ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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After Breakdown

Invisibility and the Labour of Infrastructure Maintenance

This paper builds on the work of Steven Jackson to theorise the breakdowns of hydraulic infrastructure not as exception, but as an ordinary condition of living with infrastructure. Rather than take breakdown to be an interruption in the life of infrastructures, it is suggested that breakdowns be read as an initial condition from which new infrastructures emerge through the labour of maintenance and repair. Drawing attention to the extraordinary labour of plumbers, municipal employees and engineers, the paper argues that the invisibilities of infrastructure are themselves contingent on the invisibilisation and subjugation of maintenance workers, who are placed beyond sight to regularly and constantly work to make water flow again.

Long held up as symbols of modernity, development and progress, infrastructures—here I am thinking of the obvious ones—roads, electricity grids, water lines—have become exciting sites for the theorisation of political ­authority and its articulations with material and social life. For instance, recent scholarship on water infrastructures (Ranganathan 2014; Gandy 2014; Von Schnitzler 2016), electricity networks (Coleman 2018; Degani 2017), housing (Fennel 2015; Schwenkel 2015) and roads (Harvey and Knox 2015) have demonstrated how political subjectivities and authorities are made through projects to manage infrastructure, the disconnections they enable, and the ways in which they materia­lise and rescale natures and geographies (Anand et al 2018; Carse 2014; Barnes 2014). Infrastructures are brought into ­being on the debris of old orders and newer technical forms. As we are born into worlds that are not of our making (Heidegger 1962)—worlds already structured by infrastructures—these infrastructures silently, and often invisibly, produce the very conditions of possibility for corporeal, social and institutional life.

Noting the peculiar invisibilities of infrastructure, Susan Leigh Star (1999) has famously noted how infrastructures are often invisible until they break down. It is when infrastructures break down, Star has argued, that their tenuous relations become visible (see also Graham 2010). Taking up her provocation, geographers and anthropologists have demonstrated how both breakdown and infrastructural visibility are ubiquitous and particularly noticeable in cities of the global South (McFarlane 2008; Graham and Thrift 2007). In cities of the global South, multiple infrastructural regimes jostle for prominence. The tangle of electric and television cables, water pipes, and drums and buckets visibly materialises the contentious state of technology and authority. Yet, while these infrastructures are indeed apparent, less clear is the relationship between visibility and breakdown in these locations. These knotty visible assemblages are often, in fact, working. What the hyper-visibility of infrastructure in the South (and indeed in many other locations) reveals instead is the lack of any easy correspondence between visibility and breakdown.

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Updated On : 28th Dec, 2020
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