Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure (Part II)

March 7th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

This is the second half of my conversation with Dominic Boyer about the emergence of “infrastructure” as both ethnographic focus and analytic within anthropology. You can read the first part of the interview here!

Ian Lowrie: I’d like to circle back to the question of how infrastructure is related to politics and liberalism. There’s a recent article by Kim Fortun calling for a revitalized, engaged anthropology of not just infrastructure, but infrastructural expertise, in the context of precisely the degradation of the most visible aspects of our infrastructure. At the same time, I think we also see strong, robust development of other types of infrastructures. Things like technical arrangements, financial instruments, logistical services, the computational and digital. I wonder if part of what makes the urge to expand the concept of infrastructure to include things other than things like roads and sewers is a political urge.

Dominic Boyer: I think it is, and I think you’re right to point out that the story of infrastructure in the neoliberal heyday is not simply about abandonment. It’s a story of selective investment, and also of abandonment [laughs]. This is also the era in which informatic infrastructures, for example, develop. The Internet is one, but also the specialized information infrastructures that allowed finance to exert global realtime power that far exceeds the capacities of most governments to effectively regulate it. And that becomes a pivotal part of the story of the rebalancing of powers, I think, during the same time period.  So the neoliberal era saw some remarkable infrastructural achievements in certain areas, whereas at the same time you might find your roads and your sewers decaying, which is interestingly often-times the focus of infrastructure studies. Most seem focused on what I would describe as basic biopolitical infrastructures and their fragmentation. A lot of research is, more or less latently, interrogating the aftermath of neoliberalism, specifically through the lens of biopolitical infrastructural decay. But you could tell a different story if you looked at different infrastructures. And maybe that’s a story that still needs to be told.

Ian: You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about social theory, often as ethnographic object, in your own work. I wonder, what do you think the role or function of social theory can be in this context? That is, in a post-neoliberal aporia, in which we find ourselves crushed by the immensity of the problems facing us, at both the ecological and political levels. What do you think the function of theoretical projects like investigating infrastructure is today?

Dominic: I think that there’s a great need for theoretical reinvention at this moment. This is a time in which we really do need to change the types of questions we’re asking, as well as I think to change the modes of communication and cooperation that we have. One thing that I find dismal is the extent to which many of the really fruitful and important voices in the anti-anthropocentric movement are sort of falling into the typical pattern that socialism did in the nineteenth century, factions fighting with each other for dominance, everyone asking: “Who’s got the better concept?” That’s still a very alpha-male sort relationship to theory, and I think that’s part of the impasse that we’re facing. I think we need to remember that the roots of the anti-anthropocentric turn are ultimately to be found in feminism and ecofeminism. Thus, there has to be a shift in the ethics, habits, and institutions that we use as theoretically minded scholars at this moment. Cooperation is so much more important than making sure that your concept work finds its own school and acolytes. The project should be to create reinforcing circles that can help not only clarify important theoretical problems, but find ways – creative ways – of changing how we get our messages out there. At CENHS, we’re thinking now about working with game designers, for example, because we’re not sure that a book or an academic article will have a sufficient impact. Necessary, yes, but not sufficient. We have to work with artists closely, we have to work with designers closely, we have to work with media professionals closely. The thing about the anthropocene is that as it becomes clearer and clearer that we can’t negate it, we can’t simply ignore it, that the project of survival is going to require new forms of cooperative work and cooperative thinking. That we need to radically transform our dependency upon the forms and magnitudes of energy we use is increasingly obvious. And we already have much of the technology we would need to accomplish that transition. But to get to the point of developing a sustainable infrastructure for a low carbon, low toxin modernity is a question of political will and of public understanding. Because it’s not going to involve easy fixes. So theoretical clarification can help, but also I think scholars we have to find ways to inform and inspire beyond our walls.

Ian: You’ve also just started work as part of the editorial collective for Cultural Anthropology, with Cymene [Howe] and Jim [Faubion]. And I wonder what you have planned for that journal as it transitions to open-access, online format, to make it a space for collaboration, rather than part of this broader technique of control that you elsewhere call digital liberalism?

