On Roads: A Review Letter

Photo by Ludovic Fremondiere.

Munich, January 2016

Dear Penny and Hannah,

We recently had the pleasure of reading your new book Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise. The occasion was the first session of the Contemporary Anthropology Reading Group organized by the Highland Asia Research Group at Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. The book generated a lively discussion around a number of important issues. Afterward, we felt that a conventional book review would not be enough to capture the breadth of the discussion, nor would it be a suitable option to discuss some of the questions that the book raised. What follows then, is what we are calling a review letter: our attempt to further engage with some of the most challenging arguments that your book makes. Our hope is to initiate a dialogue that will advance our shared interest in infrastructural spaces and their politics, and to perhaps initiate a new, different way to talk about and discuss books within anthropology. The way we decided to structure this letter is around five main themes that came up repeatedly during our session, and that we believe cover the major arguments that you make in the book.

An Anthropology of the State? An Anthropology of Roads? Or an Anthropology of Expertise?

Roads, you make clear from the very beginning, are a priori failures: a point we all found particularly illuminating. Roads never fulfill the promises and expectations inscribed onto them through the sociopolitical entanglements they become part of in the process of debating, surveying, planning, and constructing. Although they are handy as surfaces for multiple projections, expectations, dreams, and affects, the starting point of the analysis of what roads do must, indeed, be that of failure to bring about what is expected of them.

A book, perhaps, is bound to suffer a fate similar to that of roads, particularly when it attempts to cover large and mostly unstudied topics. Different readers, moreover, will approach a book with different, idiosyncratic expectations, and thus during our reading group we found ourselves debating where, how, and why the text diverged from our initial expectations. One issue was the main theme of the book. From the beginning, you repeatedly state that your work on roads in Peru focuses “squarely on the form of the political” (5). What you attempt to do is thus not an anthropology of roads but rather an anthropology of the state, and of how the contemporary state emerges in people’s everyday lives. Reading the book, however, we found ourselves immersed in stories of engineers, migrants, local farmers, and gold miners. The state seemed one important aspect of your analysis, but it was surely not the only one and most of us were not even convinced that it was the most important one. Rather, we thought that one of the most intriguing aspects of the book lies precisely in showing the range of forces and discourses that surround infrastructures, and although roads might be privileged localities from which to look at “the political,” what the book shows are precisely the limits of state power and the possibilities of alternative narratives. The question that remained open for us, however, was what “the political” actually means, what it does and does not include.

Some of us expected a deeper reflection on what a contemporary anthropology of roads, or transportation infrastructure, could look like in methodological terms. Considering the title of the book, several questions seem to remain unanswered, such as: is there anything particular in the spatial, social, political, economic, and cultural entanglements that roads are a part of (and which they produce) that would justify distinguishing an anthropology of roads from an anthropology of infrastructure in general? Is there anything unique about this spatial technology and the webs of social relations that roads spin to justify an anthropology of roads? Or, from another angle, do the different roads that exist in the world have anything in common to justify conceiving of “the road” as a generic category of analysis, as Dimitris Dalakoglou (2010, 144) proposes? Can we, for instance, consider an expressway (asphalted, fenced, ordered) as a social space in the same way we consider a rural road? What do they have in common, besides the fact that people move along them? Eventually, what most of us agreed on was that the book represents more an anthropology of road construction than an anthropology of the state—particularly as the main protagonists of the book do not seem to be travelers or the people living along the road, but rather those in charge of its very construction: engineers.

The Engineer-Bricoleur

One of the key figures you develop throughout the book is that of the engineer-bricoleur. The engineer, you argue, is actually a bricoleur who has to work “with what comes to hand to resolve the specific and localized problems that any infrastructural project produces” (198). Engineers are aware of this, you claim, and through your multifarious ethnographic examples you counter the image of the engineer as “the prototypical modern thinker” (197) prevalent in the accounts of not only Claude Lévi-Strauss, but also James Scott and Tim Ingold. This is a valid point. Through building things like roads, civil engineers, you show beautifully, are those who translate the planner’s normative philosophy of as if into a pragmatic philosophy of as long as. However, what we miss in your depictions of the engineer-bricoleurs you encountered along Peruvian roads is context. We learn very little about them: their histories, their motivations, their desires. When we do, they remain highly schematic. Take, for example, the engineer in Chapter 3 who, when asked whether he believes in ghosts, asserts his belief in math. The inherent cliché of the incident was not lost on you, but was this indeed a sincere utterance stating “a sense of trust and investment in what it is that numbers can do,” as you claim (83)? Or was it just a way of getting out of an uncomfortable conversation? We don’t know enough about this man nor about the context of your encounter to tell. Additionally, despite its conceptual beauty, we wonder what’s new about the figure of the engineer-bricoleur. Haven’t scholars of science and technology studies 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?

