May 4, 2021

Phenomenal Works

Phenomenal Works: Laleh Khalili

“What if infrastructure is designed, financed and adopted into the habits of everyday lives of its users in such a way that it is not a harbinger of apocalypse?” In a recent essay, Laleh Khalili notes a key dilemma of infrastructure projects—in both colonial and postcolonial contexts, and even in the service of revolutionary ideals, infrastructure carries destructive environmental impacts. She urges us to reimagine infrastructure beyond the economic growth paradigm, instead looking to projects that are redistributive, participatory, and egalitarian.

Khalili’s most recent book, Sinews of War and Trade, conveys this complex nature of infrastructure in the global maritime trade in the Arabian peninsula. In the text, she examines various forms of infrastructure in the region, for example, road and rail infrastructures that were constructed just before decolonization, legal infrastructures that organize trade in the maritime industry, and “strategic infrastructures” of ports as listed by the US Department of State. As she explained in an interview with Phenomenal World last year, legacies of empire, war-making and contemporary dynamics of global power coalesce around the Gulf ports, in a trade powered by a large migrant labor force. Khalili’s Phenomenal Works recommendation builds on this critical work and looks more broadly at the dynamics of infrastructure and power in settler economies.

Khalili is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London and also the author of Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgency, and the co-edited volume Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion.

Laleh Khalili

Decolonizing Infrastructure

One of my favorite recent publications has been ​Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen’s article, “Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure” published in South Atlantic Quarterly. The essay is a beautiful piece of writing, unapologetic about its critical approach to infrastructures. The authors write, “We suggest that choosing a good path requires the revolutionary but also profoundly practical work of infrastructure. At the center of Wiindigo’s violence and destruction is infrastructure’s seemingly banal and technical world.”

LaDuke and Cowen’s boldness stems from their standpoint as members and allies of first nations, in their struggle against extractive infrastructures in Canada. The essay ranges over how such infrastructures reinforce settler jurisdiction and settler economies in material structures. They offer ways of mobilizing in “communities, classrooms, court houses and city streets” to decolonize infrastructures such that planetary survival is guaranteed.


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