Becoming Infrastructural: An Interview with Michael Degani

The August 2018 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Shock Humor: Zaniness and the Freedom of Permanent Improvisation in Urban Tanzania,” by Michael Degani, who is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Scott Ross conducted with Degani about his article’s arguments and their relationship to his broader research agenda.

Scott Ross (SR): In the article, you draw on Sianne Ngai’s argument regarding zaniness’s emergence in response to capitalism’s constant revolutionizing, and you put that in conversation with broader scholarship on labor and capital amid the lumpen, informal, or urban poor. Acknowledging that much of what you describe in your article is a product of particular forms of capitalism, what is the role of Tanzania’s socialist past in all of this? What might this say to life in other postsocialist countries around the world?

Michael Degani (MD): What I really like about Ngai’s reading of the zany is that it gives a different perspective on some of the broadest dynamics of capitalism. Marx’s description of capitalism as “all that is solid melts into air” reflects an overly smooth, homogenizing imaginary. Its tragic-heroic tone relies on the assumption that workers can reliably sell their labor, and hence overcome their alienation from the means of production, through collective struggle. The zany points us to scenes where the paradox of constant upheaval cannot be dialectically resolved through mass employment and regimentation. It is capitalism from the marginalized perspective of what used to be called the lumpen and more recently the precariat, that grab-bag of actors who are neither peasants nor industrial workers, who are poor but deeply—improvisationally—entrepreneurial.

For Ngai, zaniness has a new centrality in the context of increasing precarity in the West—we might say it is an aesthetic befitting the hopelessly entangled hyposubject. So my thought is that, just as the early modern zannis were in a sense ahead of their time, so have African cities, with their teeming populations of Dickensian artful dodgers, long heralded the future (or at least one future) of informalized labor. Ngai uses the kinetic desperation of Chaplin or Tom and Jerry to think through the precarious condition of postindustrial Europe; what are we to make of the fact that such figures have long resonated in paraindustrial Dar es Salaam? Perhaps the West really is evolving toward Africa.

As your question suggests, I’m also interested in what the zany means in Tanzania specifically. I would say that the local texture of the zany is most foundationally shaped by the historical experience of underdevelopment. Because postcolonial modernization never quite achieved Rostowean lift-off, it has remained a deeply ambivalent condition. On one hand, it is an enduring object of desire; on the other, it is a burden of oafish state interference and expropriation. This makes the Swahili hustler knocking about in the informal economy a figure of rueful cultural intimacy. He or she is vogelfrei (free as a bird)—free from state regulation but, for all that, just sort of flapping around. In a place where modernist dignity is still intensely desired, this is an amusing and embarrassing commentary on the project of national development. And in places like Tanzania and Guinea, socialism was a very powerful idiom of modernist aspiration, such that, yes, you could see the zany as a commentary on Tanzania’s thwarted, socialist-oriented development.

I leave it to other analysts to see where else zany aesthetics flourish and what, other more directly postsocialist inflections they assume. But, for example, I sense an unmistakable zaniness in the manic performativity of pyramid schemes and financial grifts that have flourished across post–Cold War geographies (Verdery 1996; Tsing 2000; Piot 2017). Another suggestive family resemblance is Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak’s (2010) work on socialist and American stiob, which is predicated on a type of play in which the actor is so overcommitted and so straight-faced that you’re not sure where the joke ends and the reality begins. Like stiob, the zany is an aesthetic of performative exaggeration, of always being on. So I guess my instinct is to stay with the generalizing thrust of both Ngai’s concept and the article and say that postsocialism isn’t something that (just) names a cluster of particular countries, but is part of a broader world-historical intensification of precarity in which unfettered markets and other decentralized networks create ever tighter feedback loops between work and play, action and reaction, sincerity and performativity. These loops can reach such a pitch of intensity that they effectively blur distinctions into a single field. This can be both exhilarating and exhausting—in a word, zany.

SR: Each of the scenes in your article is a different look at the improvisation used to navigate quotidian life while entangled in Dar’s electricity grids. Do you imagine that this improvisational politics is a uniquely urban phenomenon? Is it inherent to infrastructures?

