Nations and Boundary Objects: Materializing Territory in the Chinese Rail System

Authors: Dylan Brady*, University of Oregon
Topics: Political Geography, Cultural Geography, China
Keywords: nation, nationalism, materiality, rail, infrastructure, China, STS,
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 1:20 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Galerie 3, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Lefebvre (2009) argues the state is always trying to produce an abstracted, homogenized space through which state and capital can move frictionlessly—and, almost as an afterthought, gives rise to national territory. Large-scale infrastructure such as railways and dams figure prominently in this process, but how do these vast structures make abstract space manifest at human scales? Taking the Chinese railway system as its object of inquiry, this research uses conceptual and methodological tools from science and technologies studies (STS) to trace the sociomaterial networks of people, signs and things which collectively constitute a homogenous space throughout the national territory. The affordances and tolerances of stations and carriages, the ticketing system in offices and online, the use of national ID cards, the prevalence of oral and written Chinese, etc. all contribute towards the production of a singularly Chinese “railspace.” Attending to how these sociomaterial mechanisms come together—and where they do not—allows us to be concrete about how abstraction is produced, to analyze the real fractures within apparent homogeneity. Railspace is thus a site where we can observe the genesis of a genuinely national culture in a pragmatic, everyday context. While the rail network is utilized as a symbol of and a canvas for Chinese nationalism, its role in the production of Chinese national territory goes beyond discourse. Addressing the nation from this concretely material vantage charts a new direction for political geographic research on territory, national identity and state-building.

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