Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure

March 3rd, 2014, by § 4 Comments

Lately, anthropologists have been doing a lot of thinking about infrastructure. Although there have been anthropologists working on the large technical systems subtending modern sociality since at least the early 1970s, infrastructure today appears to be coming of age not only as a robust area of ethnographic engagement, but as a sturdy analytic in its own right, part of widespread resurgence of materialist thought across the humanities. As Brian Larkin puts it in his recent piece for the Annual Review of Anthropology, contemporary work in the anthropology of infrastructure attempts to understand how underlying material structures function to “generate the ambient environment of everyday life.” In so doing, the conceptual ambit of the term has been expanded beyond sewers, roads, and telecommunication systems to include everything from modes of sociality to economic instruments.

Recently, I spoke at some length with Dominic Boyer about the emergence and expansion of anthropological interest in infrastructure. Dominic has devoted considerable organizational and intellectual attention to thinking through the human aspects of energy infrastructures, both in his role as the director of Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences and in his own fieldwork, with Cymene Howe, on energopower and the renewables transition in Mexico.  The first half of this conversation appears below, with the second to follow later this week.

Ian: Your current work with Cymene Howe, on the development of wind energy in Oaxaca, focuses quite explicitly on infrastructure in the most literal sense. I’m curious, however, whether there were precursors of this focus in your earlier work?

Dominic: Our project does focus on infrastructure in the sense that, early on, we realized that the electric grid and the utility that manages it in Mexico were going to be central actors in telling the story of the politics of renewable energy transition. But, really, infrastructure as analytic wasn’t really present to us as we were conceptualizing the research design. What’s interesting about the conversation around infrastructure to me is that it’s been a storm hovering on the horizon for a long while, and now the downpour has come and we’re all awash in infrastructure talk.

I remember vividly a few years ago, having come across some article on infrastructure, speaking with George Marcus, and I said “Infrastructure? Really?” And he said “Yeah! It’s going to be big.” Bellwether figures like George who are constantly circling the globe, ear to the ground, they hear the premonitions a little earlier. But in 2008-2009, when we were beginning our wind energy project, it wasn’t really there yet. We were certainly thinking about what I’ve articulated now as energopower, about fuel and electricity’s contribution to power, but the general rubric of infrastructure not so much.

Ian: If we’ve been studying traditional infrastructure like sewers under different terms for a while now, the analytic has certainly expanded greatly upon the common-sense definition. I’m curious, specifically at the level of epistemology, what you see the analytic of “infrastructure” as doing, productively or not, for us disciplinarily?

Dominic: My path to answering that question is a little idiosyncratic. I’m typically less interested in immersing myself in the latest analytic than in asking, “Isn’t it an interesting epistemic phenomenon that everyone is talking about infrastructure now? Why? Where is this coming from?” That is, to try to uncover something about the historicity of our analytic trends. So when I was asked, as a matter of not unpleasant surprise, but surprise nonetheless, to serve as a discussant on an infrastructure panel at last year’s AAAs, I had to pose exactly that question. Why is everyone going infrastructural? And I discovered that what these papers were doing in this panel was really interesting. If we tend to think of infrastructure as something that connotes a certain timelessness, then they showed us its temporality. If we imagine infrastructure as having material solidity, the papers showed us its flux and precarity.

The time I didn’t spend commenting on the papers, I spent ruminating on the question of “Why now?” And I had essentially three reflections. The first was that concern with what we are calling infrastructure, lower strata of experience, has a deeper [disciplinary] history. Not even to get into material culture, but just this idea of deeper strata that have consequences upon surface phenomena. Whether in a cognitive model, as for example with Lévi-Strauss and his structuralism, or in a more physico-material, Marxist investigation of how sub-structures condition the higher level structures of consciousness. I think that this sort of surfacing of hidden relations is a basic operation within anthropological knowledge–-we have a sort of revelational impulse more generally.

That led me to the second reflection, which is to say that today’s focus on infrastructure often appears as commentary upon infrastructural collapse, infrastructural decline and decay, which seems to me impossible to sever from our position at the end of a 30-year period of more-or-less unquestioned neoliberal hegemony, which has never taken public infrastructure, public services, as being very high-priority goods. In some sense we’re living today in the ruins of Keynesian infrastructure, and that seems to me to be at least in the background here, too. In part, infrastructure signals our relationship to the failure of Keynesianism, and now 30-40 years later, to an incipient failure of neoliberalism to really deliver on its own promises.

