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took the two photographs above on a trip to do fieldwork in the eastern Piedmont of Colombia in November of 2017. The images capture the construction of the Chirajara Bridge on the highway between Bogotá and Villavicencio. As a snapshot, they are a momentary record of time, taken as I was passing through the mountains between the cities on the old and infamous highway. The highway has long been the focus on infrastructural improvement plans to straighten and widen it through efforts like this bridge and the reciprocal tunnels dug through the mountains.
After finishing the roll of film, I tossed it into a pile with some others and more or less forgot about it. About a year later, after I had amassed a collection of rolls and taken them to be developed as a batch, I stopped cold as I scanned through the negatives.
There, amongst photos of my newborn nephew and past vacations, was this series of ghostly images. The bridge is suspended in the air as it cantilevers over difficult terrain. It is also suspended in time—unfinished—with each side reaching out and the workers frozen in the moment where they stand amidst the metal beams and concrete. Of course, taking a picture of an unfinished bridge or piece of infrastructure is not uncommon when passing through a place. Looking at the snapshot after, one often assumes that progress has been made, that the project must be completed by now, or that those two sides must have finally been joined together. In this case, not long after I captured that moment, the western pier of the bridge collapsed, killing 10 workers and injuring many more. I had read the news of the tragedy and—more horrifically—I had watched the grainy cellphone videos taken of it crumpling, the suspension cables going slack as the pier and bridge deck crashed to the ground.
After an investigation was conducted that concluded the bridge had structural issues related to its concrete foundations, the eastern half was also deemed unsafe, laced with explosives, and demolished. Watching this second video, this time of a controlled explosion downing the remaining eastern pier and deck, I was struck by my emotional attachment to the bridge and the sense of loss I felt. Despite the controlled explosion and safety precautions in place, I still felt that something tragic was happening, that the promise of these two sides being built to reach each other, bringing together the completion of this infamous highway one step closer, had crumbled before my eyes.
This set of photos, and the site they represent, is one that I return to frequently as I think about infrastructure, time, and the way that even unbuilt infrastructures shape our relationship to the future. Until recently, only a small cluster of scholarship that explicitly worked on the relationship between infrastructure and time existed; however, as thinking about infrastructure has proliferated in recent years, works such as focus of this review—The Promise of Infrastructure—have begun to fill out the approaches and references to this dynamic and productive avenue of research.
Considered more generally, The Promise of Infrastructure is a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship that approaches infrastructure ethnographically as a way to interpret the complex relations that comprise our world, suggesting some of the ways that these relationships manifest spatially. Promise here is developed as a conceptual category to shape the inquiry of the pieces included in the edited volume. The concept of promise is used throughout the collected works with a double meaning, applied both to the social and political promise that infrastructures are often imbued with, as well as the promise of centering infrastructure as an analytical approach within anthropological and ethnographic inquiry.
Although the inquiries presented in the volume are predominantly aligned with the methods and concerns of anthropological inquiry, the collection has relevance to a wider range of disciplines. In part, the capacity of the book to influence and engage across disciplinary boundaries is a function of the rich and diverse theoretical foundation of the volume. The contributions bring together the anthropological traditions of ethnographic inquiry with critical Marxist scholarship and related development studies literature, the attention to unevenness and governance within urban geography, and the ways that science and technology studies engages with the interrogation of the engineering and design of infrastructural space. The significance of The Promise of Infrastructure outside of anthropology is further bolstered by the popularity of infrastructure as a conceptual category and ethnography as a method that have become integral to social science inquiry across disciplines.
The volume includes an introduction and nine chapters that are closely related to each other, building off of and referencing one another to form a cohesive intervention into the field of critical infrastructure studies. As a project that came about in an Advanced Seminar at the School for Advanced Research, The Promise of Infrastructure maintains a lively conversation between the contributors and sets a collaborative tone across the collection. The authors and editors previously collaborated on a number of shorter interventions that comprise the Infrastructure Toolbox, hosted by the Society for Cultural Anthropology. Their shared production of knowledge here works to create a thoughtful and significant volume that both contributes to existing scholarship and helps shape the future of the critical study of infrastructure across disciplines.
