Capturing the Zeitgeist of Infrastructure

Reflections from the Transregional Academy on “Infrastructures, Regions, and Urbanization”, 29 September to 7 October 2018, Singapore.

By Norman Aselmeyer (European University Institute, Florence)

In 1999, Susan Leigh Star famously invited fellow researchers to study infrastructure, or what she jokingly called “boring things.”[1] For long, this common-sense notion of infrastructure as being pretty unexciting or dreary contributed to a relative neglect of technological systems in analysing society. In recent years, however, the picture has gradually changed and a host of new studies has made the study of infrastructure thrive.

World of Infrastructure

The workshop vindicated infrastructure to be a compelling site of exploration and analysis. Right from the start, the issue of infrastructure featured high in the discussions and activities, although being only one among three major themes. This is, given the centrality of infrastructure to today’s world, not a very surprising fact. Scholars have claimed that infrastructures play a vital role in the functioning of our societies. More recent works go even further and do not spare any superlatives to extol their significance to modern life, characterising infrastructures as “lifelines of civilisation”, the “basis of modernity”, or the “backbone of society.”[2] In any case, they inspire writers to think big.

People as Infrastructure: African Porters in British East Africa. Image courtesy of the Kenya National Archives Nairobi, Binns Collection.

Considering how infatuated the world is with infrastructure, it is no coincidence that the workshop was held at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Perhaps more than any other place, the city of Singapore is a gargantuan infrastructural playground, where smooth-running infrastructure is not only regarded as critical to create quality of living (vis-à-vis the large density of people and limited space), but also essential for further economic growth, development, and innovation. And indeed, infrastructure connects the tiny city-state to its Southeast-Asian neighbours and the rest of the world, securing the constant supply of food, labour, and capital which keep the city running. Beyond the borders of the city, there is a comparable appetite for infrastructure investment, the Belt and Road Initiative of China only being one major example in the region.

Given this new obsession, geographer James D. Sidaway (NUS) spoke at the workshop of infrastructure being “at the heart of the zeitgeist.” Although this trend has its roots going back to the nineteenth century (when nation-states and empires discovered infrastructure as a tool to support economic development and territorial expansion), there is something profoundly novel about the contemporary situation. Empirically, infrastructure today comes across in new forms (e.g. as immaterial in the IT sector), produces distinct social and economic effects (e.g. an increased division of labour and hence knowledge), creates new kinds of dependencies (e.g. to ensure the reliability of capital flows), and yields different normative claims by society (e.g. the internal connectedness of various forms of infrastructure and their constant smooth running). These current changes also inform the scholarly understanding of infrastructure and the approaches deployed to examine it.

Conceptual Messiness

The boom in infrastructure research has its obvious downsides. People have called the term a “plastic word,” that can literally mean anything and thus has no analytical value.[3] When Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman (Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati) asked us at the end of the Academy, which three words come to our minds when thinking about infrastructure, the result was an entertaining but also revealing picture on the multiple usages of the term. The answers ranged from visible, invisible, pickled, informal, relational, and poetic, to material, embodied, pirate, powerful, and circular. A colourful mess! While none of us chose the same term, everybody would surely agree on the answer suggested by Busarin Lertchavalitsakul (Naresuan University), namely “confusing.”[4]

Some confusion regarding the term derived from the interdisciplinary character of the Academy, which included participants from more than ten different fields, who used the term for different ends. Their understanding of infrastructure accordingly varied. More important than the diversity of disciplines is the multi-layered nature of infrastructure, substantially complicated by the above-mentioned changes to its present form. Since its invention in the late nineteenth century, the term has gradually expanded in meaning, keeping pace with the technological advances and transformations of our societies.[5] In that sense, the term does not refer, as it traditionally did, to hardware alone but has also been ascribed to intangible forms of transportation and communication, i.e. social networks, research, or public services. Only recently, the usage of the term infrastructure has further expanded and acquired a metaphorical meaning, referring to configurations that facilitate any kind of activity. According to this new reading, infrastructure does not denote a “thing” but a “relation.” In the words of AbdouMaliq Simone, infrastructure is about the “in-between.”[6]

