Teaching Infrastructures: A Conversation with Gabrielle Hecht

Aerial view of tall buildings under construction
Photo by Ivan Bandura.

This post presents a conversation with Gabrielle Hecht, Frank Stanton Foundation Professor of Nuclear Security, Professor of History, and Professor (by courtesy) of Anthropology at Stanford University. Hecht, a self-described “undisciplined historian,” is the author of “Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene,” 2018’s most-downloaded Cultural Anthropology article. In this conversation, she offers reflections on the process of putting together an interdisciplinary, graduate-level course on infrastructure and power in the Global South. I was a student in the inaugural run of Hecht’s course, and after our conversation I share my perspective as a student in the course.

Isabel Salovaara: Could you first speak to your conceptualization of this course? Recent years have seen a marked growth in studies of infrastructure within anthropology and other social sciences, including a curated collection in Cultural Anthropology. However, you drew specific inspiration from architect Eyal Weizman’s (2007) book Hollow Land. Could you speak about this source of inspiration and how it shaped the course in conversation with broader themes in recent scholarship?

Gabrielle Hecht: I’ve been observing the fluorescence of infrastructure studies for the last decade or so, but at first it didn’t speak to me very much. This was partly because I felt like the material I had been reading was repackaging insights from STS that had been around for a long time, and partly because the material I came in contact with did not seem to have much political urgency to it. Then, about two years ago, I encountered Eyal Weizman’s (2007) Hollow Land, and that book sparked my thinking in new directions. First, it’s a book with tremendous political urgency, and that got me to consider what infrastructure could do that sociotechnical systems or other allied concepts weren’t doing. I was also struck by how Weizman’s descriptions gave me a tangible sense of Israeli–Palestinian relations. I have never been to Israel or Palestine, but I had read so much about that part of the world in the news that I felt I knew something about it. Reading Weizman’s book made me realize that of course, I did not really know anything—and also gave me a sense of place that none of my other readings had. That sense of place came partly from the very vivid ways in which he describes intersecting infrastructures at geographical and political frontiers, which connect or disconnect different places.

In particular, the chapter on how the Israeli military uses the work of Gilles Deleuze to craft new military strategy and blast through walls had a huge impact on me. It got me thinking about all the ways in which social science and humanities thinking can come into effect in the world and what intersections this thinking has with material structures and infrastructures. All these things came together in my mind, and I started thinking that perhaps I just hadn’t found the right entry point to the infrastructure literature. With Weizman’s approach in mind, I went at it again and decided to teach a class as a way of discovering this body of literature. It seemed to me that anthropology in particular, as well as history and STS, was experiencing an infrastructure moment, so teaching a class would be a way to explore and generate conversations in a frame that felt contemporary to this generation of graduate students.

"[Hollow Land] got me thinking about all the ways in which social science and humanities thinking can come into effect in the world and what intersections this thinking has with material structures and infrastructures."

IS: In developing the course syllabus, you used crowd sourcing and collaboration to expand the disciplinary reach of the material. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to do that, and how it worked for you?

GH: Crowd sourcing the course readings worked well for me. I did it in two phases. I started by sending out a Twitter call using the hashtag #infrastructure. I was trying something like this for the first time and didn’t know what it would yield, but I was amazed at how many suggestions rolled in from people I didn’t even know. I received many more suggestions than I could include, so I put a lot of the materials in the optional readings or the bibliography at the end of the syllabus. But many of the online recommendations also formed the core readings of the course. For example, in the unit on security, all of the readings besides Weizman’s book were texts I had not known about before. So using Twitter proved very generative. I like to think of myself as interdisciplinary, but so far that has mainly included history, anthropology, STS, and geography in various combinations. Those are my core fields. But opening up the course development process to Twitter got me material from area studies and other disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields that I just would not have thought of. It brought new sources of energy and inspiration.

For the second stage, I put together a rough cut of the syllabus, posted it on Academia.edu, and opened it for comments. This, too, I was trying for the first time. I had seen other people post paper drafts for feedback and thought it would be interesting to try that strategy for a syllabus. And sure enough, I got a whole new wave of suggestions and comments. It was really nice because all of the comments I received, both on Twitter and on Academia.edu, were positive or constructive. In contrast to the unpleasantness that sometimes happens on social media, this was a great example of a fun and productive experience on these platforms.

IS: This course provided an opportunity for you to experiment with the use of images in teaching, including images sourced by students related to their own research and images from published books of photography. Could you speak a bit about your decision to incorporate visual media in this way, and why you see this as particularly significant in teaching about infrastructure in the Global South?

