“Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context”

Line one of the foreword by Arjun Appadurai reads: “This timely book is sure to become a definitive work on the now growing literature on urban infrastructure” (xii).


And Appadurai is not overstepping or overstating by saying as much. “Infrastructural Lives: Urban Infrastructure in Context” is edited by Stephen Graham and Colin McFarlane, both themselves big players in the academic discussion or urban infrastructure. McFarlane has a great blog, “cityfragment” that the book was recently showcased on. Some of the book’s materials are available on google-books here.

I’m reviewing the book this week, and will post commentary about it as I go.

Here are some thoughts and concerns about the foreword, and, thus, the project as a whole: Appadurai is an important figure for the burgeoning area at the intersection of sociology, anthropology, geography, political science, urban studies, and so on and so forth — many are invited to the table to dine on the topic of urban infrastructure. What makes this book extraordinary, Appadurai notes, is the approach: 

The analytical lens that gives this volume its originality is to make infrastructure more visible by tackling it not as a dimension of urban technology but as a dimension of urban everyday life (xiii).

This visible/invisible interface, which is surely culturally produced and differs depending upon context and experience, is of extreme utility to this book. That infrastructure is hidden intentionally from our view is something we’ve discussed before (re: the shape of the internet) and that infrastructure blends into everyday life and becomes taken-for-granted is also something we’ve discussed before (re: until it breaks here, here, and here), thus, defending the importance of bringing infrastructure into the light for readers and making infrastructure visible through research hardly needs to be defended at all. The book is chocked-full of what you’d expect: loads of discussion about how infrastructure is experienced (thank you, de Certeau), emphasis on the metabolic processes associated with and supported by infrastructure are discussed at length, along with incessant emphasis — at least the authors are all essentially on the same page — with impromptu workarounds for systematic failures of infrastructure (i.e., “jugaad”), the perpetual need for adjustment and readjustment of relational-material infrastructure, and the fact that infrastructure seems to somehow feed off of its own discourse of dilapidation and decay are the major themes of this edited book. 

Is there any danger to the visible/invisible interface? I think so, especially for the long-term viability of this research area — here is why: if unveiling “the invisible” is the main justification for this work, then — over time — this raison d’être will cease to exist; as a source of justification, this cannot last — at some point, even the invisible will be visible enough should these authors be successful. That being said, it has still been a great edited book.