Infrastructures from an anthropological interpretation

Introduction

This essay discusses the anthropological approach to infrastructure described by Larkin (2013). At first, a conceptual framework of the approach is presented. Then, following Larkin’s work, the framework is divided into two parts: the first approaches infrastructure from a social-anthropological perspective. The second, understand infrastructure from a subject-anthropological view, questioning the aesthetic and psychological components of it related to the subject. For both parts, pros and cons are presented. In the third section, conclusions are given. 

Infrastructure and anthropology: a conceptual framework

The framework uses an anthropological perspective to conceptualize infrastructures. In a broad sense, this approach understands that it is humans, through their political and social organization, that create infrastructure, and so infrastructure reflects what is the human needs in the form of goals, fantasies, and political actions. The approach defines infrastructure as a system of objects, meaning that different technologies collaborate to form a bigger unit that permits the movement of objects (Larkin, 2013:329). Following, technology is not understood as singular but as plural, related directly to the infrastructure, as according to Larkin (2013:329), technolog-ies are what constitute infrastructures on a material and technical level. 

Conceptually infrastructures are assemblages of technologies with the function of deliverers of messages, in which political, idealogical ideas, fantasies, and values can be spread between the society in which the infrastructure is located (e.g. the best example in this sense is internet, in which an infrastructure connects people allowing to spread ideas and fantasies). This perspective implies that the technical and material elements pass to a second level, by being instrumental for society. Because of its function, it is important to see how infrastructures are conceptually related to the social order. The approach considers the psychological aspect of societies, that is to say, the desires and fantasies. These aspects are then translated into political actions by societies channelizing power dynamics, that are then reflected through the infrastructures by their functions and building. According to this view, the principal social agent of change are societies themselves, but which particular social group leads the change, depends on the context that is analyzed and the related social system. The conceptual relation that the approach describes between infrastructure and society is seen as means to an end. As infrastructures are built by humans, in the action of building, parts of human nature are fixed internally. Infrastructure as a mirror reflects the image of the society that builds it, it is a flat image, and like a mirror, it is not possible to see all the parts of the subject, but just some parts. In this approach, the user has an active role in deciphering the message carried inside the infrastructure, and this is an act of creation of meaning. For this reason, it is possible to see a change in how infrastructures are understood by societies through time and geographies. The change is related to the values and fantasies that every single society carries, for this reason as Larkin (2013:339) reports, the nineteenth-century western societies were more focused on the industrial infrastructure of enclosure, while instead twenty-one-century society on structures of control and stimulation of consumption desire. 

Social and subjective: two different perspectives in the anthropology of infrastructures

Diving into Larkin’s work, the author in his paper presents five different anthropological approaches to infrastructure, these approaches in this essay are combined into two main perspectives based on the main points of agreement. This section presents the two perspectives by highlighting their focus and then addressing the pro and cons. 

The first approaches infrastructure with a socio-political view and by this it questions the related ontology, this view can be seen as social-anthropological. The second takes into account the psychological aspects of infrastructure and how these shape the fantasies and desires of individuals. This view pays important attention to the aesthetic component and how it is perceived and embedded by the subject. For this reason, this view is seen as subject-anthropological. 

Social-anthropological:

This view focuses on the society aspect of infrastructures related to techno-political systems. According to Larkin (2013:329), infrastructures have a peculiar ontology. The reasons for this are two: the first is that infrastructures are things and relations between things. The second is that infrastructures are made by non-technical components, and these components have ontologies as well. The different ontologies create different layers with different relations that co-exist in the same material place, creating a technical system of objects. What makes an infrastructure is, therefore, when one technical system dominates another technical system placing it in the function of society. 

This approach gives important understanding by placing the system at the center of analysis. The technical aspects are placed in the background allowing all the non-technological elements to emerge, rather than hiding them by just focusing on the technologies. Therefore, the non-technological understanding helps to focus on the system building process that requires all sorts of humans and social elements. A technical system starts in response to a need. Following, technologies become the ground on which, through building around forms of citizens and responding to the needs, technology becomes the means by which politics and societies shape the human domain, and to do so techniques of translation are developed. This idea leads to the Foucauldian concept of biopolitics, that how described by Collier (inside Larkin, 2013:331), is a mixture of political rationality, administrative techniques, and material systems. The interest becomes not in the system of infrastructure per se but in what it tells about the practices of societies. 

On the other side, the approach has a big conceptual issue. There is an over descriptive risk, in which is not easy to understand which elements comprise the system and which are excluded. The issue reveals a categorical act of exclusion-inclusion that is determined by the subject that reads it (Larkin, 2013:330). The act of defying infrastructure is a categorical moment because it requires a cultural analysis which, depending on the epistemological sphere or political discourse, determines the ontological view of analysis of the system as well as the inclusion of the components. This is an issue because it relativizes the analysis depending on the perspective used. 

