INFRASTRUCTURE IN THE AFTERMATH OF COLONIALISM
Edited by Jeremy Goheen and Claudio Eduardo Oliveira
In 1844, a British engineer responded to a report on the condition of slave ships with a troubling recommendation. A portable ventilator, he suggested, “might prove useful in removing the atmosphere before the sailors enter below deck, when it is in extreme condition, and also when they may have to be conveyed for considerable distance.” Ventilation here is imagined as an infrastructural technology that could help ensure the smooth passage of slaves across the Atlantic. This recommendation exposes the degree to which the history of infrastructure was informed by imperialism, as well as how infrastructural technologies themselves shaped the colonial project. Infrastructure has no doubt continued to haunt disenfranchised communities, but if Bruce Robbins is right in saying that the project of making infrastructure visible is a “materialist version of the politics of human rights,” then how might we mobilize it in the service of decolonization? Questions like this have been taken up in “critical infrastructure studies,” an emerging interdisciplinary field that, according to Alan Liu, aims to think “about the built, repaired, and lived things of the world—how we make them, and how they make us.” The following reviews in this special section reflect on recent scholarly texts that engage questions of infrastructure in the aftermaths of colonialism.
This special collection opens with Hayley Braithwaite’s review of Dominic Davie’s Imperial Infrastructure and Spatial Resistance in Colonial Literature, 1880-1930, which invites us to consider the value of what Davies calls “infrastructural reading” can have in thinking through histories of imperialism and colonialism. In this review, we learn that as both an object of study and methodological approach, infrastructure, for Davies, enables us to locate instances in even the most overtly colonial texts of “spatial resistance,” challenging assumptions that colonial subjects are always already subjected to colonial rule. Davies’s method of infrastructural reading is further explored in Tristan Hanson’s review of Urban Comics: Infrastructure and the Global City in Contemporary Graphic Narratives. Here, Hanson reflects on Davies’s suggestion that one particular genre—contemporary graphic narratives—has opened up avenues for learning how to “participate in infrastructural development and intervene in unequal material realities.” In her review of Maite Zubiaurre’s Talking Trash: Cultural Uses of Waste, Zoe Bursztajn-Illingworth speaks to the way in which thinking infrastructurally can change the way we analyze trash.
The subsequent reviews attend to anthropological and historical works that have placed infrastructure at the center of their studies. Molly Porter walks us through how Nikhil Anand’s anthropological work Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai uses infrastructure as a conceptual framework that exposes the “tenuous structures of citizenship and belonging in the physical and political infrastructures of postcolonial Mumbai.” Monica Moshensi’s review explores how Katayoun Shafiee’s infrastructural approach in Machineries of Oil: An Infrastructural History of BP in Iran allows for a shift from cultural histories of oil extraction that typically focus on human actors toward a history that underlines the way in which oil companies like BP gained control over the middle east by politicizing the sociotechnical language of industry. If Moshensi’s review investigates an infrastructural approach that moves away from cultural histories, Diana Heredia-López’s review of Christina Bueno’s work The Pursuit of Ruins: Archaeology, History, and the Making of Modern Mexico reflects on how an analysis of not just material but cultural infrastructures can enrich our understanding of how Mexican elites in the early 20th century marshalled ancient ruins in the service of creating a modern national identity.
Ultimately, the six reviews in this special section go to show that critical infrastructure studies afford scholars from a range of disciplines a framework for making sense of material realities in the aftermath of colonialism. The scholarly works reviewed here speak to how studies of infrastructure can help us locate where and how colonialism persists in material structures and, at the same time, offer strategies for resistance.