But the third reflection, which connects more closely to the work I’m doing now, was really the question of where do we go conceptually and theoretically in the anthropocene. I think that if you were to look at the genealogy of critical analytical projects in the human sciences since the 1970s, the Marxian turn got shut down pretty quickly just as actually-existing Marxisms turned into rubble, and neoliberalism became ascendant. But second-wave feminism and ecofeminism prove a lot more durable, much more difficult to silence, and fed directly into science studies via Haraway and others. Challenging the human subject-centered world was central to that project. I think science and technology studies more generally has a kind of intimate relationship with Keynesian technocracy. It’s critical – rage is too strong a word – but a critical position against the failure of the technocracy to continue to deliver on its promises of an ever-intensifying, -perfecting modernity. Instead after the 1970s as cracks in that apparatus multiply, analytic attention gets drawn to the constructedness of modern science and technology, and voila STS is born. And that decisive shift sets the stage in the 80s and 90s in turn for movements like posthumanism, and more recently, the New Materialism. They very much share in this anti-anthropocentric turn that begins, I think, first in the 1970s and only comes to fruition much later. And recognizing that theoretical trajectory means recognizing that we’re dealing with something very big here. This marks a real shift in the epistemic attentions of the human sciences. Certainly anthropology is part of it, but I really see this as a larger shift.

Ian: If the turn to infrastructure is part of the broader turn away from, or beyond, the human, how does the human figure in the anthropology of infrastructure specifically? Because some of the more radical instantiations of this trend seem to say “We’re done with it. We have all the resources to move beyond humanity as our principle object of inquiry.” Whereas we are disciplinarily and methodologically committed to taking humans as our objects, even if we have a theoretical commitment to moving beyond the human as the horizon of our analyses.

Dominic: Looking at what scholars are doing with infrastructure in anthropology, I think that the primary interest is in a certain class of systems. Grids, pipelines, roads, wiring; techno-politico-material assemblages that obviously involve humans at all different levels of planning, execution and use in fundamental ways, but which also allow scholars to comment on how distinctive forms of subjectivity and sociality emerge in combination with these assemblages. Now, I think you’re quite right that anthropology is loath to give up the human, and wisely so, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t likely to see some very interesting experiments on the margins of the human. We already are. You look at the work in the burgeoning posthumanist anthropology of life, multispecies ethnography, and you can see how that sort of approach could easily be adapted to thinking about infrastructural questions. So I would expect that we’ll see everything from some pretty far-out, artful, posthuman experimental anthropologies of infrastructure – how do roads think? – all the way down to brutally empirical, realistic accounts of pipes, grids, etc.

Ian: It seems like in that bifurcation you also trace out two different types of skill necessary for people working on this. On the one hand, you need the sort of poetic knack necessary for capturing ephemeralities at the margins of the human, as you say. And then, on the other hand, the ability to rapidly develop familiarity with the technical system itself. I wonder whether you see a way to do both at once: to get the technical details right, but then to also have an evocative sense of what’s really going on out there beyond the clearing, in the Heideggerian sense.

Dominic: I think so. It seems to me that if we take the lessons from several decades’ engagement in science and technology studies seriously, from an anthropological point of view the projects that are among the most interesting are ones that have been able to operate on both those levels. Projects that have learned the science and technology to a degree that allows high-level translation from technical professions while at the same time retaining the appreciation for more humanistic forms of virtuosity. I’ll just come back to this revelational impulse. Maybe every field does this to some extent, but I feel that it’s very much something that anthropologists like to do — we love to present what you thought you knew about X, pull back a layer, and reveal some new twist on X. So there’s that kind of work we do constantly. Engaging intuitive frameworks of understanding, and jamming them to reveal deeper levels of complexity. With infrastructure it’s an interesting question because it’s already sort of de facto this consequential domain beyond visibility. That’s part of what makes it attractive and elusive, and so we’re burrowing beneath the surfaces of institutions, deeply into their walls and floors.

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What’s interesting about the conversation around infrastructure to me is that it’s been a storm hovering on the horizon for a long while, and now the downpour has come and we’re all awash in infrastructure talk.

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