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Blackouts, Heat Waves and the Narrative of Perpetual Crisis in Iraq
Each summer since 2005, Iraq’s national electrical grid has failed Iraqis living in dense urban neighborhoods, forcing them to create “temporary” fixes to cope with record-breaking heat waves in the absence of reliable or sufficient electricity and clean water. While uninterrupted access to electricity is regarded as a ‘foundational apparatus’ of modernity, from Iraq we learn how the perpetual emergencies of climate change and infrastructural collapse together redefine the modern condition. When the American-led occupation of Iraq established a dysfunctional sectarian regime and effectively politicized the country’s energy sector, the country’s infrastructure became a symbol for the occupation and common targets for sabotage by insurgent and later Islamic State militias causing significant material damage and creating heightened risk for electrical workers. Despite the billions of dollars that have been invested in grid rehabilitation since the first days of the occupation, national electrical infrastructure still cannot meet demand by a significant margin. Presumed unreliability of grid infrastructure means that those who can afford it must pay for neighborhood level provision by diesel-powered communal generator operators while others resort to “stealing” energy or making do without an electrical supply. Centered on an analysis of a global news (AP) media archive covering Iraq’s annual heatwaves, this paper argues that attention to the everyday lives of urban residents coping with Iraq’s electricity crisis demonstrates how people navigate the convergence of accelerating climate change, infrastructural failure, economic instability and political dysfunction that characterize and compromise the transition to less carbon-intensive systems in Iraq, and elsewhere. To do this, the paper examines how the archive, as an accumulation of documentary footage and interview sound bites that reproduce an uncanny and singular media narrative and image of ‘Iraqis in crisis’ year after year, works to further exceptionalize Iraq as a site of perpetual crisis and obscures the interlocked histories of Iraqis struggling for environmental, political and social justice. The paper then re-situates and offers close readings from the media archive in light of the political legacies of war and occupation that have shaped Iraq’s landscape of energy infrastructure and the contours of urban life.
Media Arts
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