MD: On one level, improvisation is everywhere. We could think of the various traditions of practice theory that begin with some version of the idea that it’s not just about knowing the rules but how to apply them (see Schatzki 1997), such as Bourdieu’s (1977, 78) notion of habitus as a paradoxically “regulated improvisation.” In urban studies, we can think of Michel de Certeau’s (1984) notion of walking as the improvisational counterpoint to synoptic seeing/planning. In this way, improvisation is the supplement in the Derridean sense—the thing that seems extraneous but is also essential to upholding the norm. And so with social life, so with their infrastructures, which sustain themselves by constantly accreting new dynamics and forms, especially at the micro-level of the user (Edwards 2003). Residents in Dar are perpetually improvising on their connections to the power grid, whether by deferring payment, sharing a line with a neighbor, installing solar or diesel back-ups, or stealing or surreptitiously reconnecting.

However, I want to emphasize that zaniness directs us to something like deregulated improvisation—improvisation at a much more distorted pitch and intensity, when doing and adapting seem to come untethered from the ground that delimits them. Again, think of Chaplin’s tramp, who careens from one situation to the next, constantly reacting and responding. This aesthetic is a kind of commentary on or symptom of situations in which normal expectations of labor and life do not quite obtain. African cities are generally thought to have this groundless quality—they exist “beyond their infrastructure,” in Filip De Boeck’s striking phrase (Simone, Boeck, and Rao 2010). And this groundlessness creates deeply ambiguous cat-and-mouse games that are replete with gains and losses, sudden reversals, confusions between the real and the feki.

There are two points to be made here: first, deregulated improvisation is by no means uniquely urban—especially in African contexts where the urban is always cross-cut by circuits of rural trade, migration, and sociality. As Louisa Lombard (2016) has argued, there is immense and often desperate improvisational creativity to be found in the countryside. We can think of the Mano River War, in which distinctions between soldier and rebel, mining and fighting, bush and village—not to mention national distinctions between Liberia and Sierra Leone—all threatened to collapse into a mode of “production in general and without distinction” (Hoffman 2011, 104). (We can also note that much of the aesthetics of that conflict, from noms de guerre like General Butt Naked to armed forces cross-dressing and donning carnivalesque regalia, had a touch of the zany).

The second and perhaps more important point is that this mode of improvisation should not and cannot exhaust the way in which we think of urban Africa. Zaniness might be a symptom of the way capitalism cruelly frees populations not lucky enough to be regimented into orderly mass employment and biopolitical care, but symptoms do not show up everywhere. There are vast swaths and periods of African urban reality that are, for better or worse, ordinary, where improvisations remain within a tolerable bandwidth of intensity and deterritorialization.

SR: As you elucidate, the historical character of the zanni is a jack of all trades, participating in open-ended labor. If the vishoka you spent time with are jacks of all trades, are they masters of none? How does expertise fit into the careers of these urban “hatchets” and your theorization of improvisation?

MD: This is a really good, perceptive question, and it gets to what I’m doing in my broader ethnographic project on Dar’s power network. In some ways, the zany antics I discuss refer to entry-level vishoka, actors who are relegated to working along the street-level edges of the power network. But often the goal is to become an informal contractor like Samueli, someone who doesn’t just mediate existing physical connections but channels the very bureaucratic process of getting connected itself. Progressively embedding oneself deeper into the institutional logic of the network entails building skill and trust with clients and Tanesco patrons. I have come to think of this process as becoming infrastructural, in the sense of becoming a medium that reduces variability and unpredictability of value flow. At these deeper levels, improvisation is less important, or at least less inflationary, because relations and expertise have been grooved through repeated iterations of experience.

And this goes back to my earlier point, about how the zaniness of seemingly permanent improvisation is one level of African urban reality. But people also work to extend their agency across long-term horizons by grooving sociotechnical relations that stabilize and buffer volatility. One brilliant rendering of persons becoming infrastructure is Brenda Chalfin’s (2017) recent portrait of M, the builder and proprietor of a private toilet/housing complex on the outskirts of Tema, Ghana. Chalfin draws on Hobbes’s theory of Leviathan to show how M became the axis around which unruly social and material forces coalesced. Without quite getting to that singular apex, vishoka like Samueli seek to become solid and stable by building a certain mastery—making value flows derivative of their persons, rather than the other way around. But because they build their careers in a kind of legal and institutional grey zone, they highlight especially well Tim Ingold’s (2015, 138–42) idea that mastery constitutes a kind of submission to and correspondence with the milieu, rather than simply imposing one’s will upon it.

SR: With prices rising and service faltering, some Dar residents seek to steal the electricity they want without payment. While this might seem like a rebuke of the state and its failure to hold up its end of the social contract, you describe improvisation as a mode of citizenship. Can you say more about the nature of this mode and what it means for those who enact it?

