- Alles im Fluss: Die Lebensadern unserer Gesellschaft [Everything flows: The lifeblood of our society] by Dirk van Laak
By Dirk van Laak. Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 2018. Pp. 366.
In this book, Dirk van Laak explores humans' coexistence with infrastructures over the past 200 years. To unfold his vision, he mobilizes stories about a wide variety of past and present infrastructures, stressing their kaleidoscopic and indeed paradoxical nature through time.
The introduction, subtitled: "The main thing, it functions . . ." asserts that infrastructures are in the first place performances. That is to say, nuts and bolts only become infrastructures when a "tendential majority" of a population seizes upon them to perform some critical aspect of their daily lives. So, users matter. Van Laak argues that infrastructures are intensely paradoxical: designed to be under the radar but all too visible when they let us down; intended to liberate us from a multitude of mundane worries but at the same time responsible for augmenting our dependencies and vulnerabilities; designed to connect us but also serving to exclude and separate us. Van Laak takes aim at the dominant welfare-state narrative that infrastructures are invariably productive and progressive, while illuminating what we might call their dark side. In this sense the book is also a critique of modernity, seen as the wholesale incorporation of—especially urban—populations into overarching though largely de-focalized infrastructural systems that can only function thanks to the extensive disciplining (and self-disciplining) of these same populations. Alles im fluss is thus appropriately much more an historical ethnography of infrastructures than a history of infrastructure building or management.
The first section, entitled the "Classic Era of Infrastructures," consists of three chapters detailing the development of infrastructures in the nineteenth century ("Public Works"), the early twentieth century ("Lifeblood of the Community"), and the late twentieth century ("The Measure of Modernity"). These chapters lay out Van Laak's vision of the emergence of modern infrastructure societies over the past 200 years, culminating in societies where now "everything flows." We are taken on a journey: to see the canals of Louis XIV and the English industrial revolution, the telegraph as harbinger of universal peace, the sublime promise of electricity, World War I supply and communication infrastructures, public works in democracies and in left or right dictatorships, nostalgia for the relics of superannuated infrastructures, the fragile complicity of infrastructures in colonial repression and revolt, and a compact history of waste—to name just a few way-stations. Van Laak shows that the past 200 years have marked a qualitative shift from fragmented pre-modern structures of production, waste, and circulation, to societies critically dependent on collectively enacted systems of flows and logistics, i.e. infrastructures. [End Page 1216]
The five chapters in the second section, "Focal Points in Debates on Infrastructure," deal with the organization of infrastructure; symbolic values; and the collapse, life-cycle, and vulnerability of infrastructures, finally turning to the dance between users and managers of infrastructures. Here too, Van Laak draws on a fascinating variety of detailed accounts to make his points about our (increasingly) ambiguous and precarious lives with infrastructures.
The conclusion focuses on our present internet-dominated social orders and beyond. Two developments take pride of place: first, the increasing "interleaving" of infrastructures, especially the digitalization of older ones and their inclusion in global information orders; and second, the mounting ecological and climatic challenges to the continued unbridled expansion of infrastructures. These related developments will shape the infrastructural agenda for the near future.
Van Laak's book is a welcome addition to the considerable body of literature on infrastructural history. The vast majority of works focus on specific infrastructures or historical contexts for infrastructure-building. Though this situatedness has its virtues, Alles im fluss makes a virtue of generalization. It is extravagantly catholic in its sources, drawing examples from a motley variety of infrastructures across a wide range of different times and places (albeit with a bias toward urban, western, and, understandably, German settings). Van Laak thereby encourages us to reflect on the phenomenon of infrastructure as a generic feature of...