Dominic: The biggest operational challenge we are facing is the open access transition. I don’t want to go into great detail about that because I think that much of that story is available elsewhere. The short version is that in the digital era, expensive-to-produce content can be reproduced with great simplicity, and that doesn’t fit well in a capitalist model, frankly. I think non-profit and low-profit academic publishing is the future. And the model has to be about sharing labor. If we’re all good about doing some small part of it competently and efficiently, this apparatus of a fairly large organization of cooperative labor can continue to put out a journal of high quality, but in a model that is truly non-profit. The thing is, by and large, we’ve found that people are pretty willing to participate as long as the apparatus is well- and fairly organized. We had a 98% success rate in inviting much esteemed, very busy people to join CA’s editorial board. That suggests to me that there’s not only an ability to do this, but there’s a great will out there, in the profession, to make this sort of a change. If we think of a journal as a cooperative project in which a large segment of the discipline are stakeholders, we can operate the journal without needing the for-profit apparatus of a publisher like Wiley. I think it’s the direction that all anthropology publishing should be moving toward. The reason that we’re putting quite a lot of time into the project at this early stage is to develop a sustainable infrastructure, a set of institutions, operations and principles, which could allow us to scale up open access and to carry it forward at the level of the discipline.

Ian: If the journal is an institution, it seems like the work that you’re describing is excellent evidence of what [Julia] Elyachar calls phatic labor, sociality as infrastructure, attendant to and around institutions.

Dominic Boyer: This raises questions of course, about, well, what is an infrastructure. Is it just what we used to call structure in the old structure and agency pairing? It feels to me that the connotations of “infrastructure” are more material than “structure” ever was. “Structure” belonged to the great heyday of mid-20th-century anthropology, culture theory, when this great explosion of creative semiological and hermeneutic analysis appeared. These were very much symbol-oriented, knowledge-oriented, thought-oriented models of construing what was distinctively human. It’s interesting to me that this synchronized more or less perfectly with the halcyon days of Keynesian modernity, with super-high growth rates across the Western world. My “Aha” moment came several years ago when I read Timothy Mitchell’s “Carbon Democracy” article. He argues that the only reason why those growth rates could stay so high was because oil was both practically and epistemically an inexhaustible, cheap-and-only-becoming-cheaper resource, and yet providing so much energy in a physico-material sense for all of the great institutions of modernity and all of its infrastructures, practices, habits, etc. For Mitchell, understanding and achieving “growth” is completely petropolitical. That understanding broke down with the formation of OPEC and the challenge to western control over the Middle East’s carbon fuel resources. And the Keynesian responses to the 1970s oil shocks fail because, in a sense, Keynesianism was carbon-based to its core, and couldn’t respond to a disruption of its carbon infrastructure or energopower.

Neoliberalism also didn’t have a good response to the crisis, but it certainly spoke a different language and could perform itself as an alternative. There was a cobbling-together of a sustainable carbon energy model over the ensuing decades. But now we realize that it’s not so much about problems of supply – with fracking and other developments, our energy demands seem to be covered. Peak oil will not save us anymore. Now we realize the problem is that carbon-fueled modernity is literally toxifying our environment, acidifying our oceans, and also creating climatological disruptions, now just tremors, but promising increasing levels of chaos and risk in the future. The problem is the anthropocene.

So the turn towards infrastructure, and the retreat from culture theory, for me are part of the same zeitgeist, the push-back against the preciousness of tarrying with semiotic systems in the era of what Anna Tsing has called “the damaged planet.” First we get the Marxian critiques – we get the Sid Mintzs and the Bill Roseberrys – scholars who argued, “Culture, sure. But what about power, what about domination?” That had its moment in the 60s and 70s, producing some amazing work, and then the vitality peters out, only returning again since 2008. I think that this hiatus had something to do with real-world Marxism becoming increasingly a more horrible, more obviously horrible, version of modernity than the liberal-capitalist modernity it was reacting against. But meanwhile, we’ve had first rumbles, and then storms gathering, marking the anti-anthropocentric turn, which brings us back from the semiological floating world, if I may be a little unkind, back to the concerns of the material, of the institutional, of the social, also in the posthuman sense of “social.” And so all the talk now about infrastructure seems to me like a kind of milestone on that path. As if to say: From here on out, at least for the foreseeable future, our theories of humanity and its presence and forms of life will have to take not only the symbolic and discursive seriously into account, but the material, and the technical, and the political. You can’t escape these questions any more, certainly not in the anthropocene.

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From here on out, at least for the foreseeable future, our theories of humanity and its presence and forms of life will have to take not only the symbolic and discursive seriously into account, but the material, and the technical, and the political.

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