In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Ruins of the Future
  • John Levi Barnard (bio) and Stephanie Foote (bio)

The twelve-month period over which the linked special issues on the “Infrastructure of Emergency” at Resilience and American Literature came together—roughly March to March of 2020–21—was bookended by two striking materializations of its central theme: a deadly pandemic unleashed with explosive speed through the infrastructural networks of global commerce and transportation and the grinding to a halt of some of those very networks by the bathetic swerve of a two-hundred-thousand-ton freighter into the soft mud bank of the Suez Canal. Human error and perhaps mechanical issues played a role in the grounding of the Ever Given, but unseasonably intense heat and uncharacteristically strong winds, which converged to produce a major sandstorm, rendered the Suez Canal more difficult to navigate and more prone to catastrophe.1 Both a cause of global warming—as a petroleum-fueled vehicle of global capitalism—and evidence of its increasingly disruptive impact on global systems and everyday life, the stuck ship provided a near-perfect encapsulation of what Ben Lerner has called “the miracle and insanity . . . the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor” that constitutes the world system at the present moment.2

If the ship’s grounding distilled something essential about the crisis conditions of late capitalism, its stuckness in the specific location of the Suez Canal grounded those conditions in the longer history of their emergence. While the canal remains a channel of commerce, it is also a channel of historical memory, a durable structure through which two centuries of geopolitical conflict, economic globalization, and ecological disruption can be focalized and understood.3 The essays in this volume, together with those in a companion issue of American Literature, tell a similar story in the North American context, tracing the entwined histories of colonization and climate change through infrastructural projects ranging from the Erie Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge to the [End Page 1] Hoover Dam and the LA Freeway. Such massive public works projects constitute what Akhil Gupta calls “concrete instantiations” of prevailing “visions of the future” at the time of their construction.4 But the broader consequences of such projects rarely match and always outlast their immediate political and economic causes. Though infrastructural projects are literal and figurative channels of modernity, the grounding of the Ever Given reminds us that even the grandest infrastructures of the modern world are susceptible to failure, decay, and ultimately ruination. Though the ship was eventually freed, the image of the Ever Given stuck in the Suez will be imprinted in historical memory as at once a quintessential spectacle of modernity and a sign of the potential collapse of the modern system altogether: weighed down with “priceless treasures,” as Claude McKay put it in his prophetic vision of America in ruins, and “sinking in the sand.”5

From the perspective of a historically materialist environmental humanities, the spectacle of a central artery of global commerce clogged by the outsize nature of its own machinery offers a clarifying image of the contradiction between capitalism’s fantasies of endless expansion and the nonnegotiable realities of life here on planet Earth. As part of the “wreckage upon wreckage” piled up by the “storm” of “progress”—as Walter Benjamin evocatively put it in one of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”—the ship also embodied the oscillation between hope and despair, memory and futurity, the accumulation of capital and the slow depletion of resources and degradation of environments that characterizes what we might call the infrastructure of both the historical imaginary and everyday life in a time of climate emergency.6 If this is the deep structure of experience in late-stage capitalism—marked by wild swings between expectations of progress and the sense that the future is being foreclosed, as the sheer scale of destruction becomes evident—it becomes ever more imperative that we find ways to track how those contradictions have been materialized in the built environment, not only in monumental infrastructures like the Suez Canal, but in those that are more immediately felt, the banal and quotidian infrastructures that...


Additional Information

pp. 1-14
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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