A Response to Alessandro Rippa and Colleagues

From the Series: On Roads: A Review Letter

Photo by Ludovic Fremondiere.

Dear Alessandro, Matthäus, Radhika, Agniezka, Carolin, Juliane, Lisa, and Martin,

Thank you for the careful and close reading of our book, and for the opportunity to enter into conversation with you about the ideas we have explored through our study of roads and infrastructure. We are particularly pleased that we managed to communicate our key point about how the ethnography of infrastructures offers a space through which to investigate how the political takes form. Indeed, the section of your review letter on the neoliberal state connects the emergent political to the politics of differentiation in just the way we intended. However, this discussion led you to question our approach to the state, and so we start there in this response.

Forms of the Political

Our study began with the state and the challenge of how to work ethnographically on state formation. But we were wary of conflating the state and the political. The roads were our way in, as sites of politics that allowed us to address a whole range of struggles around notions and practices of sovereignty and governance via discussions of development, economic growth, and the public good. Thus we tracked the relationships between state agencies, construction companies, workers, and local residents. We also looked at the material politics manifest in the struggles to contend with physical forces, as well as the knowledge politics that emerged from the study of engineering expertise as a pragmatic engagement with dynamic and unstable material and social environments. In all of these areas the roads conjured the state, both as a presence and an absence. Above and beyond the structuring force of the state, though, we wanted to consider the forces that act back on or move beyond the purview of state power. Our claim is that infrastructural systems offer a particularly fruitful site for such analyses.

Roads or Infrastructures?

Your discussion prompted you to ask whether we would distinguish an anthropology of roads from an anthropology of infrastructure in general. We enjoyed this question, not least because we had set out to do an ethnography of roads and discovered along the way that we were entangled in infrastructural debates and questions that we needed to tease out. We think that the distinction between infrastructures and roads is important, however. Infrastructures are, above all else, relational systems with generative capacity. They provide the conditions of possibility for other relational practices or circulations beyond those that are constitutive of the infrastructure in question. These possibilities are open-ended and emergent.

In the case of the Interoceanic Highway, for example, we discussed the infrastructural capacity of this road in terms of the ways that it enabled capital to flow, and the means by which it enabled transformations in people’s livelihoods by facilitating access to healthcare, education and markets. But alongside the figure of the road as infrastructure, we were interested in exploring how roads simultaneously figure as place. Roads are not only enabling, connective technologies but also locations that are imbued with meaning. Dangerous roads are lined with shrines that mark the sites of fatal accidents. People visit spectacular bridges and admire these feats of engineering. They also make trips to enjoy the reflective lights that mark sharp bends or steep drops. Ethnographically, then, we tacked between an anthropology of infrastructure and an anthropology of place, seeking to show how a material entity (such as a road) may simultaneously enact a sense of place andan extensive relational field of connective potential. As you note, we looked in particular at road construction, the means by which a road is brought into being as both place and infrastructure.


This multiplicity of the road as both place and infrastructure has forced us to think carefully about method. Ethnographers are very good at producing descriptions of place-making practices, but we wanted to think about how ethnography can help us to understand relationships that exceed the production of place. The methods we deployed in this project were an attempt to tackle this problem. Rather than expecting that through depth and length of residence we could uncover a kind of total social meaning for a particular group of people living in a place, we attempted to understand the experience of infrastructure as something that produces confrontation with the unknown, forms of interpretation and negotiation that exceed history and locatedness, and modes of experience that traverse locations.

We did plenty of place-based ethnography on this project, both in particular locations and in the construction camps. But we also moved around in different ways, on public transport and in company vehicles, sometimes covering very short distances and sometimes making longer journeys. On two occasions we traveled along the seven hundred kilometers of the Interoceanic Highway in a private car, with two men who had worked this space as drivers for many years. Along we way we talked with many of the oldest residents of the settlements that we passed through. Here we found ourselves conducting what we might call a syncopated ethnography, which both distanced us from the materiality of place and engendered a different spatial understanding of social interconnection. Importantly, it also made us aware of the way in which social separations appeared, both between people in particular locations and between people who moved up and down this road to live and work. We found that kinship relations held the space of the road together in unexpected ways, and yet we also found that these kin relations were compromised by and challenged by the presence of outsiders, people from other places, and anonymous others.

This leads us into our response to your question about the lack of contextual detail surrounding some of the people we discuss, particularly some of the engineer-bricoleurs we came across. You refer in particular to the engineer in Chapter 3 who asserts his belief in math over a belief in ghosts. In this case Penny knew the woman in question very well, but not the engineer. He was passing through. The conversation was not uncomfortable and his faith in numbers emerged many times as a key component of engineering expertise.

