States of Suspension in Tamil Nadu, India:
Infrastructure, Aspiration, and Interpretations of Breakdown
Speculation about infrastructure breakdown is a critical means by which residents of peri-urban spaces in Tamil Nadu, India chart the social life of cities. Although they are sometimes dismissed as accidental, breakdowns in systems that distribute water and electrical current are often interpreted as a cipher through which relationships between built environments and shifting political landscapes may be read. I trace how possibilities for shared “reading” and assignment of potential responsibility in talk and films representing infrastructure failure may allow faults in infrastructure to be repurposed or even, occasionally, enjoyed as a means to interpret relationships. I draw on recorded conversations between residents of a newly built urban area who cite cuts in electrical current as a means of mapping shifting social relations within their city. At the same time, I examine comments on infrastructure failure in comedy and the popular Tamil-language film, Eeram (Dampness), to suggest how attempts at assigning responsibility for everyday talk and infrastructure breakdown work together to establish speakers’ aspirations for new positions in space and time.
Laura C. Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines intersections between language, materiality, and commerce with a geographic focus in South Asia. She has conducted fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, India examining how conversations in small roadside shops shape the value of goods, money, and the people with whom they are associated. Her current research further explores the relationship between intimate linguistic exchanges and broader political economic transformations through the analysis of typographic design, commodification, and use by South Asian language speakers.
Location and Address
Cathedral of Learning, room 501