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Infrastructure: Commentary by Filip de Boeck

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

A decade ago, a growing awareness emerged as to the need to approach the issue of urban life from a wider perspective—that of the (urban) global South—in order to broaden our theoretical scope and expand our common understanding of what urbanity might mean. The figure of Kinshasa is often invoked, used, and abused as a trope to represent the quintessential postcolonial city. Whether or not this is true, Kinshasa has certainly more than enough decentering power to force us into reconsidering many of the common definitions and taken-for-granted categories we have used so far to figure out the qualities of urban life today. The following lines pick up on this. Rather than offering a well-structured statement, I will attempt to formulate some impromptu remarks, ideas, and suggestions, which find their starting point in the kind of questions which I have explored over the years in my own work on Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. And here I should add that my response has not only benefited from long-term conversations with a multitude of interlocutors in Kinshasa, but also from a much wider dialogue with many other disciplines (anthropology, certainly, but also urban planning, architecture, and social geography); scholars such AbdouMaliq Simone, Dominique Malaquais, Achille Mbembe, Sarah Nuttall, Jennifer Robinson, Edgar Pieterse, Koen Van Synghel, Teresa Caldeira, Jane Guyer, Ash Amin, and Bogumil Jewsiewicki, to name but a few; and, not least, a wide variety of artists such as Bylex, Sammy Baloji, and Marie-Françoise Plissart.

Initially, my interest in infrastructure grew from the fact that I tried to come to terms with the specific meanings of a notion such as urbanity in a place like Kinshasa. It also constituted an attempt to generate novel approaches to capture the specific metamorphoses of urbanscapes in central Africa and beyond: its paradoxes, disjunctures, closures and possibilities. One can hardly underestimate the importance of the built form and of material, physical infrastructure if one wants to understand the ways in which urban residents unfold, generate, and design urban space. However, for decades now, Kinshasa has been a city where formal urban planning and architecture have been almost nonexistent and where the remaining material infrastructures—certainly public ones such water supply, electricity, road infrastructures, public buildings (administration, schools etc)—are mainly present in their absence. Or, better, their functionings are more often than not punctuated by constant breakdown, by lack, by paucity, by failure and fragmentation, by recycling and repair. As such they generate many shortcomings and impossibilities, but also different opportunities and different kinds of space that are important subjects of query. Potholes or pools of water on a public road, to give but one example, may become infrastructural elements in themselves, because they create thickenings of publics and offer the possibility of assembling people or of slowing them down (so that one might sell something to them along the road, for example).

In short, these vulnerable and often invisible infrastructures impose their own spatial and temporal logic on the city. They close off many possibilities, but also generate alternative spheres of social interaction and different coping strategies and regimes of knowledge and power. All of this has gradually forced me to look at city life differently and to question standard urban paradigms and prevailing notions of urban dystopia. How exactly can a city exist without or beyond architecture and urban planning? And what do those terms mean in such a context? How modern is modernity, and how universal our models of urban planning? Can urbanity exist as immaterial structure, or as a form of sociability that primarily exists in a collective social imagination rather than in the built form? How makeable is public space? Architects and urban planners almost invariably start from the level of material infrastructure to engineer public space and its ensuing social capacities, its collectivity, its possibilities of human encounter. Kinshasa’s urbanity, on the other hand, starts from the other side of the spectrum. In this city, it is primarily the much more ephemeral architecture of the human body and the relation between the millions of bodies of its inhabitants that defines cityness. In a way, in this city, body-building is the ultimate form of building. Contrary to the city’s decrepit material infrastructure, the urban body is a building that people constantly strive to build into perfection. Hence the stress on the urban aesthetics of the body that runs through my work, and that has inspired me to methodologically expand my scope to include, for example, photography and film as basic ethnographic tools to seize the city in all of its ephemeral beauty and terror. Echoing AbdouMaliq Simone’s notion of people as infrastructure, but also inspired by the insights of previous anthropologies of the body (specifically René Devisch for the (rural) Congolese context), I try to understand how the body imposes its scale and its temporal and relational logic onto the city. The body’s infrastructural importance becomes obvious, for example, through the ways in which the private and intimate corporeal realms often reveal themselves to be the public stage par excellence. Think of death and of the specific life of  corpses and their disposal in the urban context, or of the specific localized meanings of urban bodies making love, eating, defecating, and so on. Consider also the importance of the vestimentary, of bodily appearance, and of stage presence as epitomized by the famous Congolese sapeurs.