The chapters of the book are thematically arranged into three parts, focusing on time, politics, and promise as organizing categories that further orient the interventions into this growing area of scholarship. Despite these separations—as is often the case with categories—the thematic approaches extend throughout and across the pieces. There are several significant contributions that articulate the political unevenness of life enmeshed with infrastructure throughout these chapters, and an engagement with the book could primarily be considered from the lens of its attention to the unequal experiences of infrastructure. Since its publication, I have returned to this book again and again, referencing it in my own work, assigning chapters in my classes, and recommending it to countless colleagues. While the insights into the political dynamics within infrastructures have been particularly salient for me, I consider its treatment of time as the most compelling and significant contribution of the volume to the field of critical infrastructure studies. Focusing on this dimension of time and its infrastructural entanglements in this review, I bring a selection of the volume’s pieces into conversation with a cluster of related literature to more explicitly tease out the ways in which the promise of infrastructure structures our relationship to the future, and to further consider how we can think alongside the unfinished and interrupted forms that infrastructures so often take.
Infrastructures and Time
In their introduction to The Promise of Infrastructure, Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel suggest, “infrastructures configure time, enable certain kinds of social time while disabling others, and make some temporalities possible while foreclosing alternatives.” (p.15) Although these temporal configurations of infrastructures have received less attention than their spatial or social dimensions, this volume is in conversation with a powerful collection of literature that advances our thinking about time. A question that structures much of the engagement with time in both the richly written introductory chapter and across the chapters of The Promise of Infrastructure comes from Susan Leigh Star and Karen Rhueder’s (1996: 112) influential article “Steps Towards an Ethnography of Infrastructure” in which, instead of defining what infrastructure is, they ask “When is an Infrastructure?” The use of the ‘when’ in this interrogative provides a way of thinking about the relationality of infrastructure, understanding when infrastructures emerge as related to their connections to daily rhythms and systemic configurations of life. Relationality is explored extensively throughout more recent anthropology and geography literature on infrastructure, perhaps most notably by Brian Larkin (2013) in “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure;” however, the interpretation of relationality through a lens of time provides further complexity and nuance to this approach.
Andrew Barry, discussing the Infrastructure Toolbox collection that shares many of the same authors as this volume, perceptively notes that temporalities are of central importance to writing on infrastructure. For Barry (2015), time is interwoven with the study of infrastructures both through the histories and the temporally situated contexts that give rise to particular infrastructures, but also in terms of the rhythms that reciprocally shape infrastructural lives. On Barak (2013) explores the complexity of these temporal rhythms by studying the introduction of colonial communications and transportation infrastructures in Egypt, finding that although there is a common belief that these infrastructures have caused a more rigid conception of time, they have also reinforced the emergence of “countertempos” that resist imposed timescales. Such nuanced approaches to the temporalities imposed by infrastructure, as well as those rhythms that themselves structure and define the construction, maintenance, and decay of infrastructure, provide insight into the entangled lives of infrastructures. These temporalities can be multiple and overlapping. As Karasti et al. (2010) find in their study of metadata standards for ecological research in software development, the temporal scales of ‘project time’ and ‘infrastructure time’ exist alongside one another, often contravening and obstructing the plans and objectives of different actors. In this characterization, infrastructure time was found to refer to longer-term network maintenance, while shorter-term project timelines with discrete end dates were conceived of and favored by project developers.