MD: Yes, there is a sort of insouciance about the state, whereby you might steal until you get caught and then move to a new place, pay the fine, or reconnect. You also see this in negotiations over who can occupy and profit from the roads, from bodaboda (motorcycle) taxis to informal vendors evading traffic cops and police militias. But this evacuation of the near future, where there are only short-term tactical games, is also deadly serious because, underneath the day-to-day negotiations, people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. So the trick is to keep the game going, to figure out what sorts of improvisations are acceptable and possible and what ones aren’t. It’s one thing to fine a bodaboda driver for not wearing his helmet and another to impound his bike. It’s one thing for residents to surreptitiously reconnect through the meter and yet another to bypass the meter entirely. This sociotechnical calibration of individual license and collective responsibility entails what I call a kind of “modal reasoning” (Degani 2017). It animates an aspect of urban citizenship for which rights and obligations are not convincingly set out in contractual or constitutional form but are rather inferred, tested, and reworked in real time. It is, if you like, an art of citizenship (see Diouf and Fredericks 2014), attentive to modulations and modifications of the social contract.

Tom and Jerry epitomize the zaniness of electrical currents in Dar es Salaam. Photo by Michael Degani.

SR: Many anthropologists conceive of “studying up” (Nader 1972) as a way of studying power and the powerful. In your article, we get the sense that Tanesco has a hard time exercising power in the face of everyday resistance like the cat-and-mouse games people play with the Revenue Protection Unit patrols, ubiquitous illegal connections and meter tampering, and the likelihood that those who are successfully disconnected will simply reconnect. What was your experience of studying such a seemingly futile effort?

MD: That’s an interesting question. In working through this project I have tended to think of studying up as looking at the so-called upstream level of electricity generation and its elite political economy of power plants and fuel contracts, which in many ways set the whole system into motion. This was a very difficult realm to get access to and hence I relied on media reporting, grey literature, and so on. In this realm, as is often the case, the powerful remain relatively immune to the consequences of their venal and stupid behavior.

I suppose RPUs could be thought of as a kind of studying up. It’s certainly true that I had a hard time getting access to them—it took the repeated wining and dining of a Tanesco manager to make it happen! And Tanesco inspectors are relatively fortunate in that they have stable, salaried work. But they are also squeezed by the pincers of technocratic management and casualization. Many vishoka, after all, get their start as day workers for Tanesco, installing meters or doing maintenance work, and then stall out as their contracts aren’t renewed. This pool of underemployed labor makes it easier for residents to unofficially modify state power lines and hence makes inspectors’ jobs all the more difficult. Amid all this, inspectors must carry out ambitious mandates and disconnection quotas set by Tanesco branch and central management, and for this they are often underprovisioned and, in their estimation, underpaid. Finally, the actual work of patrols is not easy. It entails hours walking around in the hot sun in neighborhoods where Tanesco inspectors are not particularly welcome.

Inspectors had different sensibilities and responses to these Sisyphean tasks. Some took on a hectoring, disciplinary attitude, others extended sympathy, while still others solicited or accepted bribes that supplemented what they felt were their insufficient incomes—usually when I seemed to be out of earshot. This article focuses on a few of the surprisingly comic moments that erupted out of these various approaches—the funny and exhausting sense that whatever else they were doing, they were running around in circles. And that should disabuse anyone who imagines state power to always be a rationalizing technology or high-modernist juggernaut.

SR: Throughout your ethnography, we see vishoka likened to projectiles—in Issa’s words, bouncing across the city like birds or soccer balls. This made me think of the bodaboda driver, whom we discussed earlier. You mention motorcycle taxis and street vendors insofar as they navigate regulation and policing. How might your ethnography of improvisation with electrical engineers speak to the lives of bodabodas and other actors in African cities, not only in relation to citizenship, but also to capitalism and modernity?

MD: Yes, I’m glad you clocked that—I definitely think of bodaboda drivers as kindred figures. I started going to Dar es Salaam in 2007, and sometime around 2010 the importation of cheap bikes from China just exploded, giving otherwise underemployed young men new forms of employment, collective identity, and jurisdiction over urban space. There is a lot of interesting work coming out on motorcycle taxis in Africa and beyond that explores these themes and that has convinced me that motorcycles are key vehicles of planetary urbanization.

