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Infrastructures of Disaster

Infrastructures commonly understood are technological artifacts—they take up space, they perform, and they have history. Yet material infrastructures also rely on immaterial forces: politics and policy, codes and standards, knowledge production at different scales, and markets. History tends to present infrastructure in the service of life, but what happens when infrastructure perpetuates risk, threatens, and provokes disaster?


Deferred Maintenance: The American Disaster Multiplier
A roller coaster is left stranded in the ocean after Casino Pier was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. 31 October 2012. © epa european pressphoto agency b.v. / Alamy Stock Photo
by Scott Gabriel Knowles    
Why are disasters more and more costly in the United States decade by decade? In part, the answer has to do with the deferred maintenance of infrastructure, and the multiplier effect that predictable disaster has on predictably vulnerable technological systems. In what has now become a textbook example of this process, the failure of the New Orleans "levee and dewatering system" in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005) demonstrates the multiplier effect of deferred maintenance. A more recent example of climate change as a deferred maintenance mulitplier comes by way of Hurricane Sandy (2012). In each case-despite very different environments, economic bases, and politics-we see clearly the ways that the bill of deferred maintenance comes due in the middle of a disaster.

Scott Gabriel Knowles is Associate Professor and Interim Head of the Department of History, Drexel University. He is the author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America (2011), and is series co-editor (with Kim Fortun) of "Critical Studies in Risk and Disaster" (UPenn Press).


Manufactured Landscapes: Law and Hydraulics in the Bengal Delta
Construction in the Eastern Kolkata Wetlands, © Pradipta Ray, 2009
by Debjani Bhattacharyya    
Can we study the history of law as an infrastructure of disaster in the riverine landscape of the Bengal Delta? This delta is home to a hybrid formation known as char lands, which is a land-water admixture teeming with biota. From the late eighteenth century while British engineers embanked and dried this landscape, law worked as an important technology that used the perceived geographical indeterminacy of this landscape to manufacture it as a "resource frontier." The far-reaching consequences of this particular legal regime manifest themselves in the contemporary moment as manufactured landscapes of production and profit on the one hand and receding coastlines and fast disappearing wetlands on the other hand.

Debjani Bhattacharyya is Assistant Professor of History at Drexel University. Her work has appeared in Economic and Political Weekly, with another forthcoming at Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. She writes about legal infrastructure, ecology and spatio-economic history of the Bengal Delta and is currently finishing her manuscript titled Hydrologics: Property, Law and the Urban Environment in the Bengal Delta.


The Human as a System Component in Nuclear Installations: Jens Rasmussen and High-Risk Systems, 1961-1983
Model of human processor, Rasmussen, Bits, p.9. Notice the two subsystems of conscious and subconscious processing similar to De Maistre's 'système de l' âme et de la bête'. © Jens Rasmussen. Permission has been received from the author to reproduce the figure.
by Vivek Kant    
How can the human operator be integrated into a high-risk technological system without being reduced to a mechanistic cog? The Danish engineer Jens Rasmussen provided an innovative approach to this problem at Risø Laboratories, Denmark, between the years 1961 and 1983. In order to chart the material dimension of risk, this article chronicles his engineering-based reasoning and conceptualization of the operator and the operator's performance in technical environments.

Vivek Kant is a research fellow at the Division of Sociology, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore and, Institute of Catastrophe Research Management, NTU; along with, Future Resilient Systems, Singapore-ETH Centre.

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