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Infrastructure: Commentary by AbdouMaliq Simone

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Infrastructure."

The question “what is that we can do together?”—whoever and wherever that “we” may exist—is largely a question of what is in between us; what enables us to reach toward or withdraw from each other. What is the materiality of this in-between—the composition and intensity of its durability, viscosity, visibility, and so forth?  What is it that enables us to be held in place, to be witnessed, touched, avoided, scrutinized or secured?  Infrastructure is about this in-between.

Infrastructure is a complex surrounds. For example, urban residents put together and are themselves put together through a continuous interchange of materials and the expressions these interchanges make possible. These are expressions of physical exertion, visible arrays, and symbolic arrangements—all of which constitute possibilities and constraints for what can be done. Infrastructure exerts a force: not simply in the materials and energies it avails but also the way it attracts people, draws them in, coalesces and expends their capacities. Thus, the distinction between infrastructure and sociality is fluid and pragmatic rather than definitive. People work on things to work on each other, as these things work on them.

While infrastructure attempts to suture, articulate, or circumvent, its proficiency of engineering, substance of investment, or institutional support does not guarantee that it will accomplish what it sets out to do. On the one hand, the intensities exerted by things and bodies may generate attractions and repulsions, draw things near or far. But there are no predetermined reasons why things or events should necessarily connect, be in a relationship with each other. The subsequent relationships may retrospectively reveal properties that explain how things are attuned to each other, complement or engender new capacities. But these characteristics or properties cannot fully account for how the relationship was operationalized. The efficacy of infrastructure retains a dependence on affiliations and investments that can never be fully specified (Halkort 2012).

Accordingly, as infrastructure configures specific engagements and circuits of exchange and attention, sedentary positions will be unsettled and remade. Any transverse from “point A” to “point B” will be vulnerable to interruptions, deviations, and momentary conjunctions—among bodies and things—that cannot be put into words. But these in-between moments will exert an affect, and people will learn from them. This, too, will be an aspect of infrastructure, in the way that Julia Elyachar (2012) talks about an implicit, tacit knowledge that makes possible a relationship between public financial institutions and clients in Cairo. Here, the cultivation of “secrets of the trade” are not the property of individuals but rather emanate from the conduits through which actors engage each other, in the ways that a sense of trust and efficacy in potential transactions are to be actualized.

On the other hand, the resultant media of connections—roads, networks, wires, pipes—may be appropriated for unanticipated uses and movements. Daniel Mains’s (2012) discussion of the attitudes toward and popular investments in road construction in Jimma, Ethiopia reflect the fundamental ambiguity of roads: they are instruments that connect specific points and upon which travel requires specific capacities. Their construction displaces other uses such as residences and work. Yet they are “set upon” in order to lead those who traverse them into more intensive proximities—to a distant and ineffective state, to particular aspirations, or to unknown destinations.

These relationships with the state can be more than aspirational or the concretization of a collective imagination. Whatever relations are configured are vulnerable to volatilities of all kinds. The ground is rarely steady and predictable under anyone’s feet, so force is needed to proceed in any one direction. Flows of material and people are the result of pressure, and to make things move pressure needs to be applied. As Nikhil Anand (2011) indicates, residents of Mumbai are situated in a “hydraulic citizenship” at the intersection of technologies of politics and the politics of technology. This is a matter of who can get what amounts of water to flow their way given their geophysical location, network of relations, and available tools and technologies. Infrastructural breakdowns and deficits become occasions for remaking forms of political claims, technical adjustments in equipment, and realigning institutional and political relations. It is a process that must be continuously worked on, for the working out of completing claims, policy frameworks, and technical capacities means that the water will inevitably run dry.

This process of mobilizing sufficient pressure ends up intensifying the volatility of relations in the city and thus the uncertainty as to where adequate supplies of water are to come from. Yet this process of attempting to piece together sufficient pressure is also the very thing that enables distinct population groups and districts to continuously intersect with each other, even when each is forced to resort to its own means of securing their inhabitation (Amin 2012).

* * *

The question “what can materials do?” is always being worked out; it is a question largely contingent on how things can be assembled and related and what any subsequent assemblage can “pass on” to a larger environment: what it can reflect, defer, and distribute. The development of infrastructure often trips on this point of “passing on,” instead aspiring to a complete summation of everything “so far” or to a more perfect form imposed upon an environment. Whatever stability infrastructure accomplishes, however, still depends on the messy earthly and social actions that infrastructure provides sufficient definition for, while at the same time not draining them of their intensity. Crowding and solitude, whispers in the dark, brash shouting of claims, storage and release, exchange of sensibilities, precise identifications, and rampant ambiguity — all of these are able to ebb and flow.

Much infrastructure operates as weak, gestural interventions into spectral matters, reflecting the recognition that a multitude of operations, metabolisms, algorithms, and forces converge in a particular space. This convergence produces unforeseen implications and potentials. Thus, the spectral gets seized upon as a horizon of control. This can be seen in the way that property is more a barometer of financial possibility than it is a concrete space. It is a way of calculating a city’s worth, how much it is worth investing in, taking seriously (Martin 2011).

The spectral dimension is not simply the relative invisibility of much infrastructure, not simply wireless, optical, nano-technological, or biosynthetic operations. Nor is it simply the use of infrastructure as a locus of financial experimentation. The spectral also rests in much more prosaic considerations. It is the conceit that particular kinds of things can be built anywhere, regardless of the specificities of setting or the practicality of use. Filip De Boeck (2011) demonstrates this in his work on Cité de la Fleuve in Kinshasa, a new, supermodern city being set alongside a city of nine million with an annual capital budget of $25 million. Besides the opacity of its financing and the scaling back of its original aspirations, the sheer arrogance of its development guarantees a certain fascination, a disarmed reception that makes the so-called real world finally available to a city where there are few salaried jobs and the exigency to make do in almost any way one can—including proficiencies in other kinds of spectral preoccupations.