The Neoliberal State

What we find highly novel, however, is your account of the effects of neoliberal reforms in the two chapters you devote to health and safety regulations and corruption. In both cases, you show how new regulatory frameworks and benchmarking exercises meaningfully alter practices around road construction.

In the first example, you show how new roads bring new dangers, as well as a new ethics in which responsibility is placed on the individual and not, as before, on relations of trust and mutuality. Yet this putative universal of personal responsibility should be approached, as all other universals, as an emergent process. Therefore, you “suggest that the ambiguity of the relationship between the abstract health and safety code and the specific practices through which it is enacted produces the space in which people then take responsibility for themselves in ways that exceed the terms of the relationship they agreed to in signing their contract with the company” (125). So health and safety regulations, which in corporate code should be distinct from social practices, are in fact imbued with affect. We are dealing with what you call the politics of differentiation, which emerge through the integration of social practices and broader systems. In the same vein, you tie the rise of public interest in corruption to the emergence of neoliberal values of transparency and accountability.

The discussion then traces the ambiguities and uncertainties that characterize neoliberal states’ anticorruption measures, which very much tie in with the language that those institutions use: trend, direction, change, and so on. Eventually, the argument turns to the discrepancy between those agencies and the demands of the local people. Locals don’t demand transparency; they demand that things get built and have a positive impact on their lives. This is why, in turn, those projects appear corrupt. There is a discrepancy between the will (and the expectation) of the neoliberal state and those of local communities. So those incompatible interests eventually “amplify the sense of corruption” (159). You show how neoliberal anticorruption policies emerge out of rumors about corruption and how they tie in with what Marilyn Strathern (2000) calls “the tyranny of transparency,” in which an evidence-based paradigm leaves little room for any situated knowledge. Thus, the good intentions behind anticorruption mechanisms and their participatory approach create new forms of uncertainty. Through this, you brilliantly show how the political re-emerges as internal to those systems that seek to establish their credibility by its expulsion.

Both corruption and rumors of corruption emerge from what you call disjunctive doubling, through which “roads are dreamed of as solutions to a pervasive sense of abandonment and underdevelopment, and yet dreaded for their proven capacity to destroy fragile natural and social environments” (135). Rumors are thereby instrumental, because they are a form of knowledge that “erodes a commitment to evidence and transparency” (136). Corruption stories are thus more than stories registering moral ambiguities and uncertainties, as Akhil Gupta (1995) once put it. They are, rather, directly linked to the post–Cold War concern with anticorruption measures championed by organizations such as Transparency International. In Peru, the National System of Public Investment (SNIP) is an outcome of this global concern. These instruments of the neoliberal state are, of course, deeply political, and they seem to highlight one of its main paradoxes, such that private actors are always already suspected of being above all concerned with profit rather than the greater public good, and therefore institutions and formalized methods are created to ensure their ethical conduct. How else to do this? To protest against a company who won a bid and is primarily responsible for delivering on its promise is not the same as to protest against a political elite that hopes to be re-elected. Responsible and ethical conduct is increasingly wrapped in supposedly scientific, evidence-based approaches that try to keep the political out for the sake of pure ethics, even while, of course, bringing the political in again through the back door.

In other words, good practices, stakeholder participation, ecological responsibility, and the like are integral to neoliberal agendas. They rest on the assumption of publics, counterpublics, and productive negotiations between the two, without acknowledging that the very frame of thought from which they stem is part of a politics of differentiation. We find this whole discussion to be a very important insight that goes to the heart of so many infrastructural projects around the globe. What we again found ourselves discussing, however, was the role of the state. For some of us the issue remained rather decontextualized, as throughout the various chapters of the book we were dealing with different forms of state: from the Inca state to the modern state and the neoliberal state. Although your discussion of these different kinds of state intervention through the medium of road construction was often compelling, the issue of the state itself did not seem to be fully addressed. What, then, is the neoliberal state? What makes it different from the modern state? And again, given the Inca state’s famous efforts toward road construction, would it not make sense to connect that state formation more closely with current infrastructural projects in the Andes?

