latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Contributors to Kregg Hetherington’s edited volume Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene (2019) consider the text’s titular keywords through a number of ethnographic engagements with challenges thrown up by the so-called Anthropocene, the era which recognizes humanity as a geologic force. The chapters consider provocations posed by aquifers, borders, weeds, gardens, water lines, and oysters in the context of shifting dominant understandings of boundaries: between nature and culture, human and non-human, objects and their surroundings, foreground and background. The volume is organized into three parts: “Reckoning with Ground,” wherein authors highlight the transformations which occur between ecology and infrastructure, “Lively Infrastructures,” featuring reflections on weeds, garden aesthetics, and urban plumbing, and “Histories of Progress,” wherein the specific temporalities of the Anthropocene are considered.
Throughout this volume, infrastructure is revealed as a site of uneven development and exploitation, wherein progress for some is achieved through violence toward others. However, this important feature of infrastructure is not consistently highlighted by the volume’s contributors. While Hetherington notes in the introduction that “the common human “we,” so easily deployed in twentieth-century progressive social policy is no longer easy to pinpoint” (2), not all of the volume’s contributors complicate collective invocations of humanity thus. Hetherington describes the unsettling of nature/culture and human/non-human relationships in social science theory through the contributions of actor-network theory and new materialism as “the continuing growing pains of political ecology” (4). Many contributors to this volume would do well to heed the important critiques of posthumanist scholarship articulated by scholars such as Sarah Hunt (2014), Juanita Sundberg (2014), and Zoe Todd (2016), who have posed crucial questions to political ecologists and others seeking to expand their analytical purview beyond the category of the human: For whom must nature/culture or life/non-life divides be dismantled? According to whose worldviews have these divisions been in place? And who has suffered from violences perpetrated as a result of these distinctions? Taking on these questions, contributors highlight the connections between infrastructure and progress, from renewable energy development to postwar construction projects and the US welfare state. Describing common forms of infrastructure like roads, bridges, and pipes, Stephanie Wakefield and Bruce Braun write that “much of this infrastructure is mundane, and remains in the background” and describe the ways that New Deal “great engineering feats” such as dams “promised the future” (202). Joseph Masco writes, “The infrastructures of everyday security – employment, environmental safety, justice – are no longer the primary goals of a state that relies on welfare and free markets to engineer the future” (237) and asks, “What happened to the once-vibrant social debate about alternative futures and the commitment to making long-term investments in improving the terms of collective life?” (259).
But it is crucial to remember who was excluded from this postwar collective, and to ask for whose benefit such “infrastructures of everyday security” actually worked. Dams may have been celebrated as technological and patriotic achievements by some, but for others, these projects further encroached on ancestral homelands already forcibly diminished by Westward expansion and colonial conquest (see Capossela (2015), Howe and TallBear (2006), and Lawson (2009), on the impacts of the Pick-Sloan dams along the Missouri River for the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples). Masco writes of the connection between everyday American consumerism and climate crisis, describing the mid-twentieth century “as the period in which people became an existential threat to themselves in two technologically mediated fashions: first, via the atomic bomb, and second, via the cumulative force of a petrochemical-based consumer economy” (251). It matters tremendously how these moments of crisis are narrated, which Wakefield and Braun do acknowledge in a footnote (215). And it matters that “the period in which people became an existential threat to themselves” described here is not that of the post-1492 conquest of the Americas, attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples, and clearing of land for the plantation economies which received enslaved humans via the trans-Atlantic slave trade, generating the wealth which made those mid-twentieth century processes possible.
Two chapters in this volume stand out as important exceptions to these oversights. For Ashley Carse, the uneven development around the Panama Canal in the province of Colón “indexes state disinvestment and global disconnection” (99). In detailing stories of empire, modernity, and abandonment signaled by “weedinesss” in the Canal Zone of Panama, Carse reminds readers not only that nature will always return but crucially that “it really matters where, when, how, and for whom it returns” (113). In an important chapter on territorial conflicts and Afro-Colombian life in Buenaventura, Colombia, Austin Zeiderman notes that “the post-humanist imperative to blur these boundaries [between city and sea, urban infrastructures and aquatic environments, human subjects and nonhuman objects] often compromises efforts to confront violent dispossession underpinned by racial hierarchy” (172). Zeiderman joins other skeptics of posthumanism by noting that “the radical instability of the categories of life and the human in the Anthropocene presents both dangers and opportunities for antiracist thought and practice, which matters greatly to those who have never enjoyed full inclusion within such categories (180). He further suggests that Paul Gilroy’s notion of “reparative humanism” is crucial to hold alongside considerations of the nonhuman. For Zeiderman, “once we declare ourselves posthumanists, the political ontology of race that humanists struggled against by no means disappears” (181). Readers are reminded that discussions of coastal precarity and environmental insecurity, rather than being presented as “sudden and new” in the context of Anthropocentric panic, must be connected to “longer histories of racial violence and transoceanic trade, which linked disparate ports, coastlines, and seas between Africa, Europe, and the Americas and were predicated on the brutal objectifications of black lives” and Indigenous lives (184).
Such important critiques recall Potawatomi philosopher Kyle Whyte’s work on Anthropocene apocalypse narratives which veil processes of “racial and environmental extraction” (2018, 234). Whyte describes how for Indigenous peoples, the present is already dystopian, given the processes of environmental displacement which colonialism has involved. Whyte (2017) describes that Indigenous peoples experience climate change as déjà vu, given how “colonially-driven environmental change destroyed ecosystems on which Indigenous peoples relied, boxed Indigenous peoples into small reservations that were fractions of their original territories, or simply displaced Indigenous peoples from their homelands to new ecosystems” (155). By Whyte’s estimation, children forced to adopt English in boarding schools, ecological knowledge disrupted, heteropatriarchal gender norms imposed, and communities forced to adopt US-style governance structures should all be considered forced environmental change alongside climate change, leading Whyte to discuss settler colonialism as environmental injustice (2016).
Macarena Gómez-Barris’s work in The Extractive Zone (2017) also came to mind as I considered the contributions in Hetherington’s edited volume. Gómez-Barris’s articulation of “submerged perspectives” as simultaneously mediated by and excessive to colonial forces resonates strongly with Zeiderman’s invocation of Kamau Brathwaite’s work, which emphasizes the importance of submergence in understanding Caribbean cultural practice (183). Gómez-Barris also insists on the importance of attending to what is already present in the context of extractive capitalist destruction. As Gómez-Barris writes, “the dream of “another world” is not merely a future-oriented utopia but it is already in motion, teeming with the alternatives we desire. Seeing the muck, dwelling in it, and finding ways to make it visible become important antidotes as present-past ways to recognize and strengthen these alternatives” (134). Continuing, Gómez-Barris insists that “we can still choose to collectively shift our attention… there is already so much being done that what we require is a practice of listening to and then amplifying present-future analyses, responses, and proposals” (136-137). In Hetherington’s volume, Natasha Myers’ observation that “it is perhaps only after learning how to pay attention to centuries of resistance to colonialism, and to the ongoing and resurgent work involved in setting plant/people conspiracies in motion, that it may be possible to foster aesthetic forms and epistemes that can resist the hegemony of anthropocentric thinking” (146), echoes the sensibilities in Gómez-Barris’s work.
In the face of the continued violences of racial capitalism, including impending ecological crisis, it remains as important as ever that we, those of us in the privileged position to consider such violences analytically, maintain “vigilant attention to the boundaries and limits of the human” (181), as we are cautioned, just as (perhaps especially as) we think with the nonhuman. The varied contributions to Hetherington’s edited volume make the stakes of this endeavor abundantly clear.