Infrastructure – Peripheral Visions and Bodies that Matter: A Commentary

Watering hole in Lesotho highlands. Photo by Colin Hoag.

*A commentary on Part II of our Engagement thematic series, The Nature of Infrastructure.

By Bettina Stoetzer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology §

In the past few years, the keyword “infrastructure” has proliferated within anthropological literature. Many ethnographies have taken a close look at the ways in which physical networks, such as roads, canals, trains, sewage pipes, or water supply systems shape new forms of governance and social life (see e.g. Anand 2012; Bruun Jensen/Morita 2016; Carse 2012, 2014; Schnitzler 2013; Larkin 2013). Addressing the “poetics and politics” (Larkin 2013) of built environments, this line of work has carved out new analytical trajectories for understanding the relations between ecology, technology, and culture (Larkin 2013; Boyer 2014). This shared excitement about infrastructure arises at a moment in which the limits and risks of extracting the earth’s resources for capitalist profit have increasingly become visible. In the face of toxic leakages, rising global temperatures, and the loss of hospitable environments for humans and non-humans, cultural analysts across the humanities and social sciences have turned their critical attention towards “materiality” and ecological processes in order to more deeply reflect on the earthly consequences of human structures of design.

The essays presented in the Nature of Infrastructure Series on the Engagement blog of the Anthropology and Environment Society provide a wonderful set of short reflections on the contributions of infrastructure as both an object of analysis and as analytic lens for understanding these contemporary challenges. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the entries and would like to thank the editors, Colin Hoag, Theresa Miller, and Chitra Venkatamarani for inviting me to comment on the papers.

The posts take us into different infrastructural worlds across the globe – from asphalt roads and forest pathways in Odisha, India, to the coastal infrastructures of docks and piers on the islands of Pulau Banyak in Aceh, Indonesia, to sinks, sand and other informal infrastructures in the suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa, to the different archeological layers of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and its management systems in North America, as well as the energy systems enabled by seismic shifts and volcanic landscapes in Iceland. Examining these social and material landscapes, the essays explore the possibilities of an infrastructural analytic for addressing some of the key social and environmental problems of our time: the movements of global capital, resource extraction, energy production, climate change, environmental degradation, toxicity, and loss of species diversity, as well as questions of democratic action, access to public resources such as water, sanitation and education, racial, gender and class inequalities, violence and war. The authors illustrate that these challenges are deeply entangled with the question of what kinds of physical networks humans have built. They provide detailed analyses of the ways in which built environments and material structures shape ecological problems and particular cultural landscapes – beyond a particular locale and across temporal scales.

What is most striking though is that this set of papers also opens up discussion about the specific ecology and materiality of class and racial injustices, as well as colonial and capitalist modes of extraction of human/non-human labor and resources. In light of this, my comments below focus on the following question: What are the possibilities and limits of an infrastructural analytic for addressing this intersection of contemporary environmental challenges and questions of social justice?


The Shifting Grounds of Infrastructure

The infrastructural analytic has triggered such enthusiasm in large part because it promises to expand previous studies of technology and culture by taking a closer look at new forms of governance as they are negotiated via built environments, technological networks.[1] Indeed, the term infrastructure emerged as a concept in a military context post-WWII Europe and the US, and was later utilized in engineering, urban planning and other civilian settings (Petrosky 2009). As Ashley Carse points out in his commentary in the first part of this series, the post-war term of 1950s civil engineering related to “more than technology.” Instead it signaled the emergence of a “calculative reason” that stressed logistical and managerial tasks of transport and communication systems (Carse in this blog) and was built on the assumption that nature can be managed and limitless extraction of natural resources will create order and flourishing on Earth. Thus, a duality between stability/instability that adheres to an “industrial logic” (Fortun 2014) appears to be at the heart of the very term infrastructure. Yet curiously, the currency of the term grew in the very moment of infrastructure’s demise – to describe the increasingly decrepit urban water supply and sewage systems, roads, bridges, and electricity networks in the global north (Petrosky 2009).

