"Roads and Walls: Concrete Histories" Conference Rationale

Roads structure both licit and illicit traffic. Roads are the arteries of empire—and flat, open places for ball games. Roads destroy forests, and they guide personal quests. Roads bring us to the crossroads of science and desire; they offer us vantage points to see the rise and fall of kingdoms, colonies, nations, and empires. Roads run into walls. Walls mark the borders of territories; they guard the privacy of property and women’s purity; they make safe and secure spaces. Walls cordon off disciplines and diseases; their barriers are essential to human biology and academic analysis. Roads and walls both offer the charisma of powerful objects—but, more than other objects, they take us into the heart of questions that matter in social and cultural theory today. They are both concrete and abstract designs for power, and for everyday life. They show us where geopolitics and family values are mutually formed. They confront us with the intertwined intimacies of industrial and vernacular design.

Using the ability of roads and walls to speak to questions that matter, we propose a graduate student conference on the social histories of roads and walls. We are looking for papers in which concrete histories of particular roads and walls open abstract questions of power and knowledge. We seek papers from every disciplinary and subdisciplinary perspective; however, the papers should address a core audience of anthropologists. The conference will consider how histories of these strategic objects can enrich social and cultural theory—and our knowledge of the world.

If social theory in the 1990s was dominated by questions of global integration, the new century has opened to questions of geopolitical hegemony and difference. One advantage of these new questions is that they take us back to ancient empires and their hinterlands as well as to emerging models of the future; they require our attention to religion, hierarchy, and embedded custom, as well as market flows. Social histories of roads and walls offer an exemplary model of the new scholarship that we believe is needed. Alert to both the past and the present, both difference and interconnection, and both the abstract and the concrete, roads and walls show us how the architecture of social life forms and reforms us.

We seek provocative, insightful and historically and materially grounded papers that take up these questions for a one-day, intimate symposium at the Department of Anthropology, UC Santa Cruz. Senior scholars from across the nation and across the disciplines will comment upon the papers and convene discussions.