Like vishoka, bodaboda drivers supplement an overloaded and inefficient public infrastructure, and improvisation is an accordingly important feature of their labor and, to some degree, their aesthetics of self-presentation. One of the key facts about bodaboda drivers is that many don’t own their bikes and hence must cover not only gas, repairs, and legal trouble, but also rent payments. Anyone who has spent time in an African city will recognize the way that these pressures can send drivers careening around the city: weaving through traffic, circumventing road police, and overloading their bikes with absurdly enormous bags of charcoal, firewood bundles, or three and four passengers at a go (residents in Dar call this mishkaki—shish kabob—style). In terms of improvisation in its more aesthetic sense, you have young kids outfitting their bikes with tassels and stickers and stereos, goofing off or doing tricks and just enjoying the freedom of this otherwise precarious work, the sheer kinetic expressiveness the bike affords. There are definitely bodaboda drivers who take this enforced freedom to survive and push it into zany territory.

But as I said earlier, in some ways the exaggerated precarity of this style can call forth its opposite—learning to be a calm, poised, and most of all balanced driver who can control his engagements with road flow, who can be discreet about who he is transporting and where. It seems to me that when capitalism produces large numbers of putatively superfluous populations who are not guaranteed life or livelihood, the ethics of improvisation are as much as about learning when not to cut corners, when not to be overtaken by your desires, as they are of performatively leaning into that superfluity.

SR: Your article elicited more than a few laughs while I read it, especially the absurdities you encountered while moving with the Tanesco patrols. We often don’t read much about the ludic aspects of fieldwork. What was it like navigating such zany situations yourself, as an observer, a friend, a stranger, or an anthropologist?

MD: Well, I’m glad to get the laughs! I don’t know—on one level, laughter is a great thing to share with your interlocutors. Eduardo Kohn (2013, 111) has a nice observation about this, that laughter unites people in a “single self in communicative communion.” It is a kind of surge of affect or social electricity, a way of establishing rapport. By the same token, we also know that there are many different kinds of communion laughter can draw you into. It can be life-affirming and defiant, or it can be reactionary and cruel. You can laugh when someone unexpectedly breaks free of circumstance, or when someone is unexpectedly constrained by circumstance.

During fieldwork I found myself doing both. On patrols I laughed at the fumbling of both inspectors and residents; I laughed with and at Issa. Absurdity is a good word for the texture of that laughter, since it refused to stay in one frame or mode and that’s what was interesting about it. But for that same reason, as I think I’ve been hinting at, it was also exhausting!

SR: Finally, can you say a bit more about your broader project on the electricity grid in Dar es Salaam? How does this article fit into your work there, and where is it going?

MD: Honestly, this article started as a bit of a lark. I’ve always been interested in performance and popular culture in African cities and I liked the idea of bringing those interests to bear on the somewhat techy and sober literature on infrastructure. And, as you suggested, I wanted to think about the kinds of laughter we get plugged into during fieldwork. Those elements really clicked into place for me after reading Ngai on the zany. It helped me see that there was a kind of ambiguous comedy of precarity that really rides the line between heroic accounts of creative disruption and, more commonly in anthropology, accounts of abjection.

My larger project examines how urban residents of Dar es Salaam reckon with the aftermath of a morally charged period of African socialism, one which promised a certain orderly and dignified modernization. One of the ways in which this aftermath unfolds is through struggles over how electricity is produced, transmitted and consumed—who gets it, at what price, for how long, and under what circumstances. These changes in the technical flow of electricity both reflect and produce shifting institutional, affective, and ethical dimensions of the citizen–state relation. Ethnographically, I track these interrelated social and technical shifts by “following the current” across the supply chain: from the mutual growth of private generation contracts and elite patronage networks to the ways blackouts stoke particular forms of public affect and fantasy; to the ways unbilled consumption feeds new forms of urban space and householding; and finally, to the ways disrepair gives rise to informal brokers and mediators. I am particularly interested in how Tanzanians sense the limits of these shifts—how they alter or modify or partially privatize the mechanisms of public service provision, but in ways that tend to preserve, however tenuously, its basic horizon of reciprocity.

On one hand, all of this postsocialist disrepair makes electricity burdensome and unreliable. It brings what should be an unobtrusive support system into the conscious realm of calculation and sometimes even divination (see Trovalla and Trovalla 2015). But I have to admit, I also find much to admire in this reflexive attitude. It shows that infrastructure can be up for grabs. It can be tinkered with, readjusted, modified; its social premises and logics can be scrutinized. So this article is about the alternating senses of freedom and constraint that come with paying attention to infrastructure. Paying a kishoka for services that the state isn’t providing can make your life easier or harder. The zany dramatizes this condition by fusing both possibilities into a single kinetic scene or character.


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