However, we also thought in terms of an ethnographic commitment to describe the mutual unknowingness that marked this kind of interactions between people who engaged each other on the road, with no further knowledge of each other or sense of how or when they might meet again.We wanted to retain the importance that our informants placed on diagnosis, on watching, on the interpretation of signs and messages of who outsiders were and what their interests might be. We needed to know something about the people we were talking to, but a detailed account of their histories, motivations, and desires would not, we believe, have helped us to describe and explain the dynamics of infrastructural mixing. Communication between people on the road was often unclear. People did not necessarily speak the same language. The engineers often spoke only Brazilian Portuguese. Working each other out was a matter of reading the surface signs of who people were, signs that reorganized people’s senses of the worlds that they were inhabiting as indicated by the color of a hard hat (senior engineers always wore white hats), the clothes people wore, or the accents and inflections of their speech. In response to your question, we wondered about using the term project sociality to refer to these modes of engagement: a form of relatedness that derives from partiality, unknowability, interpretation, and speculation about those who come into your life without a clear history or a clear trajectory going forward. Anthropologists have always had to struggle with this type of project sociality, which often jars with the local sociality they are trying to understand. In our case, however, the project sociality we experienced as fieldworkers was not so dissimilar to that of the engineers and local residents with whom we found ourselves interacting.

The Engineer-Bricoleur

Science and technology studies (STS) has indeed long been invested in showing us the messiness of day-to-day engineering practice and engineers’ constant need to improvise in their dealings with unstable things. We have tried to use STS and anthropology together to think about how to conceptualize the mess in ethnography as something instructive and empirically relevant. As anthropologists, we invest in the study of infrastructural formations in a way that is somewhat different from the technological interests of STS scholars. It is the structuring social forces that engage us. A road construction project allows us to ask questions about power and structure without assuming that the constitutive elements of infrastructural forms are either stable or coherent. Thus, rather than seeing structures as things in the world, we prefer to speak of structuring effects. The emergent infrastructure might be both fragile and powerful, and in this respect we should perhaps revisit the issue you raise about roads as priori failures. A clarification is needed here. A road is unlikely to meet the multiple expectations that surround it as a structuring formation, but this is not to say that its effects are insignificant. Those effects simply might not be those that were originally planned for or expected. Infrastructures are not contained by the epistemologies of those who construct them, nor by the ontological reasoning of those whose worlds they underpin. This open-endedness and ambiguity is not exactly a mess or a failure, but a shifting ground that people navigate in their imaginary and material engagements.

Impossible Publics

We appreciate your reading of our intention to signal an agrammatical public composed of people who are “otherwise engaged” or do not organize themselves into counterpublics, but who nevertheless disrupt the unfolding of infrastructural projects by their refusal of a public response. We feel that impossible publics trips off the tongue rather better than possible nonpublics, but beyond this, we wanted to draw attention to the effort put into configuring all problematic responses as, in some way, public. The engineering company calls publics into being. It is only as publics that responses can be legitimated. In the case of the man who refused to sign the expropriation papers because he wasn’t “moved to,” there was a disruption to the compensation mechanism as the means of configuring people as a public. These legal framings anticipated responses and articulated the space of such responses as public. A category of afectados (those affected by the construction) generated a politics of refusal that interested us. Was this refusal political or simply “otherwise engaged”? Was it active or passive? The impossible public is a term we used to refer to those who were called into being as publics even as they sidestepped the implications of the category, thereby becoming impossible in their insistence on opaque or overtly personal rationales. We also wanted to capture the sense that the public was clearly not a group that pre-existed the interaction, but that would emerge (or not) out of the interactions of the construction process.

In the end this discussion of impossible publics was also integral to our suggestion that we might recast political anthropology as an ethnography of miscommunication. The road construction project was a public work and an infrastructural project. It was not a Habermasian sphere of discourse, debate, and contention, although these processes were certainly visible at times. It was, we found, a persistently uncertain space of misunderstanding and obscurity. We were, as you observe, engaged by moments of surprise, shocking encounters between people and between people and things, as well as the moments when conversation stopped. We were attentive to the responses elicited in such moments. And we continue to be intrigued by the tensions between the surfaces and structural depths of infrastructural forms—as well as the windows they offer us on the affective force of the political.

You made the point that just as all roads are, in some senses, a priori failures, so too are books! We conclude this response by suggesting that failure assumes a singularity of purpose that we would do well to avoid. We have found the review letter format that you devised really stimulating and we are very appreciative of the way in which your comments have re-presented our work to us, consequently allowing us to think again about the topics that we explore in the book. All that remains is for us to thank you for making the effort to gather and articulate your comments in a way that has allowed us to engage in precisely the kind of conversation about politics, infrastructure, and publics that we have suggested roads have the capacity to provoke.