Thursday, July 16, 2015

Penny Harvey & Hannah Knox's "Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise"

Penny Harvey is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester and Director of the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change. She is the author of Hybrids of Modernity: Anthropology, the Nation State and the Universal Exhibition and coeditor of Technologized Images, Technologized Bodies, Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion, and Anthropology and Science: Epistemologies in Practice.

Hannah Knox is a Lecturer in Digital Anthropology and Material Culture at University College London.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise, and reported the following:
Our book on roads is an attempt to understand the social life of infrastructures. Specifically it is about the role that roads play in making social worlds. In it, we explore how material structures might be analysed as simultaneously real, material, imagined, enchanted, represented and agentive. So, we were a bit surprised to find that page 99 opens on a discussion that is squarely about the problem of the human subject. On page 99 of Roads, we recount the work of philosopher of science and mathematics Brian Rotman, and his description of the tripartite model of the subject that lies at the heart of western forms of mathematical calculation. We write:
Put simply, for Rotman the person is the embodied and relational being with a life history and emotions and experiences that in order to do maths, imagines themselves into the role of the subject that carries out mathematical procedures. The mathematical subject is the one who has the technical capacity to think up and imagine mathematical formulas and inscribe them on paper using notational devices that posit objects and relations between them. The mathematical subject is also the imagined interlocutor who receives instruction such as ‘add’, ‘consider’, ‘let’ x be the case, in the syntax of mathematical language. However, due to the nature of mathematical formulations it is often impossible for the individual mathematical subject to ‘prove’ the validity of a mathematical theorem, as the circumstances under which it would need to be tested are multiple if not infinite. In order to allow a proof of sorts to exist, the mathematical subject has to imagine the existence of a hypothetical agent who, under conditions of infinite time and/or space would be able to demonstrate the universal validity of the theory in hand.
The focus of page 99 on mathematics as a practice of knowledge takes the reader to where we started with this book and the question of how infrastructures bring into contact different ways of knowing. We chose the road as fieldsite because it seemed to hold in tension different practices by which people – engineers, government officials, farmers, drivers - come to know the world. Deviating from classic anthropological studies that tended to centre on single groups of people, we hoped the road would help us develop a form of social analysis that could deal better with scale, with difference, and with social change. At the same time we hoped to provide a richer account of the social life of infrastructure than conventional ‘impact’ studies.

By starting with the road, what we soon had to confront was not just different people, but also the agency of matter and the power of form as two dimensions of road construction that bridged communities and blurred the boundaries between different ways of knowing. Mud, machines, rivers, waterspouts, membranes, concrete and crops, as well as networks, grids and trajectories, all appeared as entities that demanded our consideration. Through sustained attention to the interrelationship between humans and non-humans, we began to devise a language to describe the social life of infrastructure. Out of an attention to the road itself, how it was talked about, how it was constructed, the promises it materialised and the risks that it articulated we devised concepts like engineer-bricoleur, impossible publics, historical futures and the engineering philosophy of as-long-as. These have led us to develop an analysis of infrastructure that in the end is not just about roads, but also about the nation-state, globalisation, and the possibilities available to us as we learn to live our lives alongside and through infrastructural forms.
Learn more about Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue