Notebook: Infrastructure (Part Two)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

The ancient Greek theater at Epidaurus, famous for its advanced acoustics, holds 14,000 spectators and is in use today for staging drama and music. Dedicated to Ascelepius, the god of medicine, performances there were believed to have healing powers. In the fourth century BCE the Athenian statesman Eubulus established the municipal “Theoric Fund,” which provided theater tickets to the poor and built public works. Management of the fund became a mark of stature in Athenian society. (More Book Post in Epidaurus here)

[Read Part One of this post here!]
If recognizing the intangible element of infrastructure discloses something of its very nature, thinking about intangible infrastructure also reminds us that there is more to life than economic growth. Speaking to libraries about how to make use of March’s American Relief Plan funds, library advocate John Chrastka reminded them that, “There is a deep understanding on the part of Congress during the rescue plan if we don’t help people retool after a very disruptive economic time we won’t have a recovery,” that data shows that literacy “improves economic development, improves individual prosperity and family prosperity,” and that providing literacy services, basic adult education, adult secondary education, workforce preparation, education services to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, and English language learning is something libraries are singularly equipped to do. But they also provide “technology and collections that support people’s self-discovery”; he envisions libraries as a “node of personal well-being” and, repeatedly, a “clean, well-lighted [public] place.” “How do we put smart money to work in communities to build more thriving, interesting, and in particular prosperous places?” he asks. Lauren Berlant wrote of “the productivist ideology that collapses the citizen with the worker.” Even more damningly (if possible), Alff notes that the roads-and-bridges vision of infrastructure is “a fixed menu of building projects that support the carbon economy.” (Alff also reminds us that infrastructure can have destructive outcomes. He mentions the “settler-colonial transportation conduits” that “entailed an influx of pioneers, land cessation, and removal” for indigenous people, while “making life more convenient for white Americans” spreading across the continent. One also thinks of the Robert Moses-style development projects that are now faulted for isolating and dividing low-income and historically marginalized neighborhoods.)

Eric Klinenberg’s April opinion piece argued for the inclusion of libraries, parks, playgrounds, piers, post offices, swimming pools, sports fields, theaters, museums, gardens, forests, beaches, lodges, walkways, armories, courthouses, and county fairgrounds in infrastructure planning. “Our gathering places,” he said, “are overrun and dilapidated.” He recalled “how critical social infrastructure was to the success of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the last ‘once in a generation’ investment in America … [which] funded the construction or renovation of thousands of gathering places across the country, in suburbs and cities, rural areas and small towns.” He told The New Republic, “There’s a catalog of specific ideas for rebuilding America’s social infrastructure, and it looks like the Biden administration didn’t even open it.”

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John Chrastka observed that even President Obama’s 2009 Recovery Act made specific exemptions for zoos and swimming pools. Alff notes that the Roman version of opera publica, predecessor of our notion of “public works,” included not only “edifices such as aqueducts, sewers, highways, and public buildings (basilicae) that would satisfy even today’s most stringent definitions of infrastructure” but also “institutions such as temples, baths, theaters, and markets, as well as circuses, works of devotion, recreation, and commerce that represented a broader commitment to what Cicero called cura urbis (care of the city).”

Roosevelt’s New Deal, in that spirit, included landmark support for the arts and humanities. Alff recalls programs like the Slave Narrative Collection, which transcribed the remembrances of formerly enslaved people. He notes, “When Congress pulled funding from the Federal Theater Project,” which paid actors, directors, choreographers, and musicians to keep performing through the thirties, “even Roosevelt conceded that ‘the average voter does not yet appreciate the need of encouraging art, music, and literature.’” The pandemic year, even during the last administration, did see some support for the arts and artists, but this recognition does not seem to be extending to planning for future American priorities (see William Deresiewicz in the Atlantic on the pandemic’s impact on the arts and Publishers Weekly’s May survey of the impact on literary organizations and writers in New York City). The American Library Association is advocating for distinct legislation for library construction, but it is not part of the infrastructure and budget negotiations and does not seem to have a path to passage. Meanwhile, former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts David Kipen called during the height of the epidemic last May for a restoration of FDR’s Federal Writers’ Project. A year later Representatives Ted W. Lieu and Teresa Leger Fernandez have introduced just such a bill. We’ll see how that goes!

Our negotiating friends in Congress may say they are doing the best they can within a very constrained by political reality, but we can ask, if an emergency isn’t the time to commit to our social infrastructure, when is? If I were to imagine the infrastructure that would sustain a broad life of ideas—and more widely shared participation in them—I might include figuring out ways to support the vulnerable but structurally commercial institutions that are the lifeblood of our towns and neighborhoods, like independent bookstores and publishers and local news, radio, and performing arts venues; I might consider funding models for museums, opera houses, ballet companies, bands, and symphonies so these nourishments are not so dependent on philanthropy and can provide fulfilling, well-paying jobs for a broad cross section of people rather than exclusive internships for the children of the wealthy. That our lived infrastructure is embedded in these fragile commercial arrangements profoundly shapes the public square we inhabit.

Alff writes, “actual public works entail the weary struggle of sorting out who receives amenity and who foots the bill. Works have always been as contentious as the publics that conceive them, often finding the limit of collective will.” Infrastructure offers a window on some of our deepest ideological divisions: many scholars of infrastructure think it incompatible with private property; in conservative commentator Tim Carney’s book Alienated America the role played by libraries in Palaces for the People is played by religion. But at a practical level the question of infrastructure really raises questions of how prepared we are to come together around common goods, and how much we choose to remain walled-off in separate camps. We may be seeing I think the limit of how much we can depend on a society honeycombed into mutually antagonistic cells to provide us with a livable society and a climate in which a rich ecosystem of ideas can thrive.

Postscript: From Sunday’s New York Times: New York City relies on volunteers to provide wireless service to low-income neighborhoods, here.

More Book Post Notebooks on ideas infrastructure: How Europe supports the book business; How hardcover books are stealth philanthropy; How corporate consolidation limits the ideas ecology; The harms of Amazon. All of them really.

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