Building Empire: Infrastructure, Materiality, and Mobility in the Age of Globalization

AHA Session 56
Friday, January 4, 2019: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Wilson Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Jenifer Van Vleck, Smithsonian Institution
The Audience

Session Abstract

What is empire, and how does it work? In recent decades, scholars inspired by the cultural turn and postcolonial theory have understood empire through the discursive interactions between colony and metropole. They have focused on identity, ideology, and epistemology. But empire is not only discourse, it has a physical dimension as well. The scholars on this panel argue for the importance of materiality—from bituminous road surfaces to aluminum cooking pots—in understanding empire, in its various forms, in the twentieth century.

The material culture that this panel highlights has to do particularly with infrastructure. Empire is not just a system of meanings but a configuration of the world, a mode of connecting distant places to each other, whether by ports and roads or by a shared material culture. Andrew Denning’s paper considers the tacit politics of road-building in Italy’s African empire. Daniel Immerwahr examines international screw thread standards and their role in sustaining the global hegemony of the United States. Emily Lynn Osborn considers how the material culture of scrap aluminum, strewn about the planet by the global military infrastructure of in World War II, developed in subsequent decades in West Africa. Patrick Chung considers how U.S. military logistics in the Vietnam War contributed to the growth of the South Korean economy.

By highlighting the infrastructure of empire, this panel explores the modes and politics of long-distance connections. We examine how infrastructures and goods remapped global space through the creation of newly mobilized spaces, producing a containerized Pacific, a motorized Italian Mediterranean, an industrialized West African artisanal sector, and a deterritorialized empire of screws. In the process, infrastructures and material goods created new nodes of power and curtailed the influence of old ones. In short, this panel shows how the politics, culture, social relations, and economics of empire and globalization intertwine in the circulation of the invisible things of everyday life.

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