Hyperstructures: Re-thinking large-scale infrastructure development in Highland Asian borderlands
Lunch talk by Galen Murton, Assistant Professor, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia
The borderlands of Highland Asia have been for decades at the center of ambitious infrastructure projects and speculations. From the Soviet construction of roads and airports in the Pamirs, to India’s substantive investment in hydropower development, large-scale projects are not new. However, the scale and ambitions of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) promises a dramatic departure from earlier interventions. Therefore, an analysis of a number of large-scale projects (ongoing and planned) in the region is not only timely, but also offers a critical point of entry for a more grounded analysis of the BRI. Through a close reading of the literature and extensive fieldwork experiences in northern Nepal, the Tibet Autonomous Region, Xinjiang and Yunnan, my co-authors and I argue that rather than distinct infra-structures or super-structures, the big, new material infrastructures that are dreamed of, planned and constructed across the highlands of Asia can be better conceptualized as hyper-structures. What marks hyperstructures as distinctly different from other everyday infrastructure is, we argue, a scale and symbolism that often exceeds their economic rationality. Hyperstructures in Highland Asia are driven by something more than economic interests, and their conspicuousness rather reflects the coming together of different motivations and claims that further complicate understandings of international and South-South development in the 21st century.
Highland Asia website
Galen Murton is Assistant Professor of Geographic Science in the School of Integrated Sciences at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia (USA). He is also a Marie S. Curie fellow in the Institute for Ethnology at LMU Munich (Germany) where he is working on the project Road Diplomacy: International Infrastructure and Ethnography of Geopolitics in 21st Century Asia. Galen is particularly curious about the ways in which power operates spatially through material things like roads, rails, fences, and dams and primarily studies the processes and effects of these kinds of development dynamics in mountainous border regions of Highland Asia. Galen’s current book project, Infrastructural Power, examines how Nepal receives and leverages international infrastructure investment in order to expand state presence, and how this aid invariably comes with certain strings attached. His research has been published in outlets including The Annals of the American Association of Geographers; Eurasian Geography and Economics; The Journal of South Asia; HIMALAYA: The Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies; Cross-Currents and The Denver Post. In addition to teaching courses on cultural geography, development studies, and the history of geography, he also enjoys conducting fieldwork with his students in the mountain ranges of Asia as well as the Americas.