The term “infrastructuralism” is a provocation to think about the relationships between material cultural and literary form in novel ways, beyond the assumed hierarchies and causalities usually associated with the established distinctions between material infrastructures and cultural superstructures. It is an opportunity to think about how fiction approaches and relates to social and political questions of public goods, economic development, governmentality and, as a founding part of the project, a renovation of the concept of the commons. Who owns, or rather should own, energy resources and their distributive networks? Roads? Schools? Hospitals? Etc. What kinds of infrastructural development are desirable and possible, in the 21st century, given the scientific certainty of human-made climate change and our planetary transition into what scientist Paul J. Crutzen calls the Anthropocene Era? How do the forms and themes of 21st-Century fiction reflect such historical shifts, meditate on them, and mutate in response to them?

Literary theorists of nineteenth-century prose fiction, largely influenced by Michel Foucault, have productively used the model of the prison to elucidate the structure of the novel. But in the 20th century, the models of utilitarian infrastructure have expanded and proliferated – under the auspices of the European empires abroad and their welfare states at home – with such mutative rapidity that the prison can no longer serve as the dominant model against which such fictions are read.

It is a commonplace to speak of geographic zones of deprivation where supplies of water, heat, and light are scarce, and yet accounting for such a commonplace has not become part of a critical vocabulary. “Infrastructuralism” begins to fill the critical gap, one that has become obvious and urgent in the wake of recent events in New Orleans, Haiti, Fukushima, and most recently the New York metropolitan area, where devastating failures of infrastructure have made it newly visible – if only through inadequacy or absence – as a political and theoretical category.

Photo credit:
Christian Banck / CC BY 2.0

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