13 Aug 2018

Hyperbuilding Highland Asia: Ethnographic Engagements with Emerging Infrastructural (Geo)Politics (part 1 and 2)

Panel at the Asian Borderlands Research Network Conference, Bishkek, 13-15 August 2018

Matthäus Rest, Galen Murton, Alessandro Rippa

Abstract and Outline

Convenor: Matthäus Rest, Max-Planck-Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany Chair: Galen Murton, James Madison University, United States and Alessandro Rippa, Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, Germany

Highland Asia lies at the crossroads of what is positioned to become the largest infrastructural intervention in history. While large-scale development projects are not new in these mountain regions, China’s recent announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)/One Belt One Road (OBOR) suggests a considerable jump in scale and, as most of the construction will be take place abroad, a new key component for Chinese foreign politics. Such construction is usually thought of as infra-structure – that which lies below and is envisioned to undergird future economic activity and development. However, in contemporary China, and especially with BRI/OBOR, building infrastructure has itself become a means to keep GDP above target. In this context, the infra of infra-structure is being superseded by what we call hyper-building: a more self-referential form of construction concerned as much with the here and now than with the future. Moreover, hyper-structures are highly visible interventions that are not intended to remain hidden, or underground. A key strategic target for hyper-structural change under BRI/OBOR includes the areas along Asia’s highest mountain ranges. While a coherent framework for BRI/OBOR remains uncertain, its political- economic power has already become a discursive force and the ramifications of expansive infrastructure projects are now producing tangible social and political consequences in many places across Highland Asia. A growing network of roads, railways, and airports are opening areas long deemed remote, and an expanding grid of power stations, electric lines, and pipelines increasingly carry resources from the historically peripheral borderlands to state centers. In order to complicate more macro-level and policy driven conversations that perpetuate “infrastructural enchantments” with BRI/OBOR (Harvey and Knox 2012), this panel brings ethnographic attention to specific highways, railroads, hydropower projects, and airports. Our goal is to examine notable yet often-ignored places that have already been changed and might prefigure future changes through BRI/OBOR. In more theoretical terms, we seek to examine the poetics and the politics of infrastructural forms (Larkin 2013), and to explore how the spectacular politics of hyperbuilding (Ong 2011) is as relevant to remote infrastructure projects as to Asia’s megacities. Bringing infrastructure studies back to the ground and highlighting the geopolitical centrality of often overlooked places, this panel presents four ethnographically-grounded case studies of infrastructure development in Highland Asia as a timely and critical assessment of the emerging politics of China’s BRI/OBOR project.

Hyper-Structure: Re-thinking Large-scale Infrastructure Development in Highland Asian Borderlands Alessandro Rippa, Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, Galen Murton, James Madison University, United States, Matthäus Rest, Max-Planck-Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany

Flight and Fight: Aviation and Mobility in Nepal Tina Harris, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Speed, Time, and Ruin in images of China’s “Ghost Cities” Max Woodworth, Ohio State University, United States

Infrastructure Development in Kazakhstan: Changing Networks in the Sino-Kazakh Borderlands Verena La Mela, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, Germany

Upper Mekong Electricity Development Ling Zhang, Yunnan University of Finance and Economics, China

Walking on an Empty Road: Geographies of Movement and Mobility in Tsum Nadine Plachta, Heidelberg University, Germany; Konstantin Ikonomidis, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Denmark

Highland Asia Research Group
LMU, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oettingenstr. 67
80538 Munich, Germany
martin.saxer@lmu.de | +49 89 2180 9639

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