In this first post in a new series seeking to interrogate the political ecology infrastructures we feature Deborah Cowen’s ‘Following the infrastructures of empire’ (2019). In her paper, Cowen asks what can be gleaned – conceptually and empirically – about urban life and its “imperial afterlives” when we take infrastructure as both an object and method of inquiry.
Cowen interrogates nationalist narratives and asks us to ‘follow the infrastructure’ across spacetime and struggle to illuminate the extraordinary power of cities both in and as a complex weave of socio-material systems. She goes on to expose how the making of “national infrastructure” holds together seemingly disparate archives of Indigenous dispossession and genocide, of the transatlantic slave trade, and of unfree migrant racial labor regimes.
This is great addition to the growing body of trans-disciplinary critical studies of infrastructure and historical niche-construction. Tracking the many ways theextinction stack has stretched its tendrils into the very fabric of modern life is crucial if we are to 1) resist more effectively the current pathological formations, and then 2) begin to re-imagine and regenerate social ecologies for the post-global near future. Infrastructure = Politics; and so much more so as affluent petro-states start crumbling under the weight of the multiple collapses they, in fact, have enacted.
EXCERPTS from the paper below:
Nationalist narratives are implanted in the story of the rail, painfully embedded and impossible to pry apart. Nationalist accounts inevitably tell a heroic tale of a benevolent nation-state triumphing despite hardship (King, 2012b). They enshrine the successes of elites as a common national heritage, even as those successes are stories of genocide. These narratives inevitably sideline the violence that all this was contingent upon – the dispossession, dehumanization, and exploitation. This style of storytelling is high stakes – to this day it works to refuse meaningful decolonization. In her recent engagement with the intimacies of imperialism, Lowe (2015, p. 3) offers:
Liberal forms of political economy, culture, government, and history propose a narrative of freedom overcoming enslavement that at once denies colonial slavery, erases the seizure of lands from native peoples, displaces migrations and connections across continents, and internalizes these processes in a national struggle of history and consciousness.
Indeed, official account of the building of the CPR tells the story of a fledgling nation state, maturing despite obstacles, emerging triumphantly by rolling out an iron road. The story usually figures a central struggle between the powerful United States to the south and the noble but vulnerable nascent Canadian nation holding strong in the north. In 1870, PM MacDonald gave this story teeth, and this has since become official heritage and popular pedagogy:
The United States Government are resolved to do all they can, short of war, to get possession of the western territory, and we must take immediate and vigorous steps to counteract them. One of the first things to be done is to show unmistakably our resolve to build the Pacific Railway. (Cited in McDougall, 1968, p. 14)
This story has become the official story of the rail and the formation of this settler state, but it hides others…
We could invoke Lisa Lowe’s pathbreaking work alongside Gilmore and Karuka to perhaps consider the rail as the “intimate infrastructures of four continents”. Lowe (2015, p. 18) mobilizes the concept of intimacy “to develop a ‘political economy’ of intimacies,” to trace the “particular calculus governing the production, distribution and possession of intimacy.” She considers intimacies as residual effects of colonialism and slavery “that nonetheless continued as the practical conditions for liberal forms of personhood, society and government” (2015, p. 19). This approach builds on feminist and queer engagements that figure intimacy, “as a domain of power and a construct … a primary domain of the microphysics of power in modern societies” (Wilson, 2016). In contrast with the liberal tradition that locates intimacy within an already cordoned off individual self and private realm, these engagements see intimacy as a way to investigate how those powerful lines are drawn around subjects and spaces, and how they shift in ways that are integral to and constitutive of geopolitical economy. As Stoler (2006, p. 13) has argued, “to study the intimate is not to turn away from structures of dominance but to relocate their conditions of possibility and relations and forces of production.”
For Berlant (2016, p. 394), infrastructure offers a distinct lens from structure, suggesting that structure “organizes transformation” while infrastructure, “binds us to the world in movement and keeps the world practically bound to itself.” Infrastructure, she suggests, is “necessary for any form of sociality to extend itself.” In her work and elsewhere, an engagement between these fields, is already productively underway. Wilson (2016) for instance, offers good reason to pair these concepts and discourses. Wilson writes, “what is a virtue of infrastructure for critical scholars is a source of frustration to some infrastructure professionals: that is, its unbounded meaning, rather like the term intimacy itself.” The pairing is powerful precisely because critical engagement with intimacy is “animated by analytical desires for ways to embed social relationships in fields of power that rely on complex, nonreductive understandings of materiality,” of the kind that infrastructure provides Wilson (2016, p. 249).
Through infrastructure that is at once imperial and intimate, the city is assembled. The birth of the railroads of the nineteenth century transformed urban space – reconfiguring economic geographies, circuits of finance, social worlds, rhythms and temporalities, patterns of property ownership, and morphology. By bringing cities into infrastructural systems that spanned great distances, time and space were compressed and power geometries remade. In some places, entirely new urban areas emerged along with the iron tracks, while elsewhere, preexisting cities were completely reordered. Cities were not only linked to infrastructural systems; they were enveloped by its logics; they became logistical.
[I]n a recent paper on the urbanity of pipelines and their contestation, Kipfer (2018, p. 482) argues that, “resisting pipelines that link extraction sites to ports, metropoles and spaces in between offers the advantage of connecting multiple struggles.” Pipelines are indeed potent infrastructures of struggle today that connect across social locations and material ones. But perhaps it is a broader politics of infrastructure, not just of pipelines, that is needed to hold the long and large imperial contexts for infrastructural urbanism out of which cities emerged and expanded, and to honor the intimate entanglements of seemingly distinct struggles for justice and freedom. Indeed, if we follow infrastructure we might see the ties to contestation over other infrastructures of internal colonialism…
It is often repeated that infrastructures remain invisible until they fail. Yet it is the resistance and refusal of colonized people to submit to colonial infrastructures that is often what challenges their smooth operation and allows them to become apprehensible (Nelson, 2016). Racialized and colonized people continue to push back against particular technological systems and their attendant infrastructures of white supremacy. Infrastructure is not only a vehicle of domination – it is also a means of transformation. Taking infrastructure not only as object of study but also as method, diagnoses colonial intimacies of containment, premature death and division. Yet it also makes visible the struggles over infrastructure, and in doing so offers a glimpse at how infrastructure can be built otherwise so that reproduction can be redirected to underpin alternative intimacies based in alliance, mutuality and solidarity.