: Making Abandonment Palpable
Penelope Harvey Professor, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester "To Resist a Likely Future" ... The Politics and the Promise of Infrastructural Formation
Brian Larkin Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Barnard College, Columbia University The Promise of Infrastructure
Antina von Schnitzler Assistant Professor, Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School Apartheid's Debris: Infrastructure and Temporalities of 'Transition' in South Africa
Christina Schwenkel Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside The Current Never Stops: Dreams of Technology in Socialist Vietnam

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