Accepted paper:

The Memory of Metals: Aging Railroad Infrastructure and Precarious Mobility in Buenos Aires


Stephanie McCallum (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Paper short abstract:

This paper offers an ethnographic exploration of how railroad workers, commuters, and train enthusiasts learn to "read" railroad infrastructure in Buenos Aires. It argues that railroad history is etched in the materials that comprise track infrastructure and rolling stock, shaping daily mobility.

Paper long abstract:

Rust is ubiquitous in railway landscapes in urban and suburban Buenos Aires, where fungal-like constellations of burnt orange, speckled greyish-white and ochre, wrap rails and discarded train carcasses, and even surface on new rolling stock. Rust corrodes the layers of paint aimed at modernizing trains, and spreads over signaling equipment and track infrastructure like a bad case of metallic eczema. Rust indexes the dynamism of metal (Barry 2010, 2013), and infrastructure more generally, pointing to the manner in which surfaces and structures shift over time. In the vein of recent scholarship in anthropology that addresses infrastructure not in its fully functioning capabilities but rather as it falls apart (Anand 2012, Chu 2014, Schwenkel 2015), this paper attends to how aging railway infrastructure registers and shapes daily mobility in Buenos Aires. Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork with railway workers, commuters, and train enthusiasts (ferroaficionados) in Buenos Aires, I argue that railway history is etched in the materials that comprise railway infrastructure, contributing to shape its form and particular affordances. Railway infrastructure, I propose, can be read as an archive of sorts, a repository of memory. Focusing on the materiality of railway infrastructure, rolling stock, and the traces etched on these, I attend to the histories of abrasion and friction and the sociomaterial engagements that shape the vicissitudes of mobility, resulting in particular geographies of neglect and risk. What stories does railroad infrastructure tell? What does ethnographic attention to railway matter open up theoretically? What can it contribute to studies of mobilities?

panel P108
Revisiting railroads: sociality, mobility and infrastructure