Hypothetical Geography: Constituting Limits on a New American Frontier

SMArchS Thesis: History, Theory, and Criticism, Spring 2015

Two hundred fifty-nine obelisk monuments mark the United States-Mexico boundary line west of the Rio Grande. Constructed in three distinct phases (1848-1857, 1891-1896, and 1964-1968) the monuments were the product of territorial negotiations; disputes settled ranging from the violent expansion of sovereign limits to the shifting course of a historic boundary river. Commissioned, inscribed, and placed by both the United States and Mexico, border monuments served as unique bilateral artifacts operating across and reflecting on separate territories and philosophies of nationhood.

Beyond symbol, such artifacts were fictions of federal accuracy presented as fact. The monuments served as evidence that a theoretical boundary line existed. Each held a hypothetical narrative of place and placing despite varied geographic realities, too often mired in instrumental imprecision, subjective viewpoints, and historic inaccuracies. In the case of the United States and Mexico, constitution of the two republics required a calibration of the real and representational. While this stitching was required for the solidification of nineteenth century nation states, it also calls into question the foundation of territorial division between the countries and provides insight on a region defined by the cyclical reassertion of international limits.

This thesis theoretically frames the production of border monuments and the modes of representation they motivated. It positions these artifacts as instrumental to the constitution of the United States-Mexico border, orchestrating the synthesis of national views and topographies. Perhaps most importantly, the monuments straddle a rich gap between the real and representational, the analysis of which reveals an evolution of the international boundary from single line to geopolitical territory.

Image: “Proof of the Line,” film frame. A compilation of photographs from the International Boundary Commission’s Views of the Monuments and Characteristic Scenes along the Boundary Between the United States and Mexico West of the Rio Grande, 1892-1895.