As such, the corporeal dimension has provided an important point of access to the city for me. It also enabled me to explore another underlying, even more invisible and immaterial but absolutely fundamental infrastructural aspect of this urban reality: namely, its audible infrastructure. I am not so much thinking here of the fabulous music that this city has engendered, but more of its verbal architectures. Rooted in and moored by the body, the spoken word generates and builds the city, forming the level through which the Kinois’ imaginings, hopes, and dreams express and reveal themselves.

In summary, the body and the word were the important gateways to my initial reading of Kinshasa’s urbanity, in an attempt to show the African urban site as, above all, a mental space, a space that primarily exists beyond the visible geographical and physical reality of the city.

* * * 

In recent years, even more than before, everyday urban life, with its shifting appropriations of public space, has taken on the dimension of an existential, but also deeply political, struggle for day-to-day survival. Like other cities in Africa and beyond, Kinshasa is currently being reframed by neoliberal urban reform and development plans of the kind that I describe in my contribution to this Curated Collection. The implied teleological futurities of these urban reforms have a tendency to physically and conceptually obliterate the reality of millions of local lives in Africa’s urban centers (and, one should add, in its rural worlds as well). Time and again, a number of common assumptions are evident in these policy engagements, governance practices, and private investment frameworks. Above all, they are marked by a profound lack of attention to and total disregard of the small-scale connections, negotiations, and decisions that people engage in on a daily basis in order to make a living and survive in the moment of the urban context.

For me, therefore, a focus on infrastructure is increasingly political: it is a means to reflect upon the changing connotations of what constitutes the public sphere and the meaning of the categories of public and private, and of diversity, in the urban locale.

If one of the state’s founding conditions is the way in which it defines and implements the categories of public and private, then these categories are in need of a profound redefinition, certainly (but not only) in postcolonial contexts such as the DRC, where the state does not hold the monopoly over the definition of these categories, or where it no longer constitutes (if it ever did) the sole core of power to orchestrate its contents. This also applies to contexts where the lines between public and private remain blurred or are given new meanings (in terms of the spaces, infrastructures, body politics, and other conditions of the kind of modernities and informalities in which such categories are erected and transform their meaning). Urban existence in the global South, and in Kinshasa more specifically, seems to be made and constituted by various publics and in various distinct, yet often interrelated locations (fields and gardens, cemeteries, bars, streets, churches, markets) that are often produced randomly and are as often situated outside of, or not totally within the grasp of, political institutions, even though they might be partly modeled after them. The result is not one public realm, one res publica, but a diversity of publics and public spaces, things (material infrastructures), words (verbal architectures), and bodily functions. Together, all of these elements make up the social machine of the public realm as the sum of different collective experiences in which individual survival is made possible or, by contrast, is constantly made impossible.

The important issue of diversity in the city should first and foremost apply to this diverse notion of the public itself (and its association with political life). First of all, I contend that class has never been a strong marker to delineate publics and public spheres in Congolese urban life. When discussing an urban context such as Kinshasa’s, it is important to recognize that, as Brenda Chalfin (2012) has rightly pointed out with regard to similar urban contexts in Ghana, we are not exactly dealing with a single bourgeois public sphere of self-conscious political deliberation, à la Habermas, but much more with an entanglement between such a notion of the public sphere and a different, much vaster realm of copresence, to borrow Ash Amin’s term, of practices and discourses that generate the possibility for individual and social life on a very concrete, everyday basis. This is, perhaps, what scholars like Erik Swyngedouw mean by the postpolitical city. Within such a postpolitical moment, the urban space is no longer capable of acting as a single, meaningful space for the construction of political subjectivities and new modes of political decision-making. “While the city is alive and thriving (at least in some of its spaces),” Swyngedouw (2007, 59) remarks, “the polis, conceived in the idealized Greek sense as the site for public political encounter and democratic negotiation, the spacing of (often radical) dissent, and disagreement, and the place where political subjectivation literally takes place, seems moribund.” Swyngedouw is discussing urban contexts in the West, but in many urban contexts in the global South, the public sphere seems even less made up of one dominant ethical or normative space. On the contrary, if only because of its colonial and precolonial pasts, it is always already diversified through various different and often conflicting views on what collectivity, sociality, solidarity, collaboration, or the associational might mean. Various publics, from within and across (often entangled) spaces, constantly offer a ground for questioning, recalling, bypassing, or resisting official definitions of la chose publique. This, it must be added, does not exclude a consensus with, a simultaneous adherence or conforming to, or a longing for the realization of the official definitions.

