The Promise of Infrastructure

The Promise of Infrastructure

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From U.S.-Mexico border walls to Flint's poisoned pipes, there is a new urgency to the politics of infrastructure. Roads, electricity lines, water pipes, and oil installations promise to distribute the resources necessary for everyday life. Yet an attention to their ongoing processes also reveals how infrastructures are made with fragile and often violent relations among people, materials, and institutions. While infrastructures promise modernity and development, their breakdowns and absences reveal the underbelly of progress, liberal equality, and economic growth. This tension, between aspiration and failure, makes infrastructure a productive location for social theory. Contributing to the everyday lives of infrastructure across four continents, some of the leading anthropologists of infrastructure demonstrate in The Promise of Infrastructure how these more-than-human assemblages made over more-than-human lifetimes offer new opportunities to theorize time, politics, and promise in the contemporary moment.

A School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar

Contributors. Nikhil Anand, Hannah Appel, Geoffrey C. Bowker, Dominic Boyer, Akhil Gupta, Penny Harvey, Brian Larkin, Christina Schwenkel, Antina von Schnitzler

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478002031
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/16/2018
Series: School for Advanced Research advanced seminar series.
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 14 MB
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About the Author

Nikhil Anand is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Akhil Gupta is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Hannah Appel is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt


Infrastructural Time


Malabo es la metáfora más limpia de los desafíos y oportunidades de Guinea Ecuatorial. Pero Malabo no es una magdalena, en Malabo hoy no se busca el tiempo perdido, se construye un nuevo tiempo, un tiempo que será o no será rotundo, un tiempo que pueda que esté sujeto aquí y allá y pueda también que no, un tiempo que basculará entre un ayer inventado o aclarado y una mañana deseado o merecido. En estos momentos, ahora mismo, Malabo, la ciudad remordida, está viviendo un sueño de progresos y retrocesos, de redenciones y corrupciones, un sueño de buenas esperanzas, un sueño de edificios de vidrio y azulejos, un sueño de rotondas para dar la vuelta al mundo en ochenta días y la vuelta al día en ochenta mundos, un sueño de lenguas de alquitrán que hacen vibrar a árboles milenarios, un sueño de móviles para todos, agua para todos, electricidad para todos, un sueño que todos quieren soñar para que sea un sueño para todos y por todos, para que no haya desalojos sin esperanzas, para que el estado no sea Goliat pues no todos los ciudadanos pueden ser David ...

Malabo is the clearest metaphor of Equatorial Guinea's challenges and opportunities. But Malabo is not a madeleine. Today Malabo is not in search of things past, but building a new time, a time that may or may not be decisive, a time that might be held here and there, or that might not, a time that will oscillate between a made-up or made-clear yesterday and a wished-for or well-deserved tomorrow. At this moment, right now, Malabo, the regretful city, is living a dream of progresses and relapses, of redemptions and corruptions, a dream of good hopes, a dream of glass and tile buildings, a dream of roundabouts to go around the world in eighty days and around the day in eighty worlds, a dream of tar tongues that make ancient trees vibrate, a dream of mobile phones for everybody, water for everybody, electricity for everybody, a dream that everybody wants to dream so that it might become a dream to everybody and for everybody, so that there won't be evictions without hope, so that the state won't be Goliath, for not all citizens can be David ...


The first months of 2008 were dark in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea's capital. The city went for days on end without electricity, stretching at one point to two weeks. Those who could afford it used private generators in the days sin luz (literally, without light) to keep businesses running, to keep food cool, or to allow electric light, recorded music, or television. The city filled with the clattering roar of generator motors fighting their flimsy steel containers and the stench of diesel exhaust. My neighbors — a Lebanese-owned restaurant and nightclub complex — had a powerful generator, the noise and fumes from which, on occasion, filled my small apartment so completely that staying inside became unbearable. Unable to sleep on one such generator-filled night, I opened my door to look for air and to share water and complaints with Moussa, the Senegalese watchman who spent every night on the sidewalk outside the Lebanese complex. We chatted about the blackout. He said that Senegal provides electricity for many of its neighbors — for Guinea Bissau, for as far away as the Ivory Coast. We laughed and said that Senegal should consider providing electricity to Equatorial Guinea as well. But for all Senegal's apparent success in the realm of electricity provision, Moussa spent every night sleeping on cardboard laid over broken concrete on Malabo's sidewalk, inhaling generator fumes, covered head to toe in clothing and plastic sheeting to fend off malarial mosquitoes in the eighty-plus-degree heat. Even without electricity, sleeping on the sidewalk in Equatorial Guinea, he seemed to think, provided better prospects than his native Senegal.