In The Promise of Infrastructure, Hannah Appel writes about these tensions of different temporalities in a wonderful chapter on the entangled histories development tied to oil and gas money and infrastructure construction and delay in Equatorial Guinea. Here, Appel also invokes the term ‘infrastructure time’, understanding it to be a typically linear construction of time that is oriented towards progress and rooted in the false promises of modernist development, while ‘oil time’ follows the cyclical temporalities so often seen with the boom-and-bust cycles of resource economies. Appel suggests that when considering infrastructure in Equatorial Guinea, “Oil time…violently transects developmental time.” (p.57) These temporal transgressions, linked to the cycles of the oil economy, result in states of infrastructural deferral in which the linearity of the developmentalist march towards progress is recursively folded and collapsed. This undoing of an assumed predictability of infrastructural time is a theme that weaves together many of the chapters in this volume and is critical for thinking about infrastructures like the Chirajara Bridge. Its collapse and subsequent controlled demolition reinforce the collapse of linear infrastructure time and leave open the continued states of deferral.
Years after I took those images of the Chirajara Bridge, I returned to Colombia for fieldwork while reading The Promise of Infrastructure for the first time. Travel to my fieldwork site to the east of the country was complicated by further delays on the same road from Bogotá to Villavicencio. This time, instead of bridge collapse, landslides from heavy rain and unstable ground had destroyed large sections of the existing road. The road has been closed for months and I was told wasn’t going to be opening again anytime soon. With the existing road now closed, and the planned highway indefinitely deferred by construction delays, people shared stories beef shortages caused by slowed transportation from the beef production region on the eastern plains. Others described trips to Bogotá taking double the time it should because of the need to use smaller, more circuitous mountain crossings further north. Everyone that talked about the landslides and road closures shook their head with a sort of resigned defeat, as though it was in some way the fate of this highway to remain incomplete and interrupted.
While the deferred, extended, and paused timelines of infrastructural constructions are often lamented, Ashley Carse and David Kneas (2019: 9) recognize that the unbuilt and unfinished infrastructures are “the norm, rather than the exception.” For them, infrastructural temporalities are ‘knotted’, and the unfinished states of infrastructure create particular orientations towards the future. Further developing on the unfinished and emergent properties of infrastructure, Akil Gupta characterizes “infrastructure as an open-ended process,” (p.62) urging us to not fall into a binary of seeing infrastructure as complete or incomplete but instead to work alongside and within the uncertainties of infrastructural process. The interest in infrastructure here rests on the temporalities of suspension as infrastructural sites are left unfinished, in a state of in-betweeness that is at once a site of ruination even as it gestures to an incomplete future. Simón Uribe (2017) has developed these themes of suspension in his work on El trampolín de la muerte in Colombia, engaging with the unfinished processes of road development as themselves structuring the relationship between communities and the state. Penny Harvey, in a chapter in this volume, briefly examines the inaugural events that are so often associated with the completion or opening of infrastructures. Harvey notes that these events are designed to link the state to the processes of construction, but in the production of punctuated events only serve to underscore the transformations still needed to realize the associated promises of infrastructural intervention. The completion of infrastructure can therefore be understood here as a simplified construction, obscuring the complexities of infrastructural becoming that spills over project timelines and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. As Harvey articulates, “the time of infrastructure has its own plasticity.” (p.82)
To understand infrastructure as a vibrant and complex process across time requires engaging with all of the active ways in which the infrastructure is made and unmade, often by hands, tools, and machines, but also through images, year-end reports, and poetry. In a fantastic chapter in this volume on the Vinh City electrical plant in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Christina Schwenkel examines the struggle to keep the current flowing and the power plant functioning throughout repeated attacks from US warplanes intent on disrupting domestic electricity supply. This piece articulates the labor required for continued states of infrastructural becoming and maintenance, while also attending to the intimacies of infrastructures, which themselves are also without linear timelines or discrete completions. This chapter, and its focus on the intimacies of infrastructural becoming, resonates with Richard Kernaghan’s (2012) article that examines the forced labor and violent undoing of Peru’s Marginal Highway during the Shining Path insurgency. The processes of building, rebuilding, and undoing of infrastructure in these pieces remind us that infrastructures are never finished or completed, and that the temporal dimensions of infrastructure shape the relationalities with those that labor on them. The intimacies and attachments that are formed between infrastructures and those who work on them in their processes of becoming are made even stronger through the affective pull of the promises for better lives that are so often embedded within infrastructure; likewise, the states of incompleteness and undoing can feel like a pause or unravelling of a future promised.
