Agency, Mobility, and Materiality in a Trans-Andean 19th Century

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:50 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Kyle E. Harvey, Cornell University
When Guillermo White presented his first annual report as director of the Argentine Engineering Department in 1875, he argued that railroad companies had been taking advantage of the Argentine state. Through faulty contracts with the government and inflated construction costs, these companies were benefiting from overcharging the state for public works. To explain this problem, White identified the absence of adequate record-keeping practices by the Engineering Department. If the state could standardize record-keeping practices, White argued, then it could improve engineering proposals and construction estimates, thereby ensuring better efficiency and quality in public works than had been the case up to that point. In the 1880s, White’s theory was put to the test when the Argentine state decided to administer the construction of a railroad in western Argentina, the Andino line.

            My paper argues that in attempting to standardize record-keeping practices during the Andino line’s construction, state engineers encountered defiance from the materials that engineers sought to capture in proposals, contracts, and progress reports. Such defiance was not merely the result of materials’ intrinsic properties. Rather, material defiance of record-keeping practices was the result of the different ways of relating materials. Divergent ways of relating materials came from many sources, from different temporal frames represented by planning, executing, and evaluating the project, to the tensions among different bureaucratic and engineering practices. Ultimately, I suggest that the materiality of the state reveals the fragmented and incoherent nature of liberal-state formation. At the same time, I gesture toward the ways that transnational capital took advantage of this disjointed process of state ‘building.’ When the Argentine state sold the line to a private firm, this firm re-sold it at a significant profit and used those profits to push forward the construction of a bi-national railroad between Chile and Argentina.