The oil and gas business had come to Equatorial Guinea roughly ten years before Moussa's 2007 arrival, and with it came a series of ambiguous distinctions: Equatorial Guinea has been the world's fastest growing economy; it is now the wealthiest country per capita in Africa; and in 2013 Equatorial Guinea saw more investment as a percentage of GDP than any other country in the world, at 61.3 percent (Harrison 2013). It is eminently reasonable to assume, as Moussa did, that even sleeping on the sidewalk where the streets are paved with gold might get you a little closer to it.

"Investment as a percentage of GDP" is the statistical reflection of infrastructure projects in the national economy form. The statistic accounts for any investment in construction of roads, railways, electric and water grids, schools, hospitals, commercial and industrial buildings, and beyond. That Equatorial Guinea had the highest investment percentage in the world in 2013 reflects the extraordinary intensity of infrastructure development there. In a country the size of Delaware with roughly 750,000 inhabitants, new infrastructure saturated daily life. For Malabo's residents, the experience of these projects was visceral, sensory (Mrázek 2002; Larkin 2013) — the endless thrum of jackhammers, bulldozers, and trucks too big for old colonial roads; the air full of cement dust that settles on skin and in mouths. Close your eyes, and there is a new skyscraper when you open them. Construction projects set up haphazardly in the middle of everything buzzed with day laborers — often new immigrants like Moussa from Senegal, Cameroon, or Benin — welding, swinging metal beams, digging ditches that drop into the bowels of the old colonial undercity. Central Malabo is small enough that all pedestrians must walk directly through these sites on their way here or there, hoping not to get sprayed by welding spatter or fall into a ditch.

The infrastructure frenzy stretched unevenly outside Malabo into Luba, Riaba, and Moka; into the continental region in Bata, Mongomo, and Oyala; and even to the long-neglected island of Annobón, where the Moroccan company SOMAGEC has built a new airport, hotel, and road system. Chinese construction workers lingered, smoking on the edges of worksites across the country. Thousands of workers from China Dalian, China Communications Construction Company, and others paved roads and built bridges and dams. Arab Contractors — Egypt's largest parastatal construction firm — also had workers throughout Equatorial Guinea, building a stadium here, a governmental palace or ministry there.

The infrastructure boom meant a landscape not only covered by cranes and scaffolding, etched with ditches and quarries, but also swathed with elaborate signs of futurity — colorful depictions of the infrastructural project that would soon stand in this or that patch of newly cleared forest: a new refinery or storage plant, a water-treatment facility, a hydroelectric dam, the new BEACRegional Bank, the new headquarters of the national oil or gas company, a series of mansions and apartment buildings (figure 1.1). Land was cleared as fast as you could blink, and signs declaring government ownership blossomed in the newly exposed red earth. Expropriation was rampant and all but incontestable except for those most intimately connected with the regime, and even for them the process was protracted, cumbersome, and most likely futile. In an almost farcical move, the president went to great lengths on television to explain how even he had been expropriated by this unstoppable future, as thousands of acres of his private land became "state property."

Among the projects springing up in these expropriated spaces was a gridded community of small white homes with blue and red roofs stretching as far as the eye could see, said on the one hand to be subsidized by the state, intended for those who had been dispossessed, but widely known to be for sale by members of government to the highest bidder (figure 1.2). The development was named La Buena Esperanza (good hope). Indeed, when Mba writes in the epigraphthat Malabo is living "a dream of good hopes," or a dream "that there won't be evictions without hope," he refers directly to the controversy of the La Buena Esperanza development.

In this article, I make explicit Mba's literary assertion that Equatorial Guinea's infrastructure boom is the construction of the memory of petroleum; that these projects are building time and temporalities at the same time as they are building "material forms that allow for the possibility of exchange over space," as Brian Larkin (2013: 327) has defined infrastructure. Using ethnographic material from the built environment and from Equatorial Guinea's "second" national economic conference, the article dwells on questions of developmental time — linearity, progress, teleology — on the one hand, and oil time on the other: repetition and cyclicality; serial frontiers; abandonment, decommission, and ruins. Before getting to the ethnographic material, however, a brief consideration of infrastructural time as it appears in the epigraph.

