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Debris of Progress: A Political Ethnography of Critical Infrastructure

In this dissertation, I advance a political ethnography of critical infrastructure to better understand terminal capitalism, in which the waste products of commodification and resource depletion are destroying the ecological systems that support life. My object of study is the massive disjuncture between individual knowledge and intention, and these catastrophic collective planetary outcomes. Theoretically, I develop critical infrastructure theory to diagnose these destructive structures. By “infrastructure,” I mean systems of material and discursive flows fundamental to sedentary human organization, connecting local actions with global systems. Such infrastructure is “critical” in three senses: A) denoting the most important forms of infrastructure widely seen as necessary for present-day urban civilization; B) as programs of resistance undertaken by actors embedded within infrastructures who understand themselves to be challenging or transforming dominant forms of power relations; and C) in the sense of Critical Theory, an approach that prioritizes analysis of practices and ideologies of domination with an orientation towards liberation. Empirically, I focus on waste removal, a critical infrastructure (sense A) that most recognize as destructive yet universally participate in. Specifically, I build on seven years of ethnographic fieldwork with Pedal People, one of the main waste haulers in Northampton, Massachusetts. As a 20-year-old worker cooperative doing their work by bicycle, they constitute an extreme case of critical infrastructure (sense B). Their work explicitly seeks to challenge dependency on fossil fuel, exploitation of wage labor, and how forms of 'dirty' work are understood. Through examinations of activities and self-understandings of Pedal People and their customers, and contextualizing the histories and effects of these through visits to regional waste sites, local governmental meetings, archival research, and discourse analysis, my political ethnography enacts critical infrastructure (sense C) as an approach to understanding ongoing modes of domination that ‘background’ and ‘normalize’ the destructiveness of terminal capitalism, as well as identifying potential sites, tactics, and strategies of resistance. Projects like Pedal People can simultaneously serve as exemplars of critical intervention, while also reproducing the very collective outcomes they seek to challenge. This study has broad implications for analyzing other forms of critical infrastructure as terminal capitalism accelerates.
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