Academic Paper/Article via Academia.edu
December 24, 2015
Paradoxical Infrastructures: Ruin, Retrofit and Risk
Cymene Howe – Rice University, Anthropology, Faculty Member
Co-Authors: Cymene Howe, Jessica Lockrem, Hannah Appel, Edward Hackett, Dominic Boyer, Randal Hall, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Albert Pope, Akhil Gupta, Elizabeth Rodwell, Andrea Ballestero, Trevor Durbin, Farès el-Dahdah, Elizabeth Long, and Cyrus Mody
In recent years, a dramatic increase in the study of infrastructure has occurred in the social sciences and humanities, following upon foundational work in the physical sciences, architecture, planning, information science, and engineering. This article, authored by a multidisciplinary group of scholars, probes the generative potential of infrastructure at this historical juncture. Accounting for the conceptual and material capacities of infrastructure, the article argues for the importance of paradox in understanding infrastructure. Thematically the article is organized around three key points that speak to the study of infrastructure: ruin, retrofit, and risk. The first paradox of infrastructure, ruin, suggests that even as infrastructure is generative, it degenerates. A second paradox is found in retrofit, an apparent ontological oxymoron that attempts to bridge temporality from the present to the future and yet ultimately reveals that infrastructural solidity, in material and symbolic terms, is more apparent than actual. Finally, a third paradox of infrastructure, risk, demonstrates that while a key purpose of infrastructure is to mitigate risk, it also involves new risks as it comes to fruition. The article concludes with a series of suggestions and provocations to view the study of infrastructure in more contingent and paradoxical forms.
Breakdowns and blackouts, pipeline politics, and new demands upon energy and resources have surfaced infrastructure in surprising ways, igniting conversation about social and material arrangements that are often left submerged, invisible, and assumed. In recent years, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the study of infrastructure in the social sciences and humanities, following upon foundational work in the physical sciences, architecture, planning, information science, and engineering. While the popular imagination might recognize infrastructure as the mundane mechanisms within, beneath, and supporting the maintenance of quotidian life, many scholars have foregrounded the agency, performativity, and dynamism of infrastructure.
Infrastructure is not inert but rather infused with social meanings and reflective of larger priorities and attentions. To further engage these novel lines of inquiry, a group of scholars gathered at Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences for an extended roundtable discussion. We came from a variety of academic institutions and positions in the academy (ranging from senior scholars to PhD candidates), and our group reflected a diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds (American studies, anthropology, architecture, history, science and technology studies, and sociology). Our objective was to break down some of the scaffolding that upholds disciplinary boundaries. To embrace a starkly infrastructural metaphor, we were interested in “bridgework”, not just to move from point A to point B, but to hold us in suspension for a time so that we might inspect the mechanisms that drive our intellectual work and scholarship.
Infrastructure, which epitomizes the conjunction of material forms, expertise, social priorities, cultural expectations, aesthetics, and economic investments, seemed to us to be the ideal rubric through which to enrich our thinking, as well as a social object that necessitates a multidisciplinary approach. A collaborative conversation would help us to disentangle theories, concepts, and methods from their usual paradigms, permitting them to “recombine” in novel ways (Hackett and Parker 2014, 12). Our conversation was animated, in part, by other “turns” in the humanities and social sciences, including new materialisms, posthumanisms, and ontological approaches. Walking through the dynamic scholarship on infrastructure that is being published in the human sciences, we were struck with the definitional capacity of the term itself. Infrastructure is material (roads, pipes, sewers, and grids); it is social (institutions, economic systems, and media forms); and it is philosophical (intellectual trajectories: dreamt up by human ingenuity and nailed down in concrete forms).
Infrastructure has a capaciousness and scope that makes it both an infinitely useful concept and a concept that is open to facile misinterpretation or to being encumbered by overuse.
Our purpose was not to produce yet another definition of infrastructure (although at the end of this essay we do offer a few potential classifications). Instead we gave our attention to questions such as “What is generative about thinking with and through infrastructures at this historical juncture?” And “How can the multiple and diverse understandings of infrastructure across the human sciences mutually inform and enhance one another?” Simply put, we wanted to unravel “why now?” and “where do we go from here?” Our hope was to work toward “explication” (Latour 1993; Sloterdijk 2009), knowing that infrastructure has moved from the background to the foreground, while remaining intent on questioning why that is so. This collective essay gathers the themes and insights that echoed throughour conversation. These issues were resonant points of return because they revealed the relational and ambiguous elements of infrastructure to produce contradictions and unevenly felt consequences in the lives and places they contact. We have codified these apparent paradoxes, broadly, into topical domains of ruins, retrofit, and risk.
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Posted by Elizabeth Kerr
*Image (top): openspaceconsult.com – infrastructure development [tweaked by whatifdunedin]