GH: I have always worked with images in the sense that I’ve always found the visual components of my research to be key to understanding. That started with my project on French nuclear power: I had to look at lots of diagrams to understand how nuclear reactors worked. There are some things you just can’t narrate sufficiently with words. My dissertation advisor, Thomas Hughes, had an aphorism that he would repeat almost every class in his genteel southern accent: “I cannot overemphasize the importance of the visual.” He said it so much that you just couldn’t get away from the idea—and he was right.

The visual is important for understanding, but it’s important in other ways too, and I had not yet explored some of those other ways. Understanding photographs as art forms was not part of my background, but I wanted to explore that further. Then, last year, I taught a graduate course called “Bodies, Technology, and Nature in Africa.” There, I experimented with assigning some documentary films. I had seen increasing numbers of colleagues partner with filmmakers to make films about their research sites, and I wanted to treat these as serious forms of public scholarship. How can we think of film as a genre to which scholars can contribute in meaningful ways?

Incorporating documentary films worked well, but this year, I wanted to work with still photography, partly because I’d begun to notice how engaged contemporary photographers had become with questions surrounding infrastructure. This photography communicated ideas that were difficult to convey with words and had greater political heft. This way of thinking about the power of still photography came to me from an exhibit I saw a couple years ago, based on The Heavens (Woods and Galimberti 2015), which became one of the course texts. The Heavens was a joint project between photographers and print journalists to explore global tax havens, which I came across at a photo festival in Arles, France. The photos had a huge impact on me because they show both the extreme wealth and the extreme poverty of these tax havens and make connections between the two. I was at the exhibit with my son, who was about twelve at the time, and he understood things from the photographs that he could not have appreciated just from reading. I saw the impact of those photos on him, while thinking for myself about how they communicated relationships that were otherwise quite difficult to capture. Research on tax havens is extremely difficult—you can’t get into archives and draw tight causal connections in the ways that historians, in particular, often like to do. So I was interested in what you could do with photographs that you couldn’t do with archives or even potentially with ethnographic fieldwork. That exhibit was one source of inspiration, and then I realized that—without quite meaning to—I had been collecting photo books of infrastructure out of personal interest. I had many of Ed Burtynsky’s books, and various other series on electric power and on roads. I wondered what would it be like to treat this as a serious source, a serious form of communication that we can engage with alongside scholarship?

That was my aim in the infrastructure course, but I had never explicitly assigned entire photo collections before. I think, having done it this one time, I might do it differently in the future. Instead of asking students to look through entire collections and identify images they found inspiring, I would alternate between assigning specific images from those collections and the other approach we took in this course: having students bring in their own images to illustrate something important about a theme. People seemed to really like going out and finding their own photos, so I would keep that exercise while narrowing down the focus within the photo collections.

IS: As a student, I found the opportunity to think about issues of infrastructure through topics not only of energy, mobility, and sanitation but also several more surprising lenses—such as toxicity and racialized knowledge infrastructures—generative of new possibilities for thinking about what infrastructures do. Could you speak a bit about how you selected these topics and organized the course?

GH: A couple of the topics I picked because they had inspired the course. Organizing a session on security came from my interest in Weizman’s work and thinking about how I wanted to approach his book. One could have imagined other frames for that material, but I decided to approach it under the register of security. This was in part because of the suggestions I got from the Twitterverse and in part because, in my other appointment at Stanford in the Center for International Security and Cooperation, I had been struggling to figure out how to make security a meaningful intellectual frame that could go beyond the standard military definitions. Similarly, tax havens were something that I wanted to explore, partly for selfish reasons—to support my own work thinking about capital flight—and partly because I wanted to teach Vanessa Ogle’s (2017) brilliant article, “Archipelago Capitalism” and the photographs from The Heavens. So those two sessions were core sessions for me. Both represented themes I had not taught or engaged with in any serious way in my work, so this course provided an opportunity to do that. That is often what I do in graduate courses—use them as a way of exploring new ideas and new literatures.

In terms of the rest of the course, I did want to cover the foundations of the infrastructure literature, to show where these ideas come from. Then it was a matter of figuring out what other themes would be addressed. Some students in the course were interested in a more classics-focused approach, but for me, topical themes almost always make the most sense as a way of organizing the course. Any given topic is always going to exceed your ability to teach it; you will never be able to cover everything. Ph.D. students have lots of opportunities to read the "oldies but goodies" in the literature. For me, the topical themes are ways of addressing lots of interests and of staying firmly grounded in empiricism. Theory for its own sake does not particularly interest me. If we’re researchers, then we need to be researching stuff. We need to understand dynamics in the world around us, in our past, or both—concrete things that matter to real people. To me, that is the essence of engaged scholarship: investigating topics that matter outside the academy. That commitment leads to a course organization that is grounded in empiricism.