Promise and Infrastructural Desire
As a central organizing theme of the volume, promise is woven throughout a number of chapters, which bring together the promises of infrastructure with the conceptions of the future that such promises engender. In his chapter in this volume, Dominic Boyer suggests that infrastructures can be interpreted “in terms of ‘potential energy’.” (p.227) When read this way, investment in infrastructures can be understood as a way of facilitating future growth, and the attachment to the potential of infrastructures becomes the promise of what it can realize for the future. When understood through a lens of promise then, the affective dimensions of infrastructures are made even more apparent as the promises imbued within them become woven into our aspirations and imaginations of our future selves.
Brian Larkin, in a chapter on infrastructure and political aesthetics, further underscores the significance of infrastructural desires as one way the promise of infrastructure shapes the symbolic and affective role of infrastructure in building the world around us. Seen through this lens, the highways that Larkin writes about in Nigeria are more than just highways, they promise a political rationality with their smoothness and “are made up of desire as much as concrete and steel and to separate off these dimensions is to miss out on the powerful ways they are consequential for our world.” (p.181) Elsewhere, in an article on the survey as a form of infrastructure in Paraguay’s land reform, Kregg Hetherington (2014: 198) notes, “Colonial authorities first used infrastructure to promise civilization.” This configuration of promise resonates with much of the writing about infrastructure and development, in which the promise of infrastructure reinforces the structure of pathways of linear development and progress. In this orientation, infrastructure is always perceived as prior to something else, as a step that will afford the next opportunity for an individual, the next marker of success for the state, the next grasp at the elusive modern future for a society. For Hetherington, infrastructure in each of its material and immaterial forms “divides the built landscape into priorities to be slotted into a promising narrative of progress.” (Hetherington, 2014: 198)
Promise has many meanings and possibilities for the study of infrastructure, and these nuanced approaches to this thematic engagement are examined across the chapters of The Promise of Infrastructure. This multivalent quality further reinforces its generative potential to think with and against infrastructures, particularly as they reinforce and script expectations for linear modern development. For Larkin, “[a] promise can refer to a vow, or a commitment, but its other meaning refers to the coming to be of a future state of affairs.” (p.181) This orientation towards the future however is never as certain and complete as the promise makes it out to be, there are uncertainties and possibilities that the promise simplifies. In this volume, Harvey examines road construction in Peru and suggests that there is a multiplicity in the future that infrastructure promises because of the innumerable unknowns of the engineering and construction process that unfold unpredictably. Harvey presents “the force of infrastructural promise as a complex and unstable temporal alignment” (p.82) as the expansive systems of infrastructure take on properties and lives that extend far beyond what has been planned. In these circumstances, engineering attempts to anticipate a future and design for it; however, the complications of road construction can unravel these anticipatory designs. Despite the inconsistencies between the future that infrastructural promise envisions and the multiple and unexpected journeys that infrastructural thinking manifests, the promissory quality of infrastructure reinforces an orientation towards the future while further emphasizing the salience of temporal approaches to the study of infrastructures.