The entries in this series draw attention to these very instabilities of infrastructures and thus illustrate the unintended ecological and social consequences of structures of human design, that are always more than simply “side effects” (Masco 2013). Doing so, they contribute to building a peripheral vision that, I argue, is necessary for an analysis that highlights the implications of infrastructures for human and non-human embodiment and well-being. As several authors have recently pointed out, this is the great potential of an infrastructural lens: focusing on complex material networks that structure social relationships (Leigh Star 1999; Murphy 2013) can push the view beyond individual embodiment towards broader constellations of vulnerability among living beings (Bauer and Bhan 2016). How are different organisms assembled vis-à-vis each other? What bodies are assimilated into modes of colonial and capitalist extraction via infrastructure and which ones are allowed to flourish?

For example, in his piece “Infrastructural Recursions,” James Maguire challenges the notion that infrastructures resemble objects that as Brian Larkin puts it, “create the grounds on which other objects operate” (Maguire in this blog). Instead, Maguire shows how energy infrastructures of the Hangill volcanic zone in Southwest Iceland emerge amid and through instable processes and are far from embedded in a stable “environment:” the power plant in the volcanic zone draws on an “intense liveliness [..] a bubbling, hissing, forming, and deforming, seismic landscape” for energy production. As geologists drill for water and steam embedded in the rocks, they create further instability and the risk of seismic activity. In a volcanic landscape of “craggy structures” of lava-encrusted rocks, where it is “hard to distinguish where one rock ends and another begins,” local energy infrastructures, do not arrange people, objects or ideas in orderly ways, but draw on the unpredictable liveliness of the earth’s seismic movements.

The capacities of infrastructure to integrate a moving landscape (in this case water) into something seemingly stable is also a central theme in Barbara Quimby’s essay “Walking over Water.” Quimby examines how docks and piers on the islands of Pulau Banyak in Aceh, Indonesia, serve as a bridge of contact between shore and sea, as well as the village and the circulation of global capital. Used for marine fishing and global boat traffic, the docks appear as almost natural part of a broader coastal ecology in which ocean life is transformed into commodities and “resource” for human use. While I wonder why it is that only piers become natural or “essential” and figure as the active agents to create new “biological communities” and not also for example, marine life and fishermen, Quimby’s analysis points to the fetish of infrastructure as commodity. That is, not unlike the commodity in Marx’s Capital, the infrastructure along the Aceh coast first may appear natural or “easily understood. […] [Yet its] analysis shows that it is in reality a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties” (Marx 1978: 319/20). A product of human and non-human labor and forms of extraction, comprised of technical objects, infrastructures don’t only have a poetics, but they also gain a mystical character. Thus it becomes necessary to make processes of labor and exploitation visible and hence to de-familiarize infrastructure.

In other words, I’d like to push these papers a bit further and suggest a shift in attention from instabilities toward exposing specific bodies, biological communities and processes of labor: which human and non-human lives, bodies, and relationalities come into view when we attend to human built material networks? In her piece “Choosing Paths, Not Roads”, Madhuri Karak addresses this question. Walking in Niyamgiri, in Odisha, India, Karak encounters two different kinds of infrastructure: raasta – paved roads – and jongol raasta – footpaths in the forest that serve as shortcuts between villages. Transporting laborers and means of production, the paved raasta enable extraction, the circulation of capital, and state surveillance – and hence embody the “violent exclusions of colonial and postcolonial political and material orders.” In contrast, the jongol raasta enable alternative uses for different ragtag groups, men, children, dogs, young women picking flowers, even though they are not free of state surveillance and violence. Inaccessibility and the refusal to be connected to asphalt becomes an asset: it prevents the scramble for land in the region. Karak’s emphasis on the ephemerality of jongol raasta as alternative mode of travel – they are “often little more than grass bent by footsteps”– deviates from a focus on the “hard” infrastructure of modern roads. Instead, she asks how the slightly bent grasses of paths – more than the asphalt-formalized structures of roads – not only renegotiate connectivity but set the “terms of connection itself” among different actors, the state, humans and non-humans.

Here then, the analytic not only includes the seemingly impervious asphalt roads of extraction and postcolonial orders, but also the foot paths of bent grasses, as well as alternative socialities and modes of connection. As much as the term “technology” certainly does not only adhere to “hard” tools such as machines, robots, virtual systems, military devices, and other forms of “high” technology, infrastructures encompass a wider range of crafts, forms of embodiment and “active human interface[s] with the material world” (Le Guin 2004) – and thus more than sewage pipes, electricity networks, canals, roads, and other types of human externalization.