Ultimately, I oscillated between themes that I thought were key for including in a course like this and others that were experimental. I didn’t think you could do a course on infrastructure without looking at energy, for example. Mobility also seemed to be one of those key themes for understanding this topic. On the more experimental side, we looked at issues like racialized knowledge infrastructures. Racial dynamics are infrastructured. Because I work on South Africa, this infrastructured relation seems self-evident in the case of apartheid. So I thought, how else can we think about how race is infrastructured? Infrastructure explains the persistence of race and racism as categories and practices in the modern world, so how might we illuminate that in some way? Then, toxicity is something that I am thinking about myself, so I wanted to have a discussion of others on that point. And finally, we did a session on "City Shit"—you have to talk about garbage and poop, and there’s lots of interesting scholarship in the emerging field of discard studies that I wanted to include.

IS: What role do you see for graduate seminars such as this one in moving forward conversations about prominent and contested terms of our trade, including infrastructure and Global South?

GH: I’ll take a bit of a circuitous route to answering this question. In the graduate mentoring I’ve done, the dissertations I’ve supervised, I am primarily interested in learning from what my students do. I have very rarely supervised dissertations on topics that were very closely tied to my research. In fact, numerous times, I have not accepted Ph.D. applications from students wanting to work on yet another aspect of French nuclear power or nuclear power somewhere else. Reproducing myself is not at all my goal in graduate teaching. I see graduate teaching as a way of extending my knowledge beyond what I’m able to do myself. I love working with students who work in places I’ve never been and might never go, on topics that I would not be able to work on, whether for practical or conceptual reasons. For me, that’s what’s really exciting about graduate teaching: helping younger, emerging scholars find their voice and stretch themselves and the field in new ways. And that starts with a seminar. If I’m willing to go places that I’ve not been to in seminars, then that should encourage students to be bold and stretch beyond what they think the limits of the field are. So it’s partly a matter of leading by example and partly about seeing what a conversation looks like when the professor is not really an expert in this particular question and is exploring it along with everybody else. That also demonstrates what a commitment to inquiry looks like—a commitment to always being surrounded by what you don’t know.

IS: So having come in with the intent to discover this body of literature through these conversations, do you feel that there was something particular that you gained from the course?

GH: I don’t have a single answer to that question, but the interactions with the students expanded my horizons. For example, four of the students were working on Asia: China, Malaysia, India, and Nepal. That’s a part of the world I have always found somewhat intimidating because I don’t know it well, don’t speak the languages, and will probably never speak the languages. But to have so many people—practically half the class—working on this region opened up horizons for me that would not otherwise be opened up. As an Africanist, and in STS as well, you do end up reading a lot of scholarship on India. But with the other places, it always feels a little intimidating to, for example, enter Chinese history or scholarship because it is so vast. This class showed me that those explorations are worth the effort, and that there are other ways of learning about places that I don’t otherwise know or understand through sustained contact with folks who are engaged in those places. That was one of many things that was valuable to me about this class.

A Student’s View

In a field drawing such substantial recent scholarly attention, this graduate seminar provided a space for exploring the many questions that arise from the capacious possibilities of the term infrastructure and the search for appropriate forms of analytical precision within that breadth. Before taking this course, I had begun to explore some of the influential articles in the field, but I had not rigorously examined the particularities of infrastructure as distinct from institutions or networks. For me, Ashley Carse’s (2016) essay “Keyword: Infrastructure,” one of the introductory readings for this course, set the tone for posing questions about infrastructure at the intersection of its material and abstract meanings. What distinctions should we make between infrastructural labor and people as infrastructure? Can toxicity be an infrastructure? How might thinking of infrastructure as a verb, rather than an object, shift our perspective? Being in a setting where both the students and the instructor were asking—rather than conclusively answering—these questions enabled me to dive into lively discussions and debates around the analytical heart of the infrastructure concept.

The multi-modal course materials also enabled students to draw upon our own research interests and envision different ways of communicating about topics within the infrastructure field. For example, course readings included shorter pieces of scholarship written for broader audiences, such as articles and special issues in Limn and Somatosphere, and the course’s final assignment involved crafting a piece in this narrative style related to our own work. While some of our engagements with visual media in the course used published books of photographs, students also had the opportunity to bring in photographs related to our research. Images of a person carrying an antenna on his back in Nepal, or an elaborately designed but unused fish market in China, provoked further questions and comparisons across regional and disciplinary backgrounds.


Carse, Ashley. 2016. “Keyword: Infrastructure: How a Humble French Engineering Term Shaped the Modern World.” In Infrastructures and Social Complexity, edited by Penelope Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen, and Atsuro Morita, 27–39. London: Routledge.

Ogle, Vanessa. 2017. “Archipelago Capitalism: Tax Havens, Offshore Money, and the State, 1950s–1970s.” The American Historical Review 122, no. 5: 1431–58.

Weizman, Eyal. 2007. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London: Verso.

Woods, Paolo, and Gabriele Galimberti. 2015. The Heavens: Annual Report. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.