Andrea Ballestero on Infrastructure, Sponges, and Aquifers

Posted by on Jan 19, 2016
Andrea Ballestero on Infrastructure, Sponges, and Aquifers

Andrea Ballestero is assistant professor of anthropology at Rice. She looks at the unexpected ethical and technical entanglements through which experts understand water in Latin America. You can learn more about Dr. Ballestero and her work here.

Underground water: from infrastructure to sponges

An infrastructural turn is haunting academia. The explosion of projects and scholars interested in the infrastructural substrate is without a doubt an interesting historiographic phenomenon. The variety of explicit and implicit conceptual propositions defining the infrastructural gives one pause. Ranging from things to relations, from the material movement of objects to the labor required for things to occur, from affective effects to discursive intentions, from the invisible to the spectacular, infrastructure has become an extremely elastic category.

This wealth of objects and relations encompassed by infrastructure, as categorical object and metaphor, precludes any definitional diagnostic.  Yet, the fact that such variegated social and material forms are recognizable as infrastructure suggests some shared orientation, a latent and maybe submerged sense that, despite particularities and differences, all of these arrangements have something in common that makes them infrastructural.  That shared orientation, it seems to me, is an attention to promised, fulfilled, or interrupted function. Infrastructures are often described in relation to the role they play in sustaining, transforming, and even destroying forms of life, thought, and matter. They are analyzed in terms of their (dis)functioning. Does this suggest there might be an implicit, and maybe inescapable, functionalism at the core of the infrastructural turn?

In its classic form, function is overdetermined by a larger system, context, or ecology whose needs and desires shape its constituting parts. A larger entity molding its parts and the role they play in affirming the larger whole. Such functions can be reproductive, conducive to the replication of the larger entity that envelops them, or disruptive, challenging  such reproduction. Yet, such functionalism has difficulty with making cognizable a future that is not shaped by the needs or disruptions already recognizable in the present. It privileges the manifestation of effects, or their lack, in the near present, as extensions of an infrastructure’s presence. But that emphasis on presence in time remains silent on the potential of more speculative temporalities. Attending to function often implies tuning out the potential of futurity in its anterior (Fortun 2012) and virtual forms (Bergson 2002, Grosz 2004). An analysis centered on the (dis)function of infrastructure encounters difficulties to imagine that which is outside of its own infrastructural/functional purview.

And yet, the possibility of unimaginable futurities is crucial at a moment where doubts about the reproduction of human and non-human life are becoming a mainstay of discussions about “the planet.” Those futurities sit in intersticies that are not readable when the world is seen through the lens of function. Those futurities are untimely. They are not of the present, but of a future yet to come. But how do we know them if they are not of the present, if they remain untraceable today.  One way is to build on the incredible energy of the infrastructural turn to pay attention to the ways in which materials, relations, and desires resist infrastructuralization. The already existing and ongoing ways in which the world challenges its reduction to function.


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Take the example of underground water. Although water presence under the surface of the earth is often imagined as sitting in pocket-like formations, its spatial and volumetric existence is much more messy. Instead of neat, well defined, and clearly delimited spaces, aquifers are often irregular structures that can include sand and lose gravel. They are combinations of materials and empty spaces that blur differences between content and container. Underground water challenges the infrastructural image of a “tank.” It moves, intrudes, pushes to the surface or dissolves into the vast underground. It is a dynamic system of flows, stillness, and pauses.

When located in subsurface volcanic rock formations, as one of my collaborators in Costa Rica explains, aquifers look a lot like kitchen sponges. Aquifers challenge the self-evidence of the subterranean. Their liquidity, with its obsession with gravity and its tendency to the formless, requires imaginaries that are closer to sponges than to fixed stratigraphies.


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In their sponge-like form, aquifers are open formations, occupied by water and air. In those structures water sits and migrates through their variegated openings. It steps in where space becomes available, colonizing possible nooks, flowing into more open locations, pushing against impermeable walls, and being pushed away (up, down, and laterally) by new molecules. This spongy metaphor speaks of the difficulties hydrogeologists face in determining the precise borders and boundaries of an aquifer. This creates a huge gap in our knowledge about what is a sustainable rate of extraction, how one aquifer might bleed into another, or what legal instruments might work for its democratic distribution.

Thinking with sponges requires asking questions about multidirectional movement, almost imperceptible flows, volumetric borders, suction and seepage. Taken materially or metaphorically, these notions suggest something different from function. They interrupt our language habits, they demand a calibration of our analytic and political vocabulary to unusual motifs. That calibration might yield thoughts that do not reproduce the contexts and systems that have led us to our present condition. That calibration has the potential of yielding non function-bound experiments of thought.

Our concern with water as a resource usually enrolls it into economic and social assemblages accustomed to thinking aquifers as infrastructural reservoirs for water provision; as tanks being replenished, or exhausted, in the face or our financial, agricultural, and bodily thirst. Yet, if we bracket the impulse to value and critique our relations to aquifers via their infrastructural function and consider their ontological indeterminacies, as illustrated by spongy thinking, the questions we are moved to ask and the imaginaries necessary to conceive the unknown lead us to different analytic engagements. Sponges can create spaces to think the kind of open-ended thoughts needed at a time when our the effects of our world-making capacities demand alternative imaginaries. Reproductive thinking will not get us very far. Thinking about our relation with aquifers via sponges can lead to more creative figurations; to political and conceptual landscapes that are not regimented by expected functions (realized or not). This type of engagement with material intimacies of substances such as water might open our imaginations towards more productive, unknown, futures.


Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. 2002. “Concerning the Nature of Time.” In Henri Bergson: Key Writings, edited by Keith Ansell Pearson and John Mullarkey, 205-219. New York: Continuum.

Fortun, Kim. 2012. “Ethnography in Late Industrialism.” Cutlural Anthropology no. 27 (3):446-464. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2012.01153.x.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 2004. The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely. Durham: Duke University Press.