Bodies that Matter

Showing us how various actors gain access to energy and water sources and thus carve out alternative pathways of engaging with the material world, some of the entries turn their attention to seemingly mundane things such as footpaths (Karak) or sand and sinks (Storey) – including actors that are not easily integrated into modern world making projects. These are worlds that return to haunt a “technical vision” (Scott 1998: 20) or “calculative reason” (Carse) – and perhaps also anthropological analyses of infrastructures and theories of democracy and social change.

In his essay, Jeremy Trombley traces the longue duree of geological formations, settler colonialism and capitalist extraction as they are inscribed into the very infrastructures of the Chesapeake watershed in Pennsylvania, USA. Created by the movements of water, tides, wind, rock, meteors, and people (including indigenous populations and colonists) across a span of several millions of years, the watershed’s ecology is deeply entangled with political developments and infrastructural projects, but it also exceeds them. It is in the context of these complex layers, that the watershed’s recent ecological health and the Chesapeake Bay Modeling System – a computational model simulating the dynamics of the watershed for advancing new forms of watershed management – needs to be seen. Yet the question that remains unaddressed here is: What are the human and non-worlds that inhabit the watershed? What remains at the margins of the computational infrastructure’s vision of expertise?

This question about margins is also raised by Angela Storey in her piece on the Cape Town suburb of Khayelitsha, South Africa. Storey illustrates how, in the face of inequality and exclusion, makeshift infrastructural arrangements, including sand, sinks, milk crates or storm drains are converted into waste disposal areas to try to accommodate for lack of access to basic resources and public services. Invoking Antina von Schnitzler’s work on infrastructural political action in South Africa, Storey’s analysis illustrates how the relation between land and infrastructure is “central to the reproduction of marginality,” but also its mediation. Yet, as in Trombley’s piece, I wonder about the specific social and ecological life-worlds at stake. Which human and non-human bodies and communities are exposed to the risks of living amid waste, toxics and potential floods? How do people affected by lack of access to public services invoke their own “basic needs” and speak about the politics and poetics of various infrastructures in their everyday lives? How do infrastructures assemble bodies and enable them to connect to each other and the environments they inhabit? In other words, how exactly do the inequalities of race, gender and class become embodied in the city’s built environment, and thus go beyond the boundaries of the human body (see also Stoetzer 2014)?

In times of increasing racialized violence, war, displacement, and the loss of hospitable environments for both humans and non-humans, we can then perhaps renew the question of which bodies matter (Butler 2011) in infrastructural engagements. Which human/non-human lives and bodies and lives carry weight in the world and are granted the possibility to flourish? My worry is that in our focus on infrastructures, anthropologists run the risk of creating an analysis that centers around the stability of structure (be it material structures, technological networks, access to material resources and other forms of governance, even as they are “re-negotiated”), rather than the volatility of violence and the viscosity of social injustice. The focus on infrastructural instabilities throughout some of the papers presented in this series precisely seems to point to this caveat.

The challenge, I think, is to not mistake infrastructure for the core of what constitutes social life or human relations to the non-human world. Rather, infrastructures can be seen as a point of departure, a useful tool towards other projects, such as figuring out how to change the terms of connection, to build collectivities that challenge the perpetuation of racial violence, war, social inequalities, and destruction of environments. This then might bring into focus the wider ecologies that emerge alongside and beyond infrastructures. In my own work on ruderal[2] ecologies in the city of Berlin, I follow such an approach (Stoetzer forthcoming) by attending to the unexpected life-forms and neighbors–human and non-human–that emerge alongside a city’s built structures and their histories of nationalism, war, environmental destruction. These human/non-human relations grow in inhospitable, “disturbed environments” usually considered to be hostile to life – and they set the stage for new forms of connection across existing structures of violence and inequality.

Drawing attention to the unintended consequences of infrastructural arrangements, the entries in this series help build a perspective on the ecology of infrastructure. Ecology from this perspective can be understood in the wider sense of the word, as relating to the complexities at stake for an organism or entity to count, to matter, to have a voice and to connect with others (Latour and Weibel 2005: 21). As Karak points out in her essay, the question is not so much connectivity per se but how to create and reshape the terms of connection to other beings, human and non-human.

