Discussion: Infrastructural Times

From the Series: The Infrastructure Toolbox

Photo by Victor Garcia.

In an interview, Michel Foucault (1986, 244) once observed that the École des Ponts et Chausées had “capital importance in political rationality in France.” It was engineers, he contended, and not architects who “thought out space.” Foucault’s brief remarks direct us to consider the critical role of infrastructure in the formation of new spaces of government, from the postrevolutionary French state—which established the metric system of measurement—to the European Union, a political organisation that has placed such great stress on the need to ground European politics on the secure base of common standards (Barry 2001). Despite his comments, though, Foucault carried out little research on bridges or roads, focusing his attention on the human and biomedical sciences and, in his later lectures at the Collège de France, on the contribution of liberal and neoliberal thinkers to the history of political rationality. An analysis of the relation between the history of construction engineering and the history of reflections on the problem of government remains to be written.

In this light, one theme running through The Infrastructure Toolbox as a series is striking. Namely and in various ways, the contributors direct us to think not about space, as Foucault’s observation might suggest, but about the temporality of infrastructure. The infrastructures glimpsed here have a history or, rather, they are the products of multiple histories. Today’s infrastructures are built on past infrastructural innovations such as the QWERTY keyboard and the electrical grid. Infrastructures acquire what Nikhil Anand evocatively terms accretions. They expand and retreat; they evolve over periods, which do not correspond to the rhythms of human history (Bowker; Harvey). Infrastructures are not the stable base on which a political superstructure can be established: they corrode, rust (Jackson), splinter (Mackenzie), lurch (Fennell), and crack (von Schnitzler). They are subject to sabotage and hacking. Given these conditions, infrastructures demand regular monitoring and repair (Jackson).

Several observations follow from these important insights. One is that the sign of a well-functioning political order is often taken to be the reliability of infrastructure. In this view, breakdowns are rare and, when they happen, backups are quickly put in place. Only when there are widespread or prolonged blackouts, delays, or blockages do the users of infrastructure know something is amiss (Appel and Kumar). A working infrastructure is expected to embody standards, but these standards tend only to be of interest to engineers and bureaucrats. This ideal image is misleading, however: the breakdown of infrastructure does not necessarily mark a catastrophic moment in the disruption of the system. Residents have to manage (Schwenkel) and develop their own ways of working with infrastructure, adding their own accretions.

But why are anthropologists particularly interested in infrastructure now, and to what ends (von Schnitzler)? Several answers can be given to this question. One answer, I suggest, is that surprising parallels emerge between the practice of ethnography and engineering. Of course, ethnographic research tends not to be so instrumental or goal-oriented as engineering. But there is a similarity nonetheless. For both ethnographers and engineers of infrastructure need to be attentive to the unexpected copresence of materials and the passions they generate (Harvey). The engineers of infrastructure certainly have to think about space, but they have also to think about why particular places might matter during certain periods or at particular moments and not others. Both engineers and ethnographers need to be attuned not just to the histories of infrastructures, but also to their rhythms.

Another reason to be concerned with infrastructure is that infrastructure continues to be a focus for the political, if we understand the political to index the possibility of conflict and disagreement. Antina von Schnitzler asks us to consider the ways that that infrastructure in apartheid South Africa worked not just to generate circulation, but to “impede, prescribe and prompt movement.” It is no surprise that the anti-apartheid struggle was also frequently directed against the infrastructure of the regime. Today, infrastructure is a critical focus for those concerned with the privatization of the state and of expertise. If infrastructures of state and empire were once associated with large public and corporate laboratories, infrastructure expertise is now dispersed across a vast array of businesses, which deal with matters as diverse as risk assessment, quality control, community relations, corrosion, environmental protection, asset management, and finance. These forms of expertise are concerned not just with the current conditions of infrastructures, but also with their future stability. As Hannah Appel and Mukul Kumar’s observations suggest, expertise in infrastructural futures has become a focal point for political opposition (see also Barry 2013).

But infrastructure is never just a matter of engineering and finance, and infrastructures are always more-than-material (Mackenzie). Their construction often generates expectations about the future; after all, infrastructures are thought to embody solutions to structural problems. At the same time, infrastructures also smells and sounds; they transform the atmosphere. No wonder that modernists were once attracted to the clamor of the city’s infrastructure, with its creaking and clanking network of trams and trains, pipes and cables. Those interested in infrastructure need to attend to engineering expertise, but also to infrastructure’s sensory modalities (Schwenkel).

It has been easy for social scientists to assume that infrastructures are static, while people, goods, culture, money, and information simply flow smoothly around or through them. This spatial imaginary forms part of the political rationality of infrastructure. However, the challenge of studying infrastructure is not just a matter of making the static network visible. As the contributors to this series make abundantly clear, infrastructures are fragile as well as enduring. Research on infrastructures must, therefore, be attuned to their accretion and accumulation, their cracks and fissures, and the politics of their present and future condition.


Barry, Andrew. 2001. Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society. London: Athlone.

_____. 2013. Material Politics: Disputes along the Pipeline. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Foucault, Michel. 1986. “Space, Knowledge, Power.” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, 239–56. London: Penguin.