Because, at the same time and rather paradoxically, the mobilization of diversity in these urban contexts is often played out in rather monolithic ways. On the one hand, urban life incessantly generates openings, divergences, possibilities, and lines of flight, but simultaneously it constantly generates closures and exclusions on other levels, through the creation of fake dichotomies, oppositions, and choice possibilities that are a pretense of diversity but in fact spring from an extremely limited number of options, generating an overwhelming sense of uniformity. And this is true for the state, but also for the various publics in their attempts to constitute collectivities and groups, and through them individual identities. One’s membership to a certain collectivity or group might be less defined by class, but it certainly is, to a greater or lesser extent and at varying moments in time, by ethnic belonging (whether one is labeled Yaka or Luba or Kongo, for example, remains a meaningful label in the urban context), or along regional or territorial lines (for example: a neighborhood, roots in a certain province, belonging to a specific diaspora), along generational or religious lines, by belonging to a trading or smuggling network, a fan club, a rotational saving bank, a student club, and so on. According to the various needs or the relevance of the moment, each of these belongings might be strategically activated or go into “sleep” mode. Sometimes different memberships might be combined, but often the ethical spaces that each of these groups generate seem to exist as mutually exclusive: if one is a supporter of Vita Club (one of the two famous soccer clubs in Kinshasa), one cannot possibly make this known in a neighborhood where people support Vita’s rival club, Motema Pembe. One either listens to the music of  Werrason’s band or of JB Mpiana’s band, and it would be unthinkable to admit to liking both, even though their music sounds similar and can often only be distinguished through minute differences that are only perceptible to those in the know. One drinks either Primus or Skol beer, and the bars where both are served simultaneously are rare because the two are mutually exclusive, even though they taste almost exactly the same. Again, a strong sense of uniformity generates the obligation to conform to your public (and often, while meeting someone for the first time, these are the exact questions that will be asked: which club are you a supporter of, whose music do you like, what kind of beer do you drink?) The answers determine the possibility of a longer relationship, place you within a specific moral and aesthetic universe, and offer the sense of being able to know, place, and read the person in question. But when scrutinized more closely, this knowing is often based on a (performative) pretense of difference. The more it is impossible to constitute the public or even imagine the possibility of the public, the more the pretense, the simulacrum of difference, takes over.

* * * 

And yet Kinshasa is a relatively nonviolent urban space (which is surprising, given the harshness that marks life in this city on the material and social level, the formidable scale of the city, and the multiple imperfections of its administrative and policing structures). In fact, all the cleavages that run through the city (in terms of class, ethnic background, political adherence, generational rifts, and so on) are constantly overcome by a fracturing of the city’s public space. Kinshasa’s public space is a conglomerate of multiple spaces that are constantly being privatized, in various degrees and with various rates of success. Public space is constantly morcellated by a multiplicity of actors, in intricate processes of seizure and capture. As such, public space becomes the sum total of a myriad of small parcels that are temporarily, and rather fleetingly, owned by individuals and small, often ad hoc collectivities. These constantly have to guard the boundaries of their temporary ownership of a little piece of space within the city’s streets and markets, and constantly have to negotiate their right to be there with a multitude of others: neighbors, passersby, street gangs, police, municipalities, and so on. All of these instances never enter the game as institutional entities but as individual actors, men and women, with whom (often very provisional and very temporary) bonds and relationships of trust, reciprocity, interest, and mutual gain might be established. The absolute need to constantly renegotiate these links, as well as the need to inscribe oneself in as many networks and engage in as many relationships as possible, offer mechanisms through which strangers and others are constantly being redefined in terms of relatedness, kinship, friendship, autochtony (and possibly also vice versa). This constant lifting of the anomaly of anonymity also necessitates the ceaseless construction of a promiscuous public social life that takes place on a very localized scale and by means of very physical proximity. Not that these conceptualising maneuvers of relatedness, or the necessity of proximity and promiscuity, do not pose problems or dangers (they are often more dangerous, even: witchcraft accusations are far more common among close kin than between strangers) but they offer the possibility of a performance of possible ad hoc sociabilities and convivialities. Such a performance is most often conditional and short-lived, but it indicates the possibility of overcoming differences and generating temporary copresences. (The performative nature of) public space is thus constantly marked by three processes: 1) the morcellation or informal privatization of that space, the erection of boundaries to mark a piece of that space as one’s own, through acts of taking possession, of capture and seizure, often made possible by infrastructural imperfections (see the pothole example above) and marked in tangible and material ways by shacks, fences, trees; 2) the necessity to constantly guard one’s property by (re)negotiating these boundaries (boundaries that not only generate power and control, and thus income, but also the possibility of identity construction and of constituting a public of which one can be part), and 3) given the shaky nature of the proprietary reality of one’s claims, the possibility entailed in mobility, in letting go, moving on, to perhaps return at the right time to repossess the place one had to relinquish. Here the bodily infrastructure becomes important again, for the body is always with you. It is movable, something that cannot be stolen, seized, alienated. The possibility and often necessity of physically moving away and coming back, of retreating and then returning, is crucial to understand the spatial and temporal politics of public space, and the precise ways in which it shapes up in the urban environment of Kinshasa.

