You are on page 1of 3

Suspension

byAkhil Gupta
This article is part of the seriesThe Infrastructure Toolbox

On March 5, 2015, the new government of Sri Lanka headed by President Maithripala
Sirisena announced that it had suspended a controversial $1.5 billion project headed by a
Chinese firm. The Colombo Port City Development Project entailed creating a landfill of
575 acres in the city of Colombos harbor, with hotels, apartments, and office buildings
that would attract as much as $13 billion in foreign investment. The project had resulted
from a deal between the previous president, Mahinda Rajapakse, and Chinas president Xi
Jinping. Its suspension was reported to cost the Chinese firm in charge of the project
$380,000 a day, idling as many as five thousand people.
Given that China is Sri Lankas largest aid donor and has already invested $5 billion in the
country, it is expected that construction on the project will soon resume. However, the
harbor projects suspension points to the temporality of infrastructure, to the everpresent gap between the start and completion of infrastructure projects. We often think of
infrastructure in terms of its role in bridging distance and spacein connecting people
and places, transporting goods, and linking geographically dispersed locations by cables,
wires, pipelines, communication towers, geostationary satellites, and so on. Yet while the
temporality of infrastructure is less evident than its spatiality, it is no less important.
We can understand a lot about social futures by looking at infrastructure. Why? Because
infrastructures are often long-term investments. They tell us a great deal about
aspirations, anticipations, and imaginations of the future (see Appadurai 2013): what
people think their society should be like, what they might wish it to be, and what kind of
statement the government wants to make about that vision. This is why every aspiring
nation-state wants to build shiny steel- and glass-encased airports, operate a modern
subway system, and pave new highways. A good metaphor for the kind of vision encoded
in infrastructure is found in the image of the suspension bridge. A bridge links two bodies
of land over water or a gorge. It thus serves to connect one geographical space to another
and to enable people and things to move between them. But new bridges also symbolize
movement into the future, into a particular kind of modern future whose phantasmagoric
qualities are wonderfully captured in the Philippine filmPerfumed Nightmare(1977).
Twenty-five years of rapid economic growtha rate of more than 6.5%, and more than
7.5% in the last decadehave left urban India as one large construction site. Nor is this a
phenomenon limited to India: the skyline of every major urban center in Asia is similarly
filled with mechanical cranes. It is no surprise that the machine, named for its

resemblance to the long-limbed grallatorial bird, should also participate in flights of social
imagination. Mechanical cranes are constructing more than infrastructure: they are
building a vision that promises a better future and, at least for some people, a better life.
I do not simply want to write against a teleology of infrastructure that contrasts its
promise of a modern future, bright with anticipation, to what it actually deliversto the
gap between promise and performance. If promise did not exceed what was actually
delivered, one suspects that many infrastructural projects would never get off the ground.
A simple cost-benefit analysis demonstrates, for example, that most new stadia for sports
teams earn negative rates of return. Public subsidies for such stadia, or for malls with
luxury stores, represent one of an array of mechanisms increasingly employed to justify
subsidizing the rich by taxing the poor. Reverse taxation of this kind is possible not on the
grounds that sports stadia and luxury malls deliver services, but because they construct a
particular vision of the futurea spectacular one, filled with possibility.
By drawing attention to the phenomenon of suspension (cf. Choy and Zee 2015), I want to
emphasize the temporality of infrastructure. It is assumed that projects, once started, will
be completed. Thus, infrastructure that is not yet in place is deemed incomplete, on its
way to completion. The language of delays participates in the logic of finance capital. In
that world, delays are expensive because interest costs on the massive amounts of capital
sunk into infrastructure projects add up with every additional day that the project takes to
finish. If the project takes too long, the interest charges can outweigh the profits to such
an extent that the projects rate of return becomes negative.
While such calculative techniques draw attention to thedureof the project and, hence,
make us think about the temporality of infrastructure, they do not question the narrative
of completion as telos. Infrastructure projects are not always completed: completion is
not the only possible outcome once a project begins. Such projects can be suspended for
short periodsor forever. They can also be dismantled, torn down, and removed. In
India, each of these three possibilities is very much alive whenever a new infrastructure
project is announced. The bridge to the future is always under erasure, and we do not
know where it will lead.
Suspension, then, instead of being a temporary phase between the start of a project and its
(successful) conclusion, needs to be theorized as its own condition of being. The
temporality of suspension is not between past and future, between beginning and end, but
constitutes its own ontic condition just as surely as does completion. If we did not
participate in the hegemonic project of infrastructure as a bridge to the future, but rather
approached it as always already in suspension, we might be better able to theorize the
peculiar temporality of infrastructure in India, Sri Lanka, and other parts of the world.

References
Appadurai, Arjun. 2013.The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition.
New York: Verso.
Choy, Timothy, and Jerry Zee. 2015. ConditionSuspension.Cultural Anthropology30,
no. 2: 21023.
Tahimik, Kidlat, dir. 1977.Perfumed Nightmare(Mababangong bangungot). 93 min.