On this abstract level, talking about infrastructure becomes a challenge. This was particularly apparent when we discussed, among others, AbdouMaliq Simone’s seminal essay “People as Infrastructure,” in the thematic discussion chaired by Saikat Maitra (Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta).[7] However, the discussion also crystallised the benefits of the term’s plasticity. Not only does it allow for a better understanding of the various and interlinked issues relevant in the creation and working of infrastructure, but it also liberated the term from the principle of state-centrism. As Saikat and others pointed out, current definitions have abandoned the ‘modernist’ reading of the term (as a key symbol of progress and development) and moved away from the conception of a strictly government-controlled provision. Instead of understanding it as pre-existing and static, recent scholarship has argued that infrastructure is constantly in the making and therefore an unstable arrangement.[8]

Human Condition

The papers presented at the Academy represented this––what I would call––anthropological shift in infrastructure scholarship. Instead of writing from a technological angle or a political economy point of view, as one would conventionally expect, the papers interrogated infrastructure as an inescapable feature of the human condition. Infrastructure has thus become a vantage point from which to look at human expectations, struggles, and experiences.

A very provocative contribution towards this ‘anthropological turn’ (or perhaps even, its spark of inspiration) was the adaptation of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of agencement (or in English: assemblage) for the study of infrastructure.[9] The concept broadens the idea of infrastructures insofar as it deploys them as co-constituted by human and non-human agents, and therefore makes the relation of multiple parts and their reciprocal impact crucial for their understanding. Unsurprisingly, a number of papers at the workshop conceptualised infrastructure as a social-material assemblage, or, in other words, a precarious relation between humans, things, and nature. The paper by Jasnea Sarma and Dina Krichker (NUS), for instance, detailed border infrastructures as sites of everyday interactions that constitute clashing visions and realities within the border space. Rather than thinking of infrastructure in terms of physical objects, they argued that border infrastructure comes into life through the polyvocality of different groups and individuals on the spot. Borders can thus be infrastructures of fencing and violence, as well as infrastructures of coexistence, trade, cooperation, and resistance. Arguing in a similar vein, Anton Nikolotov (Humboldt University, Berlin) analysed the Sadovod marketplace in Moscow through its everyday socialities, making it an “affective” infrastructure.

Given the fuzzy definition of the term, infrastructure favours no distinct focus or approach but rather serves as a panopticon, allowing an inspection of almost all aspects of life. It is exactly this feature of the concept that makes it currently so appealing. Papers discussed at the workshop used infrastructure as a proxy to interrogate, for example, environmental issues, social organisation, uneven development, media representations, techniques of colonialism, or the functioning of capitalism. Noticeably, many papers ventured into the dark side of infrastructure, examining political violence, environmental destruction, and social exclusion. Focussing on local communities in Colombia, Fabian Prieto-Ñañez (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), however, showed with his work on self-made satellite dishes and media consumption the liberating and participatory effects that can unfold from tinkering (with) infrastructure. For whatever purpose, the concept of infrastructure has the capacity to expose often illicit social relations and orders.

The move from an historical-actor category to an analytical category was also the peg of the round-table discussion on “Infrastructure as Method.” The panellists agreed that infrastructure, as a heuristic, has major potentials, especially in disrupting social and spatial presuppositions. Tim Bunnell (NUS) suggested that such a focus helps to unsettle and extend beyond the default units and scales of our disciplines, such as ‘methodological nationalism.’ However, that will only work, as both Julia Lossau (University of Bremen) and Jane Jacobs (Yale-NUS) critically remarked, if we continually question what infrastructure is and which kind of assumptions it carries. That requires us to be always conscious of the term’s limits.

