Road animism: Reflections on the life of infrastructures

Matthäus REST, Alessandro RIPPA


In recent contributions to the emerging anthropology of infrastructure, the issue of agency often plays the role of the proverbial elephant in the room—an area that most scholars are reluctant to engage with. In this paper we highlight the implicit dichotomization between human and non-human that characterizes this body of literature. In so doing we approach the question of agency not as a subjective property emanating from a conscious self—what would be very much the way traditional anthropology has come to imagine animism. Rather, by turning such an understanding of agency on its head, we take the animacy of the in-between as the starting point from which life unfolds. According to Tim Ingold’s work on the subject, this view is consistent with the cosmologies of people traditionally described as “animists.” Yet unlike conventional understandings of the term, Ingold describes this ontology as an openness to a world in becoming. Here what brings things into existence is not an animating principle inscribed within them, but rather the potential of the field of relations in which they are embedded. We suggest that this analytical reversal can provide us with a novel framework for the analysis of infrastructures. Accordingly, we argue that roads’ doings cannot be understood as active subjectivity or a function of their material resilience. Instead of connecting, roads should be understood as growing out of connections—as an “in-between” in which their doing is also their undergoing. We will make this argument through ethnographic cases from Pakistan, Nepal, China, Myanmar, and Austria.


roads, infrastructure, animism, agency of things, Ingold

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/706041