Works Cited

Anand, Nikhil. 2012. “Municipal Disconnect. On Abject Water and its Urban Infrastructures.” Ethnography 13(4): 487-509.
Bauer, Andrew, Mona Bhan. 2016. “Welfare and the Politics and Historicity of the Anthropocene.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 115(1): 61-85.
Boyer, Dominic. 2014. “Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure.” CASTAC,, accessed June 15, 2015.
Bruun Jensen, Atsuro Morita. 2016. “Infrastructures as Ontological Experiments.” Ethnos 2016: 1-12.
Butler, Judith. 2011. Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.
Carse, Ashley. 2012. “Nature as Infrastructure. Making and Managing the Panama Canal      Watershed.” Social Studies of Science 42(4): 539-563.
Carse, Ashley. 2014. Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Fortun, Kim. 2014. “From Latour to Late Industrialism.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4(1): 309-329.
Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-343.
Latour, Bruno; Weibel, Peter, eds. 2005. Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
LeGuin, Ursula. 2004. “A Rant About Technology.” Online publication at, accessed August 20, 2016.
Marx, Karl. 1978. “Capital, Vol. 1.” In: The Marx-Engels Reader. R. Tucker, ed. New York/London: Norton.
Masco, Joseph. 2013. “Side Effect.” Somatosphere. December., accessed July 9, 2015.
Murphy, Michelle. 2013. “Chemical Infrastructures of the St. Claire River.” In: Toxicants, Health and Regulation since 1945. S. Boudia and N. Jas. Pp. 103-115. London: Pickering and Chatto.
Petrosky, Henry. 2009. “Engineering: Infrastructure.” American Scientist 97(5): 370-374.
von Schnitzler, Antina. 2013. “Traveling Technologies. Infrastructure, Ethical Regimes, and the Materiality of Politics in South Africa.” Cultural Anthropology 28(4): 670-693.
Scott, James. 1998. Seeing Like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43:3: 377-91.
Stoetzer, Bettina. N.d. Ruderal City: Ecologies of Migration and Urban Life in Berlin. Book Manuscript.
Stoetzer, Bettina. 2014. “A Path Through the Woods: Remediating Affective Landscapes in Documentary Asylum Worlds.” In: TRANSIT. Fenner, Angelika and Uli Linke, eds. 9(2): 1-23


[1] This renewed care for close up description of the materialities of emerging power formations also diverges from previous poststructuralist accounts of “bio-power.” Although Foucault for example addressed the power of built environments such as prisons, hospitals, and schools to create new forms of social relations, more than human lives, ecologies, and concrete technical networks were largely left unaddressed in this approach.

[2] “Ruderal” is a botanical term that comes from rudus, which is the Latin word for rubble. It refers to organisms that spontaneously grow in “disturbed environments” such as the sides of train tracks, or roads, waste disposal areas, or literally rubble.

Bettina Stoetzer is an Assistant Professor in Global Studies at MIT. Bettina received her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of California Santa Cruz in 2011. She also holds an M.A. in Sociology and Media Studies from the University of Goettingen, Germany. Before coming to MIT, Stoetzer was a Harper Fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Chicago. Bettina’s research focuses on the intersections of ecology, globalization, and urban social justice. Her current book project, Ruderal City: Ecologies of Migration and Urban Life draws on ongoing fieldwork with immigrant and refugee communities, as well as environmentalists, ecologists, and policy makers and illustrates that human-environment relations have become a key register through which urban citizenship is articulated in contemporary Europe. More specifically, Ruderal City engages several sites that have figured prominently in German national imaginaries – urban wastelands, gardens, forests, and parks – to show how current racial, ethnic and class inequalities are reconfigured in conflicts over the use, knowledge and management of nature and green spaces. Stoetzer has published on topics such as transnationalism, cities, affect, ecology, and film. She also is the author of a book on feminism and anti-racism in Germany (InDifferenzen, argument, 2004) and has co-edited Shock and Awe. War on Words (New Pacific Press, 2004) – a collection of essays that explores the current global situation through the political lives of words.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Nature of Infrastructure.