In the introduction to this volume, Anand, Gupta, and Appel suggest that “infrastructures are important not just for what they do in the here and now but for what they signify about the future.” (p.82) As I have described above, the relationship between infrastructural promise and time implies a reliance on the future as an aspirational site of possibility. In the context of development, the orientation towards an infrastructural future often brings with it a particular characterization of what timescales are prioritized and at what resolution the details of this future are rendered. Michael Degani (2013: 184), in a chapter on energy infrastructures in Tanzania, suggests that the country exists in a “global timescape in which short-term interest and end-time faith fold in upon each other.” Despite what may be read as contradicting timescales, the short-term emergencies and failures of electricity infrastructures combine with the faith in future economic growth in this context, pushing out the planning and provisioning for consistent electricity in the near future. This characterization of an infrastructural relationship to the future relies on Jane Guyer’s (2007: 409) theorization on the “evacuation of the temporal frame of the ‘near future’” from temporal thinking. Appel’s chapter in this volume on infrastructural time in Equatorial Guinea makes a further reference to the work of Guyer, observing that “specificity in the near future is evacuated in favor of a distant utopia.” (p.51) In this configuration, the continued deferral of infrastructural outcomes is a part of their promissory quality, always oriented towards a bright future in a developmental time that has always failed to exist.
An engagement with this configuration of the infrastructural future as it sits in tension with the unevenness and incompleteness of the present is one of the possibilities and strengths of infrastructural inquiry. As Appel notes, “[a]ttention to infrastructure enables new archaeologies of the present, multiscalar insights into the oscillating temporalities of today’s imperial formations.” (p.59) Just as colonial infrastructures were designed and built to bring about a particular version of the future and promise of civilization, the infrastructures announced and celebrated today “tell us about aspirations, anticipations, and imaginations of the future.” (p.63) More than just a way of considering what has yet to come though, Gupta further asserts that “infrastructure makes clear how the future configures the present,” (p.63) revealing the current inequities in development and provisioning by the state.
To conclude this reading of The Promise of Infrastructure alongside related literature on the complex temporalities of infrastructure, I want to return to the two images of the Chirajara Bridge. Seeing these images for the first time after the collapse of the bridge was at once like seeing a ghost of what has been—the two piers and bridge decks—but also a ghost of the promise of what was still yet to come: the promise of this bridge to smooth and facilitate efficient travel across this Andean cordillera, the promises of modernity wrapped up in infrastructural steel and concrete, and the long-repeated and worn promises of politicians about the completion of the highway.
AbdouMaliq Simone (2015) suggests that “the durability of infrastructure rests in the capacity to construct lines of connection between that which seemingly cannot be connected.” And here in these photos, despite knowing that I’m looking at a ghost of partial construction that no longer materially exists, my eye still reaches out between the two sides of the bridge, to construct an imaginary line to connect them, to complete the image and make good on the now-crumpled promise.
Despite the strength of the promise that continue to pull me into a narrative of completion, the fiction imperfectly anticipates and creates attachment to a future that may never arrive. In Larkin’s words, it “involves both expectation and desire, frustration and absence.” (p.181) In contrast to this frustrated attempt to construct an elusive state of completion, the unfinished forms in these photos can also be understood as holding promise for deeper understandings about the processes of infrastructural becoming. Despite—and because of—the promises broken, the lives lost to the collapsing half of the bridge, and the continued delays along the unfinished infrastructural route, the Chirajara Bridge structures the lives that intersect with it across timescales. In the chasm between these detailed images of what has been and what I now know will no longer be, the process of infrastructure hovers, revealing the complex articulations of the state alongside the precarity of labor and freshly poured concrete.
Barak O (2013) On time: Technology and temporality in modern Egypt. Oakland: University of California Press.
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Carse A and Kneas D (2019) Unbuilt and unfinished: The temporalities of infrastructure. Environment and Society, 10(1): 9-28.
Degani M (2013) Emergency power: time, ethics, and electricity in postsocialist Tanzania. In Strauss S, Rupp S and Love T (eds) Cultures of energy: power, practices, technologies. New York: Routledge.
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Uribe S (2017) Frontier road: power, history, and the everyday state in the Colombian Amazon. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Zannah Matson’s research focuses on the histories and contemporary reinterpretations of landscapes throughout processes of colonization, violence, and state infrastructure projects. She is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Landscape Architecture at Penn State University and a PhD Candidate in Human Geography at the University of Toronto, where her work is funded by a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Award.