"Finding Rhythms in the Road":
How Mobilities Become Livelihoods on the Inter-American Highway;
How do roads enable nearby communities to earn livelihoods? How do transactions that take place within transit infrastructure produce rhythms that pace and give texture to social worlds? This project ethnographically tracks the material and storied life of the Inter-American Highway, specifically a 1,300 kilometer stretch that connects the Panama Canal to the construction site of the future Gran Canal of Nicaragua. On this busy route, the highway contains inconsistencies that generate a cascade of transactions that not only enable local entrepreneurs to earn livelihoods, but become meaningful spaces for everyday lives that emerge around the infrastructure.
While many inconsistencies exist, I analyze three that I have found through twelve months of field research to be some of the most influential for producing opportunities for exchange on the Inter-American Highway. First, the transnational highway contends with varying geopolitical sentiments as it crosses the geographical terrain of national borders. Second, the infrastructure project is in a perpetual state of material incompleteness as sections of the road wait to be renovated or fall into disrepair. Third, the highway is unable to fulfill expectations of nearby communities for free movement and physical and economic connectivity.
Each of these inconsistencies generates a primary set of transactions where an organization impedes the mobility of highway users in exchange for something else: national governments delay travel times at international customs checkpoints in exchange for security; road repair/construction companies restrict traffic flows at repair/renovation sites in exchange for more efficient mobility in the future; social groups use organized roadblocks to interfere with highway movement in exchange for socio-political demands. These “built mobility barriers” require that travelers adjust their pace of movement through extreme slowdowns, forced stoppages, and long periods of waiting.
The constant progression through these paces represent the mobility patterns that occur repetitively on this section of the highway; creating what Henri Lefebvre refers to as “social rhythms” (Lefebvre 2004). I refer to Lefebvre’s “rhythmanalysis”—as well as other social scientists (Brighenti 2010; Klaeger 2013) who are drawing upon Lefebvre’s important work— to demonstrate that the Inter-American Highway organizes the movements of everyday life, but my work will take this theory in a new direction. Specifically, I am applying the anthropological framework of reciprocity to “rhythmanalysis” to not only discuss how the Inter-American Highway is an agentive force whose materiality shapes how people move, but also how the social rhythms created by its inconsistencies generate crucial opportunities for a secondary set of transactions between local workers and travelers. My research will focus on these secondary transactions and the social worlds that develop around them. I argue that built mobility barriers are not spaces of infrastructural inconsistency, but ethnographically rich hubs of everyday life for surrounding communities. These areas require close examination to understand the lived experiences of transit infrastructures at the local level.
I will use ethnography to ascertain how local communities tap into the social rhythms that built mobility barriers create in order to generate livelihoods. The work that emerges in these spaces seeks to counter the effects of built mobilities barriers on highway movement. For example, mobile street vendors approach vehicles to sell food, drinks, and newspapers to passengers as they sit in traffic jams that road construction/renovation often create—resolving hunger, thirst, and boredom. Local entrepreneurs construct impromptu roadside markets around the organized roadblocks that temporarily shut down traffic flows—providing travelers with relief while they wait. Tramitadores (document runners) assist border crossers with bypassing lengthy customs processes at international border crossings—reducing long wait times and facilitating traffic flows. This complex system of transactions reflects what I will refer to as ‘road rhythms’ and are especially strong on this section of the Inter-American Highway where heavy flows of people and commodities move along this primary transnational route to and from the Panamanian owned Panama Canal. On this section of the Inter-American Highway, this study of ‘road rhythms’ provides a new perspective of infrastructural breakdown by asking: 1.) how do the material inconsistencies of the Inter-American Highway actually enable it to function and form the base for the social worlds that emerge around it? 2.) what are the material and aesthetic components that form highway users’ memories and perspectives of infrastructural development in this region? 3.) how do the things that circulate through built mobility barriers carry the imprint of diverse socio-political histories that define road users’ experiences with navigating the highway?
I have situated this project around the following basic question: Does the Inter-American Highway—and development projects at large—provide impedance free connectivity for its users? Contemporary development and transit infrastructure researchers have a well-established conversation explaining that these structures often do not function as planned (Ferguson 1990). Anthropologists, specifically, have been using this stream of dialogue to raise further questions about what it means for infrastructures to “work” and provide physical, political, and economic “connectivity”. They warn against singular definitions of these concepts and advise that infrastructural spaces can be “sites of passionate engagement holding the promise of transformative potential in ways that create an unlikely and unpredictable convergence of interest” (Harvey and Knox 2008:80). This is the reality of “connectivity” for social worlds in the vicinity of infrastructure—uncertain and varied, but transformative (Pedersen and Bunkenborg 2012).
