Penn State Asian Studies Institute: Infrastructure

Very useful week (representing Europe!) discussing all things infrastructure at the Penn State Asian Studies Summer Institute earlier in the month.  Jess Abel (Penn State) and Leo Coleman (Hunter College / CUNY) steered us through an intense programme of readings and paper discussions.  Particularly enjoyed thinking about more recent STS-derived work in relation to older uses of infrastructure in Marxist anthropology.  Ravi Ahuja’s work on Orissa was a standout text for me.  Other good discussions on technologies and their politics, information and ‘smart’ governance, and infrastructural violence.  Amen Jaffer (LUMS) and Galen Murphy (James Madison University) presented some great work from south Asia that I could start to connect with my own.  I’m now enjoying Leo Coleman’s beautifully put-together historical ethnography of electricity in Delhi, A Moral Technology, and looking forward to thinking through it in parallel with my historical work on Delhi’s water.

Keep an eye out for the special issue ‘infrastructure’ issue of Verge: Studies in Global Asias next year…

(Image credit Raghubir Singh)

On the theme:

The infrastructures of the modern world shape everyday life, popular perceptions of space and movement, and prominent images of the individual, corporation, nation, region, and world. This includes not only physical infrastructures, such as sewer systems, communications networks, roads, and airports, but also the virtual systems that define spaces, control movement, and mediate interactions: computer operating systems and platform designs; the international system of passports and visas; and legal definitions of borders, territoriality, and citizenship. Attention to infrastructure, which has recently emerged as a key site of study across the social sciences and humanities, brings together disparate concerns with space, mobility, and circulations (of images, commodities, resources, people, and ideas). It enables a focus across scales and boundaries (whether political boundaries or those that run between rural and urban), highlighting political ecologies, physical processes, and material connections that link places and people while illuminating the often-hidden categorizations and mediations that inform local aspirations and political understandings.

In this workshop, we will explore the relationships between real and conceptual infrastructures, concrete materials and codes of practice, and means and motivations, both in particular parts of Asia and as Asian people, goods, and ideas circulate globally. We will examine how the study of infrastructures, broadly conceived, can help us better understand urban spaces and rural landscapes, development projects, technological changes, and emergent political and social realities. Key questions will include how infrastructure studies might renew classic approaches to Asian societies and their national or global histories, provide new insights into Asian and Asian diasporic literatures or arts, or help focus attention on current ecological and political concerns—for example, by mobilizing new concepts such as redundancy, resiliance, and repair. We will also consider how the study of infrastructure impacts our understanding of Global Asias—itself a nebulously defined, contested, and generative concept. A close examination of the evolution of the infrastructures that are fundamental to economic and political relations, and to the daily lives of billions of people, reveals the ways in which material technologies, sociotechnical processes, legal forms, popular culture, and the natural environment interact to produce the physical and imagined spaces of city, nation, region, and empire.