Infrastructure and interpretation: Meters, dams, and state imagination in Scotland and India

by Leo Coleman

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By Leo ColemanFull Article:

The technical infrastructures of modern life—energy, communications, transport—stand at the juncture between material orderings of society and collective meaning. Public utilities are both material and symbolic, and both aspects require maintenance—and anthropological understanding. However, recent anthropological approaches building from science studies have tended to pursue “flat” descriptions that replace mystical or hypostatizing concepts of “social forces” with material associations and have focused on micrological discipline rather than ritual sites where collective identity is formed. By contrast, I identify an “aporetic relation” between material ordering and symbolic form as the site of ritual, and hermeneutic, processes by which large-scale political collectives are built up—and infrastructures are shaped to serve collective projects. I analyze examples of contemporary and historical infrastructural politics from India and Scotland to develop insights into how collectivities and states are formed, interpreted, and challenged in symbolic contests over their infrastructures.