Wesleyan University

Surface and Subjectivity: Navigating the Pan American Highway in Panama 04/27/2015


The road that connects Panama City to the country’s eastern province highlights the connections between modernization and colonization: it is the centerpiece of projects of state expansion that enabled migrant peasants to settle the frontier and facilitated commerce in support of economic development. It is also part of the Pan American Highway, an effort to link the countries of North and South America by road, a dream of hemispheric modernity that is based on—and reproduces—social hierarchies forged through colonial encounters. This lecture considers the possibility of mobility without modernity (and just maybe without coloniality) by tracing people’s travels and engagements with this unfinished highway as it was partly constructed in the 1970s, abandoned, and then rehabilitated in the 2000s. It focuses on the highway’s lively, uneven surface in order to understand the unevenness of subjectivities caught up in relations of governance. While roads may organize landscapes by arranging heterogeneity according to modern logics, everyday mobilities enacted from positions of difference point to ways of being connected that do not conform to the categories and subjectivities put forth by the state. These highway movements work alongside projects of governance and development, interfering with them in ways that loosen the powerful association of roads and progress.

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