As a result of inaccessible or unreliable power grids, petrol generators are an essential part of the energy supply in Nigeria. Ethnographer Brian Larkin explores the consequences of these generators and their parasitical relationship to more formal infrastructures through the presence of noise and pollution, demonstrating how their ubiquity creates a type of ambient space.
Generators are everywhere in Nigeria. They are central to the operation of all economic activity, a fixture in homes, ever-present at bars, performances, and other leisure events; given as wedding presents, prayed for by churches, and distributed as gifts by aspiring politicians. Presently some 60 million portable generating sets colloquially known as “I-better-pass-my-neighbor,” are operating – that is more than one per household in a country of some 150 million people. Because of this, everyday urban and, often, rural life in Nigeria (and many other parts of the globe) is increasingly mediated by the apparatus of the generator.
Infrastructures refer to the technical networks that structure how it is we live in the world. They comprise part of the material substrate that organizes human life – where we walk and where we cannot, how fast we can move, which spaces are open to us and which are closed, and who our fellow streetwalkers, car drivers, or bus passengers may be. They operate at a macro-level, organizing nation-states and economic systems, but they also give rise to the intimate forms of life that comprise our daily reality. They generate ambient environments, forms of lived experience, within which we learn how to hear, smell, work, and relax in new ways.
Contemporary Nigeria represents the afterlife of modernist nationalism. Postcolonial Nigeria inherited from British colonialists the logic that the modern was represented in the form of networked infrastructures. The rise of the electric grid transformed individual households and businesses into a complete networked system that was seen to be the very definition of the modern. It was an exchange whereby in return for political fealty the state offered progress, largely through the provision of infrastructural systems: roads, railways, healthcare, sewers, and electricity. For ordinary Nigerians, it meant that every time a light switch was turned on, or a tap opened, what was enacted in that encounter was a relation between state and subject.
Now, however, electricity disappears for hours a day, sometimes days a week, even weeks in a month. It is into this space that generators emerged especially after Chinese generators flooded the market transforming what was a luxury commodity to an everyday necessity. Now generators are extended so far and so deeply into Nigerian society, that they are best understood as a shadow system that operates alongside the formal one. One way to think of them is through Michel Serres’ idea of the parasite – an entity that interrupts a system and diverts it for its own ends Technological systems produce disequilibrium and breakdown that are as much a part of a system as its functioning. Breakdown, however, is not simply failure but becomes a condition of existence for emergence Breakdown calls into being fixes, each failure creating the necessity for its own repair. Over time, the new system hardens, spreads, commands its own capital investment, demands its own restructuring of physical space and social life, so that it can work. It too comes to take on aspects of a networked system, only in a wholly different way. The new system is not independent of the first system but supplementary to it. Generators do not return Nigerians to a state of energy independence in the form that existed before the rise of networked grids. They come to life when the grid fails and thus are fully dependent upon it. Michel Serres argues that the parasite is an operator in information processing. It is the interruption to the system, but an interruption that depends upon the system in the first place. Generators are now so ubiquitous and so central to Nigerian society that they are a supplement in the Derridean sense of something external to the system that comes to shape the operation of the system itself. Electricity supply, urban planning, economic order, all predicated upon the presence and centrality of generators: “order,” Serres tells us, “sometimes only comes from an explosion of noise.
How can we understand this new form of order? Generators like all infrastructures, combine poesis, a bringing into presence with aesthesis the specific forms of life, ways of being, and horizon of affects that this presence generates A generator is a thing but a thing made up of other things: e.g. an engine, alternator, fire, smoke, oxygen, and magnets. Like an animal, it ingests and expels. Petrol is consumed, while electricity, vibration, sound, heat, and smoke are discharged.
Generators form part of what I term ambient infrastructures, the technologies that create the ambient environment within which we move and which organize our experience of the world. How dark or light is it? How warm or cold do we feel? Ambient infrastructures operate at the surface level of what Buck-Morss refers to as the termini of the outside of the body – skin, nose, eyes, and ear – rather than the mind inside Softness, hardness, the noise of a city, its brightness, these are sensorial experiences regulated by infrastructures. John Durham Peters argues that technologies like these are “our infrastructures of being, the habitats and materials through which we act and are.
The proliferation of generating sets over-codes the Nigerian urban environment, technologizing it, imposing its sound and smell on people. These machines create mini-ecologies around them, their own felt worlds, forcing people to develop practical techniques in order to live in the environments they create. If possible, the generators are stored outside to dissipate the heat they produce, but as this makes them vulnerable to theft, often they are stored together, making for better security, but intensifying the noise and the fumes.
Because of the fumes they expel and the vibrations they emit, homeowners with gardens place them as far away from windows and doors as possible. This then puts them as close to the windows and doors of their neighbors as can be, giving rise to the sense many have of almost being imprisoned by a sound and smell one cannot control. When the power from the electric grid disappears, generator sets can run all night long and the constant drone of generators is a backdrop to everyday life – often bitterly resented, but reluctantly tolerated as an unalterable part of urban life. Sound and fumes are promiscuous, however, disrespecting boundaries of property, traveling easily over space and into all areas, and mocking attempts to control them. For poorer residents living in the dense tenement blocks known as “I face you—you face me,” sound can become overwhelming. As residents are fearful of storing generators outside in case they are stolen, there have been some horrifying cases of asphyxiation involving the deaths of entire families poisoned by generator fumes.
The other side of this, and the reason generators are so popular, however, is the forms of work, sociability, and leisure they make possible. When the Nigerian government recently proposed a ban on the further import of portable generators there was backlash, particularly by the poor who saw this as an attack on their livelihoods. Generators not only allow markets and shops, offices and houses to run when the mains supply disappears, they extend power to places that never had it nor may ever get it. These are the slums and informal settlements, the unplanned part of mega-cities, which only exist because of the forms of life made possible by the generator.
Generators are the bottleneck through which major forms of postcolonial society must pass. They are part of the technologizing of city streets and neighborhoods, the reciprocal exchange between human and machine, which brings into being the comportment of daily living whereby people live with and within the ambient ecologies that generators produce. This is the technologized world, which orders our experience and sets limits on how we live in the world. Conceived of in this manner, what we refer to as “urban life” is a series of cultural techniques by which people learn to live in a world constituted by ambient infrastructures.