In these urban contexts, in the end, diversity becomes something else. While offering the possibility to constitute a collectivity and make a group, it also generates boundaries and differences that, by lack of a difference in content and because of the interchangeability of publics, seem to be erected and played out along totally arbitrary lines that prevent different publics, that is, different groups of individuals, to constitute the public (the general public, the overarching totality of such groupings). The possibility of (a simulacrum of) the freedom to choose in an environment that does not offer many real choices or options is indicative of a constant tension between the public thing and its various publics. In any case, through these mechanisms, the urban context constantly generates fixity, conformity, and homogenizing uniformity (also in the urban built environment, which is often marked by its rather generic quality). Yet simultaneously, in doing so, it also generates heterogeneity. On the one hand, then, the urban world is the space where (political) subjectivation takes place: it imposes a strong and dominant necessity to conform in order to socially/politically exist within the city, and it is very successful in doing that (the possibility of an Arab Spring still seems very remote in Congo). But at the same time, this conformity is always double-edged, and always unravels in a disorderly, often playful but sometimes also violent, plurality that equally seems to be a necessary prerequisite in order to survive. The often fanatic adherence to arbitrary rules, laws, and legal frameworks in a lawless world; the longing to believe in absolute truths in a world where truth is volatile, arbitrary, or absent; the generation of a monolithic high moral ground in a world that often seems to be devoid of morality: all of this goes hand in hand with flow, flux, opening, excess, fragmentation, dissipation, difference, mobility, and multiplicity. The necessity of singularizing and thereby realizing oneself by becoming the member of an exclusive group is copresent with the impossibility of being exclusive: if exclusive membership to a group seems an absolute must to become visible and to socially exist in the urban site, this only works if, simultaneously, one has the capacity to inscribe oneself in as many groups and networks as possible. For it is this capacity to insert oneself, to belong and to belong together, that also constitutes the possibility to survive socially, economically and politically. This tension between singularization/exclusivity and the need to conform to and be part of as many collectivities as possible is constantly played out on all levels, and constantly makes/undermines the public realm.

(Here, perhaps, in order to understand this tension between the individual and the collective, between publics and the public, it becomes important to reflect more profoundly on specific modes of singularization, self-realization, and self-making within the existing possibilities of making groups—and therefore public realm(s)—in these urban contexts. A good starting point seems to be a reflection about the (im)possibilities of accumulation; as Foucault correctly pointed out, the accumulation of capital or goods and the accumulation of people (the making of groups, the constituting of publics) are two processes that cannot be viewed separately. This seems to apply all the more in a universe where wealth in people and wealth in things often reinforce each other or are even interchangeable. The processes of seizure/capture/immobilization/accumulation of goods and people go hand in hand with processes of circulation, mobility, expenditure, and a nondirectional or nonteleological temporality, and it is this double dynamic that offers the possibility of making and claiming identity and place in the urban context, generating the specific ways in which the public good, in terms of resources and resource control, is imagined and managed.


Chalfin, Brenda. 2012. “Public Things, Politics, and the Infrastructures of Bare Life at the City’s Edge—Tema, Ghana, 2011.” Lecture at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa, Catholic University, Leuven, Belgium, May 4. 

Swyngedouw, Erik. 2007. “The Post-Political City.” In Urban Politics Now: Reimagining Democracy in the Neoliberal City, edited by BAVO, 58–76. Rotterdam: NAI Publishers.