In Jia Zhangke's film “The World,” the world, as conveyed through the construction of replicas, can indeed come into the lives of everyone and intensify the desire to be part of “it.” But, as the director shows, this kind of inclusion, this infrastructural connection always comes at a price—in the accidents that inevitably occur in round-the-clock labor, gas leaks, and the deployment of young, illiterate men who repeat the same mechanical operation on architectural wonders. Even though the dream of biomimesis would have robotic worker bees construct a new generation of towers, for the foreseeable future the glories of infrastructure still require some form of near-servitude.

Infrastructure contains, enfolds, channels, protects, and defends. But just as the workers who build it are exposed to deleterious conditions, infrastructure is also always already exposed, its surfaces open to both anticipated and unanticipated flows, wearing, tensions, extreme weather and feedback loops. In Vilém Flusser’s (2005) well-known phrase, there is a “confusion of cables,” where the bounds and definitions that some infrastructure supposedly sustains are transgressed by the operations of other infrastructure that pump information in and out of discrete homes, workplaces, and institutions. Sometimes it is not clear where infrastructure is going, both sheen and dilapidation acting as a ruse, as some of the most modern of projects end up having short life spans and near-ruins are functionally operative or transformed for foreseeable futures.

Such exposures can be seized upon as a potentiality not to connect, to express limited refusals, to be incorporated into a larger matrix of rules and administrative domains. As Jonathan Bach (2010) points out in his article about the growth of Shenzhen, the enormous growth of the metropolitan region enfolded rural villages whose special status allowed residents to collectively administer and inherit land and to then turn this singularity into the development of populated settlements for the migrant workers building the larger city and working in its factories. Villagers as landlords made large amounts of money providing not only rental accommodation but spaces of inhabitation and production, which forged a large degree of autonomy from the enforcement of maps, directives, and imaginaries operative in the rest of the official city.  

At the same time, the official city offloaded much of the costs of service provisioning to the villages, enabling it to continue to grow at a breakneck pace. A persistent symbolic divide between city and village, even as villages have now for decades been incorporated into the city, exposes both to an ambiguity that is usefully pursued by each. This exposure generates tensions and volatilities for which there is no clear resolution through the usual devices of force, development, or compensation. Still, the existence of villages, of others for whom there seem to be an inexhaustible supply of reasons for deeming inappropriate, compels a civilizing drive to be concretized through infrastructure.

Is there then a proper place, role, or definition of infrastructure, especially when distinctions between the organic and inorganic, the here and there, are intensely slippery and often of little use? As Kimberly Christen (2006) points out, the aboriginal provides ongoing occasions to work out “proper” relationships, where traditional culture is always intersecting with new circuits of exchange and demand, always being put into new kinds of relationships. In her article, Australian Mungamunga women carefully select and perform ritual songs for an internationally distributed album and, in doing so, take on the task of trying to preserve and innovate important cultural knowledge through inserting it into new routes of circulation. In order for song tracks to address the applicability of cultural knowledge to an expanded range of considerations, the singers must be exposed to new sites and actors, and this requires movement. Attempts to shape the conduits of such movements through land rights, debates about cultural authenticity, and transnational alliance among indigenous people go a long way toward shaping what cultural materials can do.

At the same time, for these Mungamunga women, taking apart that which seems to hold together the edifice of indigenous knowledge is an important component of what enables it to hold. It is about the modulation of exposure and visibility, about what is to be engaged and what can be withheld, not as ontological positions but as interlinked strategies. Likewise, our understandings of infrastructure come and go, and the task is how to build bridges among various materiality and uncertainties. For the durability of infrastructure rests in the capacity to construct lines of connection between that which seemingly cannot be connected, between disparate experiences or ways of doing things, all of which are without confident translations or whose capacities will largely remain withdrawn. Like all bridges, there is a great deal of suspense involved.


Amin, Ash. 2012. Land of Strangers. Malden, Mass.: Polity.

Anand, Nikhil. 2011. “Pressure: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai.” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4: 542–64.

Bach, Jonathan. 2010. “‘They Come in Peasants and Leave Citizens’: Urban Villages and the Making of Shenzhen, China.” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 3: 421–58.

Christen, Kimberly. 2006. “Tracking Properness: Repackaging Culture in a Remote Australian Town.” Cultural Anthropology 21, no. 3: 416–46.

De Boeck, Filip. 2011. “Inhabiting Ocular Ground: Kinshasa’s Future in the Light of Congo’s Spectral Urban Politics.” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 2: 263–86.

Elyachar, Julia. 2012. “Before (and After) Neoliberalism: Tacit Knowledge, Secrets of the Trade, and the Public Sector in Egypt.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 1: 76–96.

Flusser, Vilém. 2005. "The City as Wave-Trough in the Image Flood." Translated by Phil Gochenour. Critical Inquiry 31, no. 2: 320–28.

Halkort, Monika. 2012. "Taming the Insurgent City: On the Political Ontology of Ownership in the Reconstruction of a Palestinian Refugee Camp." PhD dissertation, University of Belfast.

Mains, Daniel. 2012. “Blackouts and Progress: Privatization, Infrastructure, and a Developmentalist State in Jimma, Ethiopia." Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 1: 3–27.

Martin, Reinhold. 2011. "Financial Imaginaries: Toward a Philosophy of the City." Grey Room, no. 42: 60–79.