Materiality after Culture: New Approaches to State Formation in Modern Latin America

AHA Session 50
Conference on Latin American History 11
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Mark Healey, University of Connecticut at Storrs
Barbara Weinstein, New York University

Session Abstract

Just over twenty years ago Gilbert Joseph and Daniel Nugent’s Everyday Forms of State Formation (1994) marked the convergence between studies of the state and cultural history in Latin America. In the years that followed the number of studies on the culture of the state at various scales proliferated. Building on this rich scholarship, this panel seeks to rethink the primacy of culture by emphasizing the materiality of state formation in nineteenth and twentieth century South America. This is not a rejection of culture as analytical category; rather, it is a push to take materiality seriously as a fundamental piece of state formation.

While railroads, diseases, housing, and the bodies of laborers must all fit within cultural concepts to be interpreted by contemporaries and historians today, they are all also material forces that set boundaries for and put in motion human action. The soil composition pushes engineers to produce new designs for a railroad, and the environment of the Amazon works (or does not) with certain types of human agglomerations. Thinking with New Materialism and Actor-Network Theory, and using the tools of social, political, environmental, and spatial history, this panel interrogates the relationships between these material elements and processes of state formation. While the papers integrate some of the recent arguments on the possibility of an agency immanent to all objects, we are also weary of a hyper-agential work in which the term agency loses some of its meaning.

We do so through an emphasis on transnational phenomena and comparisons. Each paper examines state formation across states, while also suggesting the importance of scale to any discussion of the state. Whether the rubber tapper’s body or an international medical conference in Lima, different scales bring particular aspects of state formation into perspective.

Adrián Lerner’s paper explores the links between social and material engineering in the authoritarian state-building efforts of the Brazilian (1964-1985) and Peruvian (1968-1980) military dictatorships. Kyle Harvey’s paper examines the role of civil engineers and materials in the development of the Argentine state and transnational capital in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Joshua Savala’s paper uses the 1886-1888 cholera outbreak in Chile and maritime labor to look at two moments in maritime based state formation in Peru and Chile. Kathryn Lehman’s paper examines military-era rubber policies as state-building mechanisms in the Bolivia/Brazil border region.

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