Book review: The Promise of Infrastructure

by Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta & Hannah Appel and reviewed by Cynthia Browne

23 Apr 2020, 2:02 p.m.
Cynthia Browne

Promise of Infrastructure book cover

The Promise of Infrastructure

by Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta & Hannah Appel (eds)

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018; 264 pp.: 978-1-4780-0018-1, US$26.95 (pbk), 978-1-4780-0003-7, US$99.95 (hbk)


Over the past decade, infrastructure has become a key analytical term, migrating out of the ‘expert seclusion of policy, engineering, and technology development’ (Appadurai, 2014: xii) into the disciplines of urban studies, anthropology, geography, and sociology. This well-rounded volume expands on this efflorescence, building upon three intellectual genealogies (p. 8) in particular – critical Marxist perspectives, the government of difference in cities, and science and technology studies (STS) literature that focuses on the practice of design and engineering. The three thematic subsections of the book, respectively titled ‘Time’, ‘Politics’, and ‘Promise’, correspond to the three conceptual domains in which the contributors seek to offer new analytical frameworks, approaches largely informed by ethnographic attention to the everyday life of various infrastructures from across the globe.

With respect to ‘time’, chapters by Hannah Appel, Akhil Gupta, Penny Harvey, and Christina Schwenkel aim to move beyond historical approaches that treated different kinds of infrastructure as metonymical signifiers of a particular techno-development stage within modernist ideologies of linear progress, while still acknowledging the symbolic efficacy of infrastructure as the material condensation of political aspirations. Each chapter builds upon this notion of infrastructure as a marker of futurity, while simultaneously offering more nuanced accounts of the heterochronous threads that animate its social life. In his chapter ‘The Future in Ruins’, for instance, Akhil Gupta draws upon the example of Bangalore – and India more broadly – to argue for analytical attention to the ‘state of suspension’ within infrastructural projects, by which he means the sociopolitical contingencies that render such projects open, uncertain, and in flux. Rather than reducing this ‘state of suspension’ to a mere node on the path towards completion, he urges readers to rethink it as a temporal condition in its own right that pervades all projects. For a project to be ‘complete’, according to Gupta, it itself requires continual work and operations of repair that maintain infrastructure’s functionality, acts often shrouded in obscurity within its ‘temporality of use’ (Viney, 2014). Hannah Appel’s account of ‘petroleum-infused infrastructures’ in Equatorial Guinea and Penny Harvey’s recollection of the promise of future roads in Peru extend the section’s temporally oriented analytics of infrastructure in alternative ways. Appel’s chapter draws upon ethnographic research among economists to conceptualise how the cyclical and ‘anomalous’ time of oil disrupts the linearity of development time, haunting the contemporary spectacle of massive infrastructure projects with the portent of future ruin and abandonment. Penny Harvey’s work, on the other hand, shows how the study of infrastructure’s construction can yield an ‘empirically grounded perspective’ into how ‘fluctuations in policy, regulation, practice, corporate finance, engineering expertise, and the expectations of local residents’ (p. 90) animate infrastructural systems. Extending Gupta’s call to attend closer to the object biographies of infrastructure, Christina Schwenkler excavates the various affective associations attached to the iconography of a particular smokestack in Vinh City, formerly part of North Vietnam. Examining its circulation as an image both visually and verbally, Schwenkler demonstrates how the bodily labour and representational work invested in the maintenance of the smokestack render it a potent symbol that shifted in significance across different historical junctures.

Schwenkler’s attention to the affective capacities of infrastructure at the ‘intersection of technology, materiality, and intimate sociality’ is a theoretical orientation that suffuses the volume and is one way that the contributors seek to reframe infrastructure as political matter. The intimacy and proximity of infrastructure entails two main aspects. The first is an orientation to the sensory dimensions of everyday encounters with infrastructure and the way it ‘presses into the flesh’. The second is an awareness that, as a means of distribution that redistributes the vital resources that people need to live (p. 10), infrastructure plays a paramount role in securing or denying the ‘very substance of existence’, often in unequal ways. As such, infrastructures often become sites for ‘active negotiations between state agencies and the populations they unevenly govern’ (p. 21), contributing to the formation and fracturing of publics through which subjects make political demands on governmental authorities.

