P 18

Infrastructures’ Intimacies: Failure, Affectivity, and Promise

Panel abstract
In recent years, significant contributions were made to research on infrastructure, advancing technopolitical critiques and generating insight into its biopolitical dimensions. However, less attention has been paid to the effects of sedimentation of infrastructural projects that layer up over different time periods, evoking memories of failure and success and being haunted by the fantasies of past generations. The foundations of many physical infrastructures in the Global South were laid in colonial times, part of modernist promises of development and later the focus of centralizing efforts of postcolonial state-building. Good, efficient infrastructure conjures an ideal image of being impersonal and highly standardized across time and space. Yet, infrastructural breakdown has been a common feature of many African sites, and the focus in scholarship has turned to exploring ‘people as infrastructure’, probing how people stand in for defunct artefacts. We contend that the gaps and breakages in infrastructure experienced in many African countries provoke experiences that merit further historical and ethnographic inquiry. Recent scholarship has explored the affective dimensions of infrastructure. We extend this inquiry to understanding how failure is experienced personally; humbling, harming, and disappointing people as they carry out their work; forcing them to find alternate solutions to maintaining movement in what are imagined and, presumably desirable, circulatory systems.

Time: Friday, 29/06/2018, 8.30 - 10.30 am
Venue: Hörsaalgebäude, HS 16

Sandra Calkins (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle)
Kerry Holden (Queen Mary University, London, UK)

Pauline Destrée (University College London, UK)
Christian Straube (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle)
Kerry Holden (Queen Mary University, London, UK)
Alba Valenciano Mañé (University of Barcelona, Spain)
Sandra Calkins (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle)

Michael Bollig (University of Cologne)

AbdouMaliq Simone (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen)


Paper abstracts

Pauline Destrée
Fashioning Infrastructural Failure in Accra, Ghana

Between 2014-2016, an electricity crisis in Accra, Ghana, was turned into an urban creative complex called ‘Dumsor’ (Twi for off/on), providing inspiration for countless songs, jokes, and stories, and prompting protests and demonstrations by local celebrities. While the crisis generated enormous anxiety and frustrations about the deceiving character of infrastructural promises and emergency solutions provided by the government in the context of a pre-election year, the crisis also provided an unprecedented public space of commentary – a ‘Dumsocracy’ – that allowed citizens to reinvigorate the ‘infrastructural contract’ in contemporary Ghana, negotiating the infrastructural logics of illusion, appearance, and speculation for their own gains. In a context of growing disenchantment, the infrastructural imagination of Dumsor turned a moment of failure and disappointment into an exciting new venture for reclaiming national pride, resourcefulness, and dignity. Infrastructure (and especially electricity) in Ghana has been historically tied to deeply intimate projects of racial and class subversion in the post-independence years (the 1960s), and to the decolonization movement and Pan-African ideology of economic emancipation through infrastructural freedom. This paper looks at the ways in which this historical legacy of electricity in Ghana resonates with contemporary attempts by Ghanaian citizens to reclaim this ‘civil contract’ of infrastructure and rekindle affective dispositions towards a deeply uncertain present and an unpopular state. Despite infrastructures’ propensity to fail, frustrate, and disillusion the hopes they evoke, they remain sites of political imagination par excellence precisely because the effects they promise are amenable to endless contestation, manipulation, and evidential claim-making.

Christian Straube
Falling out of Space and Time? Infrastructure of a Paternalist Past in Neoliberal Zambia

The reprivatization of Zambia’s copper sector and a corresponding neoliberal turn have resulted in the dissolution of the Copperbelt’s mines as paternalist total institutions. Corporate abandonment led to the dramatic deterioration of the mines’ various infrastructures, adding a material dimension to the social decline lived through by mineworker families. This paper investigates how people experience and re-appropriate the remains of corporate infrastructures. Specifically, it deals with social welfare buildings such as clinics, clubs, taverns, community centres, and sports facilities. They formed the backbone of corporate paternalism by framing the social relations meant to safeguard the reproduction of labour: men as breadwinners working underground, women as dependants managing the household, mineworkers as a subsidized labour aristocracy, and teachers as second-class employees. On the basis of participant observation, photography, mapping, interviews, and archival research, I seek to understand residents’ experiences of loss and opportunity amidst loss. Erratic water and electricity supply have merged with potholed streets in effects of decline. Simultaneously, broken roofs and windows have not stopped residents from turning a tavern into a church or a community centre into a private school. Former social welfare buildings provide material locations where contemporary social practices bring about fundamental changes in the relationship between government and company and between different groups of residents, such as men and women or mineworkers and teachers. The creative interventions of people who try to reconcile present decline with their affection for a past projected into the future are also a legacy of this particular colonial-corporate infrastructure.