The Role of Ethnography

The issue that we debated most critically was the role of ethnography in your book. We all admire your book for the way you develop your theorization out of ethnographic material and do not relegate anthropology to a form of applied philosophy content to test philosophical concepts on the ground, as is so common these days. All of the ethnographic vignettes you present are vigorously used to advance your argument. They are the material that highlights the puzzles you seek to address and that trigger conceptual reflection. But, as mentioned earlier, we would have liked to learn more about the protagonists, their stories, and your encounters with them. Additionally, even though in the preface you clearly state that this is not an ethnography of two roads, some of us would have liked to know more about your methods of data collection. How did you travel these roads? How long did you stay in particular places? Often, it seems, you arrived somewhere just in time for a major event to happen.

Therefore, we could not help but feel a disjuncture between ethnography and theory at times, as you use single encounters to make specific points about specific things. One such example is in Chapter 6, when you tell the story of the director of a school in Ocongate who staged a protest against the construction company for deciding not to pave the stretch of road in front of the school—after it had been decided, against the will of most of the people, to route the road not through the main square but around the center of the settlement. Besides organizing the demonstration, the director asked all of the parents to attend, threatening to fine them a significant amount of money if they did not show up. Although this example could be used, as you do, to show the discrepancies in how people engage with public projects, the ambiguous role of the state, and the possible impact of specific oppositional strategies, we nevertheless wondered about the actual ethnographic example you chose. Was the director’s intention actually to stage a protest against the construction company? Was he not, perhaps, acting out of personal interest? Could it have been that he felt obliged to organize a protest? The problem, we felt, was that we did not know enough about him, about Ocongate, about the local government, or about compulsory community engagement in the Andean culture of protest. At times, throughout the text, we took issue with this lack of background information in an otherwise excellent and stimulating book.

Impossible Publics

The point we found most agreement on was in your chapter on impossible publics, which presents an argument that we found both fascinating and tricky. As you rightly observe, infrastructures do not generate only support or opposition; there are also reactions that refuse to abide by this binary logic. Aurelio, for example, refused to sign papers simply saying that “he is not moved to” (175). Neither the notion of publics nor that of counterpublics capture such forms of (non)engagement. They are agrammatical, in Deleuze’s terms, as they don’t make sense on first sight. Aurelio’s signature would enable him to initiate the process of compensation for the loss of land, which he was sure to face under Peruvian law. Why, then, not engage? You convincingly show that such forms of (non)engagement make good sense. Rather than resorting to some form of indigenous logic that outsiders cannot comprehend, you advance the notion of impossible publics as one of potentiality. Maybe Aurelio will sign in the end. The ambiguity of such (non)engagement mirrors the complex and often “opaque relations between corporations, the state, and international financial capital” (177). In this sense, impossible publics are not engaging with infrastructural projects; they are “otherwise engaged” (179). Just as road projects transform land “into the fetishized dream of a future state-of-being” (181), impossible publics generates forms of otherwise engagement. “Rational debate is often a dead end,” you argue, “and counterpolitical protest is a risky strategy. Acts of invisibility, intransigence, or obnoxiousness, on the other hand, are less easily contained than more explicit forms of public protest. Moreover, these are precisely the methods often used by those who appear to gain some personal benefit from the road” (184). What this captures brilliantly, we think, is that these actions can come across as “weapons of the weak” (Scott 1985) if we look at them superficially. At close range, though, they appear to be more like weapons of the strong: mirroring the opaqueness and ambiguity of large infrastructural projects themselves.

One thing that eluded us was the terminology you used: what exactly is impossible about these acts, and what is public? Might we not call them possible nonpublics, one of us asked; they seem to be highly individualized actions, but in a very concrete sense, they are reactions to the attempts of state and corporate actors to elicit support. Here, we would have loved to learn more about how these acts might be conceptualized with respect to the extended discussion of “the political” that we see as one of the main threads holding the whole book together.

Again, we want to stress how much we enjoyed reading your book. We hope you find our letter stimulating and we eagerly await your reply.


Dalakoglou, Dimitris. 2010. “The Road: An Ethnography of the Albanian–Greek Cross-Border Motorway.” American Ethnologist 37, no. 1: 132–49.

Gupta, Akhil. 1995. “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State.” American Ethnologist 22, no. 2: 375–402.

Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2000. “The Tyranny of Transparency.” British Educational Research Journal 26, no. 3: 309–321.

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