The parenthetical in Mba's title, translated as "(The construction of) the memory of petroleum," is a play on Derridean genealogies to assert a materialist insistence — that the memory of petroleum is quite literally being constructed now in the glass-skinned buildings of Malabo Dos (Appel 2012b), in the newly paved roads, in the remarkable government buildings, all of which will outlast, in one way or another, oil itself. But insofar as they were funded by oil, they will be its monuments and, arguably, its ruins. In Mba's writing, infrastructural time folds over on itself; it oscillates and stutters as progress and relapse coincide. This stuttering time reflects the fact that infrastructure does not so much "arrive" in Malabo as advance and retreat (Carse 2014): new roads are torn up for new pipes; new pipes fail to carry the water for which they were designed; the treatment plant promised on the billboard sits as a half-built ruin (Gupta, this volume; Roitman and Mbembe 1995). In September 2007, when I arrived for a twelve-month fieldwork trip, the roads that had been laid during a previous trip in the summer of 2006 were ripped up throughout the city, because there will be running potable water by November, the official narrative went. There was not. And still in 2017 running water in Malabo and beyond is sporadic at best and not potable. This is a particular kind of infrastructural futurity that is more akin to deferral, more akin to the way Ann Stoler (2008) has described imperial formations as "states of deferral that mete out promissory notes that are not exceptions to [the operation of such formations] but constitutive of them" (193). Regularly unfinished, and often faulty, new construction is haunted by abandonment. Infrastructure's promise of distribution is refracted through the forms of rule and inequality that precede it and create the ground on which it is built. "The architectural text of unfinished edifices stands as a reminder of ... political subtext" (Roitman and Mbembe 1995: 335). For Mba, infrastructure becomes the stuff of dreams in this sporadic, labyrinthine temporality — roundabouts become time machines, roads are the tongues of a new creature lapping at the much older forest. A shared infrastructural modernity itself becomes a dream — "a dream of mobile phones for everybody, water for everybody, electricity for everybody." In Equatorial Guinea's infrastructure boom, futurity and deferral, teleology and cyclicality coexist in a dizzy stasis.

Specious ideas about infrastructure were always central to staged theories of modernization, from Lewis Henry Morgan's (1877) account of bows and arrows to irrigation to iron construction, to the techno-developmentalist teleologies that animated both Marxist (Engels [1884] 2010) and orthodox modernization theories (Rostow 1960). Though the staged theories in which infrastructure was mobilized have now been rejected as valid social scientific description, anthropologists have often noted that modernization theory still hangs out ethnographically (Ferguson 1999). People around the world talk in terms of developmental time, progress and relapse, of being behind and needing to catch up. In Equatorial Guinea, the modernization narrative persisted in part through the materiality of infrastructure; through the affective distinction (Mrázek 2002; Larkin 2013) between a dirt road and a paved one; between boiling water from a river or well before drinking it or drinking it directly from a tap. Where infrastructure served as a material metonym of modernity, attention to infrastructure's actual life courses confounds developmentalist narratives of linear progress. For example, on the eve of Equatorial Guinea's Independence Day — October 12, 2008 — I sat around the dinner table, in darkness, with an Equatoguinean family who hosted me for several months in the field. With the electricity out and candles flickering, military planes flew low and loud overhead and our dinner conversation was cut off by the noise several times. Both the mother and the eldest brother (himself well into his forties) remarked at the irony of "advanced" military technology in a country where electricity was sporadic at best. When I excused myself from the table and wished the family "feliz fiestas" (happy holidays), the brother responded, "We're not independent yet."

In both Mba's epigraph and the dinner anecdote, the experience of infrastructure becomes a Benjaminian constellation: "It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, ... what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation ... dialectics at a standstill" (2002: 262). For Benjamin, this was the analytical richness of the Arcades project, the ways in which perceptions of infrastructure can "replace the linear narratives of history with a constellation of events frozen momentarily in an image containing histories of the past and present" (Kennel et al. 2009). Fighter jets with no electricity, roundabouts that go around the day in eighty worlds gesture to failures of linear time, to the affective inhabitance of a time that feels fractured, that seems both to explode with futurity and collapse under the weight of the postcolonial now — "a made-up or made-clear yesterday and a wished-for or well-deserved tomorrow." But rather than dwell comfortably in this folded time, both Mba and my dinner companions insist, through infrastructure, on what we might call developmental time, a normative temporality in which military planes should coincide with public electricity provision, in which the frantic construction in Malabo and beyond should coincide with water for everybody, electricity for everybody. Lived hybridity, sure; coeval time, sure; but, simultaneously, a materialist insistence on a desired standard of living (Ferguson 2006) that Equatoguineans routinely, and indeed metonymically, articulated through infrastructure.