Since the Pan-American Highway Congress first introduced the plans for an Inter-American Highway in 1923, proponents of the project, while varied, promoted the mega-project as having a planned, technical function of physical, economic, and political connectivity for the Western Hemisphere (U.S. Federal Highway Administration 1924; International Roads Federation 1960)—conjuring what Ricardo Salvatore refers to as a “transportation utopia” (Salvatore 2006:663). Local communities, however, have had mixed sentiments of what the transnational highway could achieve for them. The possible futures that infrastructural development could—and still may—bring to the region imbue the highway with agency as it retains and transmits the “generic social promise” of modernity, even though it may have failed to deliver it in the eyes of particular populations (Harvey 2012:523). The Inter-American Highway is a space with potentials where nearby communities not only feel the effects of political agendas of modernity, but also where they pursue a possible future that fulfills their varied hopes and expectations. The transactions that occur in and around built mobility barriers of the Inter-American Highway exemplify these potentials and relations. Through a close engagement with them, I will expand upon the academic dialogue of “connectivity”. I propose that the Inter-American Highway generates the opportunities where local communities can tap into the uncertain flows of the road in order to redefine “connectivity” in their own terms. Following Michel Serres’ writings on the parasite, I argue that “systems work because they do not work. Nonfunctioning remains essential for functioning” (1980:79). I draw from Serres’ work—as well as classic anthropological studies of negative reciprocity (Sahlins 1972)—to develop one of the primary research questions for this project: How do the material inconsistencies of the Inter-American Highway actually enable it to function and form the base for the social worlds that emerge around the Inter-American Highway?
I will also investigate how lived experiences with infrastructure are formed through users’ encounters with the aesthetic and material qualities of the highway and the things that circulate through it. I draw upon Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987) to ask how the constantly moving components of histories, rhetoric, and expectations imbue the Inter-American Highway with affective charges: non-discursive forces that produce emotional change. Social scientists have used affect to explain how roads, canals, railways, etc. inflect the ways that individuals and collectives imagine mobility and territory (Stewart 2014). Currently, anthropologists posit that mundane interactions between technical systems and their users—such as driving down the road, listening to street vendors, and completing customs paperwork—generate emotional connections that make infrastructural spaces integral in the everyday lives of the people that encounter them. Information that I have collected through research on the Inter-American Highway reveals that highway users construct many of their memories and perspectives of mobility around the familiar sights, sounds, and emotions of their encounters with built mobility barriers. Within anthropology, researchers discuss how socio-political histories contain sensorial dimensions that are bound within the aesthetic and material qualities of things that circulate through infrastructures; such as documents (Hull 2012) and buses (Müller-Schwarze 2009). They have used sensorial configurations to demonstrate that transit infrastructures are critical spaces where meaningful things happen for local communities; such as encountering, remembering, and reconciling political violence (Kernaghan 2012), adjusting to intensified regulations of national borders (Reeves 2014), and adapting to the geological aftermath of infrastructural development (Carse 2014). For this research project, I extend this conversation to the spaces of built mobility barriers on the Inter-American Highway and ask: what are the material and aesthetic components that form highway users’ memories and perspectives of infrastructural development in this region?
Roads have a played an important role within anthropology theory because they are locations from which local communities organize and share history in the form of social memory (Gluckman 1940; Masquelier 2002). What is more, they are “mnemonic and narrative tools through which people interpret transforming social worlds and their own historical predicaments within them” (Kernaghan 2012: 14). The road surface of the Inter-American Highway reflects intermeshed histories—Spanish Colonialism, United States Hemispheric hegemony, and indigeneity among others—and the contentious relationships that local communities have had with each; all of which have left their imprint on the geographical landscape. Furthermore, there are specific things that vendors and tramitadores exchange with highway users within the spaces of built mobility barriers: customs documentation, cell phone SIM cards, water, contraband, etc. Such items are the agents in conjuring the sensorial composition of spaces of exchange on the Inter-American Highway. It through these things that built mobility barriers become meaningful spaces for everyday lives that emerge around the infrastructure. While other studies of roadside exchange have attributed the vast arrangement of objects in circulation to randomness (Klaeger 2012), what I have observed along the Inter-American Highway is a purposeful collection of items that garner specific demand from highway users. Following the notion that systems of exchange structure social worlds (Mauss 1954; Levi-Strauss 1969), I draw upon the individual histories of the objects of exchange to demonstrate their deeply rooted role within the social fabric of the nearby communities. I will use ethnographic examination of the material components of the highway and the things that move through it to pursue the third primary research question: how do the things that circulate through built mobility barriers carry the imprint of a diverse socio-political histories that define road users’ experiences with navigating the highway?
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