Subject-anthropological: 

This view is subject-oriented, and it tries to explain what you don’t see in the three-dimensional material world, but you can breathe in being embedded in it. Infrastructures existed since ancient times and over all the world, by the middle east civilization, the Romans, south America, China, etc.., and each had its interpretation of infrastructure as the value and fantasies connected to them. According to Mattelart (inside Larkin, 2013:332), the idea of modern infrastructure is connected to the view of a world in movement and open to change. This opening to change justifies the human domination over nature, understanding humans as a driving force of change. Following a Marxist perspective (Larkin, 2103:332) the building of infrastructure was the material realization of the perspective of the world open to change, resulting in an active shape of history. Having infrastructure as the material nucleus of societies fantasy, made them an integral part of social organization, in which a market economy connected to liberalism ideology reinforces in a broad sense the idea of progress and individual mastery. This is a powerful idea, and through infrastructure, the creation of new forms of life was possible stimulating desires and fantasies. Freud (inside Larkin, 2013:332) defines this as man becoming a kind of prosthetic God because infrastructures open to new possibilities, but what would be more appropriate is to define it as prost-aesthetic in the sense that the new possibility comes to the individual as a fantasy in an aesthetic form (i.e. the concept of prost-aesthetic derives from the combination of the two words “prosthetic” and “aesthetic”, meaning that infrastructures open the subject to new fantasy with aesthetics features, the fantasies are then projected on the infrastructure extending, as a body, the material possibility of life forms). Mràzek (inside Larkin, 2013:332) makes this aesthetic function of infrastructure more concrete and it describes as “enthusiasm of imagination” (Larkin, 2013:332). What Mràzek refers to is the feeling of promise that infrastructure can stimulate. A good example, as reported in Larkin (2013:333), are roads and railways, that operate on a fantasy and desired level and not as simple technical objects. The reason is that they encode the dreams of individuals and society, making them the vehicle in which those fantasies are transmitted and made emotionally real. Following this understanding, infrastructures are also the place in which the values of individuals become national values. The previous idea of mastery is a good example. If this idea is channeled through the competition structure of the market economy, determines the social position of the individual, and so creates who they are, the same becomes true between nation-states. For this reason, the personal ability is applied to the infrastructure development of the one own nation “pushing their society into the future” (Larkin, 2013:333). An alignment between personal fulfillment of life meaning and national social goals is taken in place in the realization of infrastructure. This connection of infrastructures as reflecting the meaning of life makes them subjective. 

The idea of poetics can be applied to reveal this double role that infrastructures have in revealing and creating fantasies through aesthetics. Jakobson (inside Larkin, 2013:334) says that what distinguishes poetic is when the action of speech is organized according to the material qualities of the signifier itself rather than to its referential meaning. The idea is to focus on the material appearance of the infrastructure, and so on the palpability of its aesthetic, and by contrast taking distance from the technical function. The poetics perspective goes back to the idea of infrastructure as means by which a state realizes its representation to its citizens and asks them to take those representations as social facts (Larkin, 2013:335). The focus on the aesthetic character rather than the functional changes the hierarchy of analysis shifting from something to use to something to learn (i.e. from the body to the psyche). The aesthetic is not only about creating and shaping mental activities with fantasies and desires, but also about the bodily reaction to the lived reality (Larkin, 2013:336). In this sense, aesthetics make a deeper entrance into the material world passing from a state of representation to a one of embodied experience for the individual influencing everyday life. The sensing of modernity as Mrazek calls it (inside Larkin, 2013:337 ) refers to this bodily experience in which the two aesthetic dimensions, the material embodied and the abstract represented, come together creating a model of modernity that is socially shared and subjectively represented. Understanding the aesthetic features of modernity expressed through infrastructure as this model that is placed outside and inside the subject simultaneously, makes it something to learn, connecting it to the idea of poetic in which the hierarchical shift takes place by preferring the aesthetic to the function. What function and aesthetic share is the material affinity (Larkin, 2013:338).

The pro of this subjective understanding is that human complexity is revealed from analyzing infrastructure. Critically thinking of it from a subjective perspective, and how it influences the psychological world of the individual opens reflection on what humans are and why certain behavior occurs. Following, this path can lead to a neuro understanding of infrastructure, in which infrastructure come to place not for functional needs but as deliverers of desires between social groups. The desires are linked to the perception of the senses, both from a visual and bodily aesthetic. The interaction between infrastructure and the experience created in the body, has neurobiological responses, creating dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Infrastructures become a vehicle of this transmission, that leads to the representation of desires and fantasies, by shaping the individuals (e.g. a good example in this sense is the infrastructure of social media, in which attention to the levels of dopamine is taken into consideration to keep the user more time on the platform). 

On the other side, two important cons are at hand. The first is that the understanding of infrastructure as a mirror of human nature is too abstract for stakeholders. It becomes problematic when it comes to building the infrastructure making it problematic on a technical level. As of today, the subjective perspective is complex to predict, and the complete effects are possible to be seen just a posteriori, making them not applicable in the construction process. The second point is directly related to this one. Considering the psychological and aesthetic function of infrastructure is difficult to make it conceptual on a multi-level model. Realizing an infrastructure involves a lot of different stakeholders and social groups with different goals and understanding. The project must have a clear conceptual representation, to make all parties speak the same language. This subject-anthropological approach is abstract and difficult to grasp conceptually during phases of technical development of the building process.

Conclusion: 

This essay presents an anthropological understanding of infrastructures. At first, a conceptual description of the perspective was presented, by saying that infrastructure delivers messages through societies. Second, following Larkin’s work, it was argued that the anthropological approach can be divided into two parts. The first is based on a social-anthropological understanding of them, and the second is based on a subject-anthropological one. Pros and cons of both parts were presented. At first, it was argued that it highlights the different layers of society, but it could drive to a relativization depending on the context. The second focuses on the subjective domain of infrastructures. The approach is highly abstract, making it both the straightness and weakness of the approach. 

Reference: 

  • Larkin, B., (2013). The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology, 42(1), pp.327-343.

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