The contributors to this volume argue that the poiesis of infrastructure (p. 176) contributes to the making of publics by assembling collectives, constituting political subjects and generating social aspirations, thereby expanding our knowledge of how publics become catalysed or forestalled beyond classical literature on the subject (p. 23). As Antina von Schnitzler unearths in her account of municipal service delivery in South Africa in Part 2, the material politics waged on the terrain of infrastructure can offer up new horizons for understanding political action. Discussing three modalities of infrastructural politics in the wake of apartheid, she argues how the less visible politics of various material practices related to the servicing of water reveal an historically sedimented mode of segregation and marginalisation secured through forms of infrastructure. What emerges in her account is a nuanced dialectic wherein the depoliticisation of infrastructure as a domain of administration is continually refuted through material acts of subversion and resistance. Such acts, however, only become ‘transduced’ to a national language of emancipation and thus rendered politically intelligible at certain sociopolitical junctures. Nikhil Anand’s chapter likewise contributes to the political potential of infrastructure, which as a modality of liberal governance is not merely secured through rationality at a distance but is enacted through intimate practices at its sites of delivery that allow subjects to ‘hail the state’ in turn. His ethnographic case study focuses on efforts to privatise water service provision in India and the continual struggle by residents to retain it as a matter of public concern, rather than of the private household.

As the chapters in the last section make clear, however, the ‘promise of infrastructure’ is not only explored as an ethnographic object; rather, it also reflexively refers to the notion that studying infrastructure holds both epistemological and ethical promise. The multivalency of the word ‘promise’, as Brian Larkin writes in his chapter on the political aesthetics of infrastructure, can refer to a vow or commitment, but it can also bear an eschatological component, heralding the ‘coming of a future state of affairs’. Its referent thus lies in the uncertain future that infrastructure portends; as such, it encompasses a concept of ‘temporal deferral’ in its refusal ‘to deliver something in the present’. Involving expectation and desire, frustration and absence, it acts performatively, calling into being a ‘future world that is at once planned for, administered, and organized, but also made up of a longing that is not always ordered by rationality’ (p. 182). His chapter, drawing on the work of Russian formalists and political philosopher Jacques Rancière, provides a nuanced theoretical reflection on how the aesthetic form of infrastructure distributes political rationalities, not only through representational work but also via felt experience (p. 193).

The subsequent chapters by Geoffrey Bowker and Dominic Boyer respectively address knowledge infrastructures and infrastructure as potential energy in order to offer careful meditations on how infrastructures might change in relation to the exigencies of the present. The book, demonstrating the political efficacy and social power of infrastructural form through a diverse set of ethnographic contexts, ends with an address by Boyer to readers, asking them to seek out the designs and prototypes for revolutionary infrastructure that already abound. Such a call echoes one of the reigning motivations of the book to ‘redeem the promise of infrastructure’ (p. 30) by making more visible the work it performs. As the last chapters make clear, recognising the mutually reinforcing relationship that exists between forms of knowledge and forms of infrastructure means that the epistemological study of the infrastructures is also an ethico-political inquiry into what sorts of futures we might still hope to build and inhabit.

In relation to the field of urban studies, the book offers a sophisticated framework for deeper consideration of a number of critical foci, such as the urban ‘governance of matter’ but also ‘the matter of governance’, a rhetorical conceit that emphasises the political aspirations inherent within technical-material systems, as well as how matter embeds and enacts political rationalities and sociospatial dynamics of inequality. Perhaps most provocative for the field of urban studies is the book’s conceptual emphasis on time and temporality, for whereas a number of studies taking a sociotechnical approach to urban infrastructure have acknowledged the social temporalities of infrastructure (i.e. repair and maintenance) that render its effective operation one that is perpetually unstable and socially contingent, the spatiality of infrastructure still retains dominance as a conceptual category. As the editors of this volume make clear, however, their aim is not to displace thinking about space by the logic of time; rather, they argue that a focus on temporality helps us to rethink spatialisation itself as a temporal act and activity that is built into spatial expansion, contraction and scaling (p. 16). The volume attests to the promise of such an approach through a compelling set of intellectual interventions, whose ethnographic emphasis on quotidian practices echoes and extends Graham and McFarlane’s (2015) call to attend more closely to the everyday lives of infrastructure. As such, it offers much to urban scholars working to conceptualise the mutually reinforcing relations between socioecological dynamics, sociotechnical change and processes of urbanisation through the lens of infrastructure, and how these relations shape and are shaped by urban governance and the multiple modalities of infrastructural politics.



Appadurai, A (2014) Foreword. In: Graham, S, McFarlane, C (eds) Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context. New York: Routledge, pp. xii–xiii.
Google Scholar
Graham, S, McFarlane, C (eds) Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context. New York: Routledge.
Google Scholar
Viney, W (2014) Waste: A Philosophy of Things. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.


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