Infrastructural Time I: Development and the National Economy

"Pisos son el desarrollo" (Floors are development) went the joke. Development, seemingly, can be calculated according to how many levels a building has. The joke was a not-so-subtle critique of the Equatoguinean state's apparent development vision — build, build, build. Indeed, in the contracts obligating foreign oil and gas companies to build local headquarters in Malabo Dos, one clause specified that each building had to be at least seven stories high, irrespective of how many employees the given company had in-country (Appel 2012b). Equatoguinean friends often satirized the nation's motto —"unidad, paz y justicia," or unity, peace, and justice — by changing it to "unidad, hormigón, y cristal" (unity, concrete, and glass).

Beyond jokes that circulated at bars or around dinner tables, the relationship of infrastructure to development had a lively official life, as state actors often had to justify the plainly exorbitant investment in some kinds of infrastructure above others and in infrastructure above all else. When pressed, ministers and other state representatives routinely attributed the persistent unreliability of electricity, running water, and school or healthcare facilities to the need to focus first on economic development through other infrastructure projects — roads, dams, ports, airports, government buildings. These projects were contracted and funded by the government, framed as the necessary first step for private sector–led growth. In other words, officials justified roads before water, airports before electricity, as a strategy to stimulate the economic growth that would, in a deferred future, enable public infrastructural provisioning. Yet "the economy" here serves as a complicated pretext for a suite of practices where the Equatoguinean state and U.S. oil investment meet (Appel 2017). First, as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) puts it, "Public investment is a direct substitute for private investment ... public investment in Equatorial Guinea includes housing, roads, ports, and airports as well as capital or subsidies for fishing, farming, and transportation" (2009: 10). In other words, reflecting the fact that Equatorial Guinea is one of only a handful of nations, including China, able to pay outright for infrastructure projects, infrastructure becomes a method to launder petrodollars. No-bid contracts attached to specific members of the regime funnel state revenue from oil and gas to foreign firms. This process often includes inflated contracts with parastatals from sympathetic regimes (China, Egypt, Morocco), the excess from which is "kicked back" to Equatoguinean officials (referred to in Equatorial Guinea as indemnizaciones: see Appel 2012b). In Cameroon's petro boom, Janet Roitman and Achille Mbembe (1995) refer to similar practices as "an extravagant and unproductive economy of public and private expenditures" giving rise to "an entire social commerce with forms of political exchange and modes of appropriating public goods that were widely known" (334–335). Perhaps needless to say, nothing easily recognizable as a "private sector" emerges from this form of infrastructure-focused appropriation, though economic growth remains the official explanation for projects including the &8364;50 million Bata-Mbini Bridge or the 148,000-square-foot Sipopo Conference Center, completed by the Turkish firm Tabanlioglu Architects, cost withheld. Infrastructure as text; economy as pretext; politics as subtext.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction: Temporality, Politics, and the Promise of Infrastructure / Hannah Appel, Nikhil Anand, and Akhil Gupta  1
Part I. Time
1. Infrastructural Time / Hannah Appel  41
2. The Future in Ruins: Thoughts on the Temporality of Infrastructure / Akhil Gupta  62
3. Infrastructures in and out of Time: The Promise of Roads in Contemporary Peru / Penny Harvey  80
4. The Current Never Stops: Intimacies of Energy Infrastructure in Vietnam / Christina Schwenkel  102
Part II. Politics
5. Infrastructure, Apartheid Technopolitics, and Temporalities of "Transition" / Antina von Schnitzler  133
6. A Public Matter: Water, Hydraulics, Biopolitics / Nikhil Anand  155
Part III.
7. Promising Forms: The Political Aesthetics of Infrastructure / Brian Larkin  175
8. Sustainable Knowledge Infrastructures / Geoffrey C. Bowker  203
9. Infrastructure, Potential Energy, Revolution / Dominic Boyer  223
Contributors  245
Index  249

What People are Saying About This

Michael Watts

“Everyday infrastructures are very good to think with. They are materially, socially, and symbolically dense; they are often banal, everyday, and taken for granted; yet they are the bearers of modernity, promising progress, development, democracy, an easier life, safety, security, and much else. The Promise of Infrastructure makes all of this brilliantly clear and vivid, at once capacious in its reach and theoretically innovative in its disposition. This book shows powerfully how infrastructures are not simply rich ethnographic objects but apparatuses of neoliberal rule. A must-read."

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