Emma Park

Graduate Student
Intellectual Biography: 

Infrastructures in the global north, writes historian of technology Paul Edwards, function “both conceptually and practically…as the invisible, unremarked basis” of social life (2003: 186). Infrastructures in Kenya, as in other (post)colonial spaces, have never occupied this conceptual or material position. Forced labor on road networks, coercive development projects broadcast over state-owned radios, and delayed money transfers due to power outages reveal the politically contentious, conceptually ambiguous, and technologically fragile nature of these infrastructures. It is precisely these disruptive, visible, and fragmented qualities, however, that render infrastructures objects with which it is useful to think. But what might a theory of infrastructure look like if we took as our starting point not the (post)industrial “north” but (post)colonial spaces in the “global south”? What concepts and analytic tools might be usefully brought to bear in this reframing? Generalized descriptions of infrastructural “failure” at sites across the global south do little to help us here. By contrast, a study that addresses itself to the material, social, and political contingencies embedded in the histories of technological networks provides exciting interpretive possibilities, not least it enables an exploration of questions related to the ontological status of infrastructures themselves (Larkin 2008).

Combining the insights of Science and Technology Studies (STS) with those of materially oriented cultural histories, my dissertation research explores these issues through an analysis of the entangled social, political, and material histories of road networks, radio broadcasting, and Kenya’s telephonic banking system, M-PESA, over the course of Kenya’s long “developmentalist” history. While at first glance these infrastructures are seemingly discrete networks—transport, communications, exchange—preliminary research points to a number of overlapping themes that suggest analytic possibilities are opened up by holding roads, radios, and MPESA in a single frame. Each infrastructure emerged at a key moment in Kenya’s long “developmentalist” history. The extension of roads emblematized the contradictory commitments engendered in the “civilizing mission” of the interwar period; state-directed radio broadcasts mediated the fraught promises of the “social welfare” state in the postwar period; M-PESA, launched in 2006, marks the transition to the privatization of infrastructural governance that has characterized the neoliberal era. In such moments, moreover, transformations in the money economy were reconfiguring the location of value. In the interwar period, for example, roads emerged as a contested symbol of the wage-labor economy, which relocated “young” men’s labor outside of the sphere of family production. In such moments, finally, both the state and local communities debated what was at stake in the rhetorically “youthful” forms of mobility each infrastructure enabled.

In exploring these moments my research draws upon and extends the notion of “technopolitics.” As both method and concept, technopolitics elucidates how infrastructures are designed to “enact political goals” while attending to the “unpredictable power effects” technological assemblages produce as they redistribute social, political, and material agencies (Hecht 1999: 15; Hecht 2011: 3). However, a core contention of this research is that in (post)colonial spaces, technopolitical regimes cannot be presumed to exist in the singular. To unpack the multiple ontologies of infrastructural networks, as well as the controversies that have assembled around them, it is critical to understand the relationship between the technopolitics of the state and the vernacular technopolitical struggles occurring at the scale of communities and households (Englund 2011; Lonsdale 1992). The controversies generated in these moments of infrastructural expansion, I argue, are best understood as the articulation of these two technopolitical registers, each of which marshaled resources, expert knowledge, and technologies to “enact political goals.”

I hope to use this workshop on the “Global South as a Source of Theory” to further engage the possibilities and limits afforded by the analytic of vernacular technopolitics. As it is connected to the theme of this workshop, the analytic has the potential to make three related contributions. First, as with the notion of technopolitics more generally, the analytic draws attention to the redistribution of agencies produced by technopolitical assemblages; however, it explores these questions at the scale of communities and households. In so doing, it brings into a single analytic framework the technopolitical strategies of state and non-state actors, and the intimate scales of kinship and community where these transformations are debated, contested, reformed, and made meaningful. Second, the analytic enables a deeper exploration of how infrastructures extend new forms of power while concurrently enabling new forms of agency by tracking these redistributions along other, more “local” networks. Finally, it lends itself to an exploration of the multiple ontologies of infrastructures, thereby providing a point of entry from which to generate an alternative theory of infrastructure emanating from a specific site in the global south.

Edwards, Paul. 2003. “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social
Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems.” In Modernity and
Technology. Eds. Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey and Andrew Feenberg. Cambridge:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Englund, Harri. Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the
Chichewa Radio. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

Hecht, Gabrielle. “Introduction.” In Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technpolitics of
the Global Cold War, Gabrielle Hecht (Ed) 1-12. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011.

_______. The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity
after World War II. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2nd edition, 1998.

Larkin, Brian. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure and Urban Culture in
Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Lonsdale, John. “The Moral Economy of Mau Mau: Wealth, Poverty and Civic Virtue in
Kikuyu Political Thought.” In Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa. Book
Two: Violence and Ethnicity. 315-468. London: James Currey, 1992.

Julie Livingston, 2012. Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic. Durham: Duke University Press. Parker Shipton, The Nature of Entrustment. New Haven: Yale University Press, James Ferguson, 2013. "Declarations of Dependence: Labour, Personhood, and Welfare in South Africa," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 19, 223-242. Peter Redfield, 2002. "The Half-Life of Empire in Outer Space" Social Studies of Science" Vol. 32