Beyond Banal Infrastructure

Speaking of the term’s limits: just a few years ago, Geoffrey C. Bowker compared infrastructures to shaggy dogs. What at first thought appears like a repetition of Leigh Star’s notion of dullness, is in fact a reminder of the complex nature of infrastructure. The crux is in their temporality. Infrastructures do not adhere to our traditional historical storytelling: “Theirs are messy stories of making things hook up together, of hopefully continual maintenance […] and no real endpoint. You never complete an infrastructure […]; it is always and ever in the making.”[10]

Infrastructures have, indeed, no punchline. Understanding infrastructure as relations between things (“built things, knowledge things, or people things,” to be precise[11]), they are continuously ingrained in processes of connecting and disconnecting, and thus shape human relationships and possibilities. Since infrastructure is made of heterogeneous elements, such as human and non-human, natural and technical, material and immaterial, they often escape control and create new configurations. In other words, infrastructures are both indicators and initiators of change and conflict. They are work in progress.

The term infrastructure is an ‘undisciplined’ category. It makes itself at home in many disciplines and adopts various (interdisciplinary) approaches. This freedom has given it the aura of an unruly, but innovative and dynamic concept. At the workshop, it had proven to be a disruptive force, causing confusion, and controversy, but eventually, something that led us to redrawing our mental maps.


[1] Susan Leigh Star. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43.3 (1999), pp. 377–391.

[2] For instance, Dirk van Laak. Alles im Fluss: Die Lebensadern unserer Gesellschaft – Geschichte und Zukunft der Infrastruktur. Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 2018; Paul N. Edwards. “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems.” In Modernity and Technology. Edited by Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003, pp. 185–225; Jonas van der Straeten and Ute Hasenöhrl. “Connecting the Empire: New Research Perspectives on Infrastructures and the Environment in the (Post)Colonial World.” NTM 24.4 (2016), pp. 355–391.

[3] Uwe Poerksen. Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

[4] The short video can be watched here: https://academies.hypotheses.org/4997.

[5] For the English speaking world see: Ashley Carse. “Keyword Infrastructure: How a Humble French Engineering Term Shaped the Modern World.” In Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Companion. Edited by Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen, and Atsuro Morita. London: Routledge, 2017, pp. 27–39; for a broader context see Dirk van Laak. “Der Begriff ‘Infrastruktur’ und was er vor seiner Erfindung besagte.” Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte 41 (1999), pp. 280–299.

[6] AbdouMaliq Simone. “Infrastructure: Introductory Commentary.” Cultural Anthropology Online, 26. November 2012, https://culanth.org/curated_collections/11-infrastructure/discussions/12-infrastructure-introductory-commentary-by-abdoumaliq-simone.

[7] AbdouMaliq Simone. “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” Public Culture 16.3 (2004), pp. 407–429.

[8] For instance, Nikhil Anand. Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

[9] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987. See also Thomas Nail. “What is an Assemblage?” SubStance 46.1 (2017), pp. 21–37, and Colin McFarlane. “Assemblage and Critical Urbanism.” City 15.2 (2011), pp. 204–224.

[10] Geoffrey C. Bowker. “Temporality.” The Infrastructure Toolbox, Cultural Anthropology Online, 24. September 2015, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/723-temporality.

[11] Brian Larkin. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013), pp. 327–343, here p. 329.


Norman Aselmeyer

Norman Aselmeyer is a historian in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Previously, he was a Research Associate at Freie Universität Berlin in Germany, where he also served as Assistant Editor of Geschichte und Gesellschaft. He has held fellowships and research affiliations at the German Historical Institute in London (2016, 2018), the University of Nairobi (2017), the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2018), the German Historical Institute Washington D.C. (2018), and the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO) in Berlin (2018). He is currently affiliated with Moi University Eldoret in Kenya (Aug–Dec 2018).

Since September 2015, he has been working on a dissertation on spatial transformations in East Africa related to the construction of the Uganda Railway. His work is supervised by Lucy Riall and Stéphane Van Damme. Norman’s current research interests include, inter alia, the global history of East Africa and the Indian Ocean, urban history, the history of food and health, and the history and theory of historiography.


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