Island Infrastructures II (The Devil’s Backbone)

Dreaming of Islands – whether in joy or in fear… – is dreaming of pulling away,
of being separate, far from any continent, of being lost and alone – or it is dreaming of starting from scratch,
recreating, beginning anew. _Gilles Deleuze

In my previous post on Island Infrastructures I suggested that infrastructures are a kind of destination, rather than simply enabling structures for the getting of something or someplace. We tend to think of transportation and communication infrastructures such as commuter highways, power lines or cellphone signals as allowing for movement and circulation towards a certain environment or future. That objective is a site of both arrival and escape, and is invariably always just out of reach or occluded by the very infrastructure that promises to make it accessible. The remote dessert island is lost as such once the infrastructure exists to get there. I want to suggest, however, that it is useful to consider how the fantasy of getting away is precisely the structure by which infrastructures stand as desert islands in and of themselves. Infrastructures are not the immutable pathways of daily life for which the desert island fantasy serves as a concession; rather, they are terminal things, destinations that are nonetheless beyond capture by our various ways of thinking and feeling.

El Espinazo Del Diablo or The Devil’s Backbone is one of the names given to a portion of highway between Durango in North West Mexico and Mazatlan on the Pacific coast. Negotiating a dense mountain range, it is a long and relatively dangerous path. From various vantage points along the route, however, an imposingly new but as yet empty highway can be seen cutting through the landscape with a linear confidence made possible by some 60 tunnels, incredibly vast bridges, and fifteen years of work. The twined highway will cut travel time between the two cities by more than five hours. It is no surprise then that the highway, which is due to open this year, is a key nation-building project replete with the promissory economic justifications that are habitually attached to such large-scale and expensive undertakings. Because the region of Sinaloa, where Mazatlan is located, is as well known for gruesome cartel violence as it is for its tourist-filled beaches, the discourse surrounding this project manifests itself in terms of the institutional economy of tourism, which is seen as an antidote to the illegal drug trade. As the Daily Mail put it recently, the new highway is designed “to bring legitimate commerce safely across the Sierra Madre in Mexico.” And again: “Treacherous 140-mile mountain road crossing the heart of Mexico’s marijuana fields into the U.S. is transformed into a safe trade route with completion of $2.2bn bridge and highway.” The newspaper quotes a local mayor describing the need to “keep people busy” and to increase “social mobility” such that “criminal groups are more limited.” What is absent from such accounts of the highway is an attempt to consider how drug-related violence is as much a product of the legitimate economy – national and international – as it is an alternative to it. One concern that is made explicit in these news stories is for the fate of the small villages that the new highway will bypass: what will become of the small towns when all the cars speed past? And what will the travellers themselves be missing?

When we drove the short stretch of the Devil’s Backbone from Mazatlan to Concordia and then to Copala we could stop on the side of the road and buy crates of warm mangos from the man who had picked them. It’s of course difficult to imagine this same informality on a major freeway. In the tiny ex-mining town of Copala, founded in the sixteenth century, we bought a to-order and very American feeling banana cream pie of local fame. We gave a handsome group of boys some pesos for handicrafts they carried in plastic grocery store bags. Not quite all of the memorable experiences of that day involved spending money. Set off of Copala’s small central square of mid-century ruination was a colonial church perched poetically over a craggy ravine. The church seemed desperate in its disrepair. In a suggestive gesture of (post)modern pathos, the various humble icons and pseudo-relics were clothed in a transparent film of plastic kitchen wrap, thus protecting them from the troops of small birds which had made their home in exposed rafters and along the edges of the ornate walls. The floors and pews where covered in faeces. It streamed down the frescos such that the figures wept. It was a beautiful and strange scene that both bolstered and rattled my sense of the place. The church, which marked the furthest point in our journey within a journey, registered very much as a place of isolation and alterity.

But as far as the noble day-tripper experience goes, it is perhaps truly the roads and highways that stand out as the remote object of our pilgrimage, and the church (the mangos, etc.) a concrete vantage point upon which to witness thousands more tourists with money in the their pockets making their way to Mazatlan via the hazy Sierra Mountains.

Christien Garcia

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