Kerry Holden
The Politics and Poetics of Knowledge Infrastructures in the Ugandan Parliament

When asked about their jobs, researchers in the Parliament of Uganda delivered replies that echoed Weber. Neutrality, impartiality, and objectivity were presented as a moral economy that forms the professional ethos at the core of the civil service. Traditionally, these values are articulated through the invisibility and discretion of the technical and administrative labour force of government. In recent decades, the Parliament of Uganda has become the target of capacity building to strengthen the civil service. New knowledge infrastructures have taken shape to facilitate greater transparency and support informed and accountable decision-making. Through various trainings, workshops, conferences etc., civil servants are becoming more visible and their role in parliament is expanding beyond the bricks and mortar of their working environments. They have entered into knowledge cultures that in networked formations continue to spread across the continent. The professional conduct of these individuals has become both an object of knowledge itself and the vehicle of particular knowledge-cultures. The discretionary practices through which civil servants traditionally operated have been gradually superseded by the knowledge practices associated with reflexive modernization, and include monitoring and evaluation, evidence-informed policymaking, audit, and accountability. This emphasis on transparency delineates the moral economies of knowledge, encoding values such as objectivity and disinterestedness in a style of functionalist systems thinking whereby the infrastructure itself depends on individuals’ taking up a particular ethos. This paper explores the politics and poetics of knowledge infrastructures through the everyday professional lives of the labour force partly responsible for operationalising knowledge in the legislature.

Alba Valenciano Mañé
Between Connectedness and Abandonment. Experiencing Proxy States and Infrastructure in the Peripheral Atlantic Africa

This paper analyses ethnographic material collected during several stays for research on Corisco Island (Muni Estuary, Equatorial Guinea) between 2008 and 2012. During that period, a Guineo-Moroccan owned construction company disembarked on the island to build an international airport and a tourist resort. The project raised to the ground one-third of the just 14 square kilometres large island and covered it under the concrete runway. Corisco was to become a luxury holiday resort for international tourists, who would land directly on the island and enjoy the tropical forests and beaches. After almost ten years under construction, not a single international tourist has landed on the island for a holiday. Instead, the fewer than 300 inhabitants were joined by 300 Moroccan male workers. The construction company provided fully catered service to their workers but also to the inhabitants of the island acting as a proxy state: providing of electricity, transport between the island and the mainland, and a doctor for emergencies. While the Benga, the native inhabitants of the island, generally applauded what they acknowledged as an ‘infrastructural improvement’, they often complained about a feeling of ‘abandonment’. I will show how a particular version of the history of the Benga and their island constitutes the bases for a collective experience of ‘abandonment’ that is materialized by the remains of unused infrastructures or ruins from a ‘connected’ past.

Sandra Calkins
Toxic Intimacies: Infrastructural Failure in a Ugandan Molecular Biology Lab

It has become a commonplace that infrastructure is experienced and becomes visible when it breaks down, when it fails to deliver what it promised, and when it denies participation in and access to the practice it supports. This is where people have to creatively adapt, fix, or mend infrastructure to keep things going. Recent anthropological literature put much emphasis on the creative improvisation that infrastructuring requires in the Global South, the bottom-up subversion of infrastructures, and the repair work and tinkering that enables the practice to continue. But what happens when infrastructural failure involves exposure to hazardous materials and work in polluted environments? What inequalities does the imperative to keep things going at all costs perpetuate? My paper explores the uneven layering of research infrastructures that reach back to colonial times and examines what happens when these infrastructures fail in a Ugandan molecular biology lab. Ugandan researchers work at the margins of a global research infrastructure that enables the practice of molecular biology, but they have to stand in with their own bodies when it breaks down, connecting molecularly to toxic substances. I revisit the ‘people as infrastructure’ argument that was made with regard to Africa and suggest that too little time was spent in exploring the grim consequences – the toxic intimacies – of when people have to stand in for failing infrastructures to meet project deadlines, to make a career, and to participate in a global enterprise.