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In urban studies, the broader social sciences, and science and technology studies, the human dimensions of water have been at the forefront of a move to break down the divide between nature and society. In particular, the interdisciplinary subfield of urban political ecology has emerged as an influential wave of scholarship seeking to incorporate the social production of nature into theorizations of geographical political economy, with many of its most important studies focusing on the provision of, and access to, water (Matthew Gandy, Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003; Maria Kaika, City of Flows: Modernity, Nature and the City, New York: Routledge, 2005; Andrew Karvonen, Politics of Urban Runoff: Nature, Technology, and the Sustainable City, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011). Considering contemporary threats surrounding climate change, as well as water scarcity and privatization, it is little surprise that water has dominated discussions surrounding the past and future of human-environment relations. Two key figures in urban political ecology have been Erik Swyngedouw and Matthew Gandy, who both use water as a heuristic device to explore power and flows that are not only thermodynamic but economic, political, social, and cultural. As Gandy explains in The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination, “The very fluidity of water as both a biophysical and a symbolic agency serves to disrupt and challenge simplistic understandings of how complex urban societies function, and the degree to which social and spatial order can ever be achieved under the contradictory dynamics of capitalist urbanization” (54). Both authors meld environmental history and historical-geographical materialism with concerns for cultural representation in exploring the role of water in modernity and the urban imagination.
Of the two texts here under review, Gandy’s interest in The Fabric of Space falls more squarely on culture, visuality, and the symbolic through examining the landscapes and infrastructures of water. In an exploration of six cities—Paris, Berlin, Lagos, Mumbai, Los Angeles, and London—he excavates the relationships between water, modernity, and urbanity. After a substantial and instructive introduction in which Gandy outlines his concerns with landscape and modernity, infrastructure and visibility, urban metabolisms and techno-managerial rationalities, he begins with the “capital of modernity,” nineteenth-century Paris. He traces how the rationalization and reorganization of subterranean Paris under Napoleon III and Georges-Eugène Haussmann went well beyond the modernization of drainage and sanitation: as he argues, this episode illustrated how ideas of progress and scientific rationality were deeply intertwined with cultural and political transformations that were occurring above-ground. In this process, the subterranean photographs of Nadar—more known for his aerial photographs of Paris taken from a hot air balloon—played an essential role in stimulating the public imagination of the world of sewers and catacombs. In his exploration of Weimar-era Berlin, Gandy considers the protection of public access to the city’s lakes for swimming along with societal transformations through which access to urban nature became an imperative for urban planning and design, revealing underexplored connections between bathing, public culture, and the creation of “semi-natural” landscapes that moved beyond pure function or ornament to a new hybrid form. In this example, Gandy draws upon cinematic representations of everyday life in the 1930 silent film Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) to elucidate the concomitant protection and erasure of “wild nature” and transformations in public culture in 1920s Berlin.
Gandy then transitions to more epidemiological and biopolitical concerns of water and urban nature by exploring malaria in Lagos, beginning with racialized understandings of the disease under British colonialism used to justify residential segregation and massive swamp-drainage projects in the 1940s. Impressive in its scale, this study investigates policy and governmentality in Lagos, but situates its analysis largely at the scale of the human body and domestic spaces via the intricate and complicated relationship between the bacteria, mosquitos, and human bodies that carry malaria. Gandy shifts to another example of modernity in the Global South, that of water and socio-spatial fragmentation in the nearly two centuries of urbanization in Mumbai. Noting that despite a history of ambitious civil engineering and urban planning hydrological modernity has never been achieved, Gandy demonstrates how the provision of infrastructure and access to water extended unevenly through the city. As he notes, some of the most symbolic landscapes of contemporary inequalities of access to water may be seen in slums built up against giant concrete water pipes that are reappropriated as elevated walkways. These same pipes that dominate many “slums” bypass provision from these settlements themselves, and the interstitial spaces created by these networked infrastructures often become the sites of the greatest social dislocation within the city. The supply-oriented engineering ethos that has dominated Mumbai since Victorian colonialism are deeply inscribed in the landscapes of the contemporary city shaped in the image of middle-class and wealthy residents.
Gandy then shifts focus from the water infrastructure of Mumbai to the Los Angeles River, the fifty-one-mile concrete channel cutting through the metropolis of the same name. Visually screened from much of the city, this often dry channel becomes inundated during the city’s occasional rainfall, a techno-managerial solution for a city vacillating between having too much and not enough water, and a “powerful symbol for the incongruity of Los Angeles, the disconnection between river and city serving as a metaphor for other fractures and divisions” (147). Gandy returns the Los Angeles River to the foreground of the cultural landscape of the city when, for decades, the image of the river had all but been erased from public consciousness. The erratic floodplain of the river became increasingly problematized after the 1913 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, making the city independent of its river for water provision. After a series of dangerous floods, the river was channelized, much of it as a project of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, but taking over twenty years to complete. The end result was a flood-control system so engineered that to call it a “river” became questionable and fell out of use for decades. Though the history of the Los Angeles River is fascinating, Gandy’s treatment of the concealed cultural and visual landscapes of the river is masterful, clearly demonstrating his dérive-like approach to researching untamed urban zones with rich textual and photographic description and linking these investigations with a literary and art-historical approach to this infrastructural territory.
As in his other work, Gandy focuses on the shifting relations between nature and culture in the public imagination, and in particular, the fascination with “wild” urban nature. The last case study in The Fabric of Space looks at imagined futures of a post-catastrophic London, inundated by rising sea levels. Gandy notes the frequency with which London has been the site of imagined scenarios of future apocalypse, imminent collapse, and nature retaking the city. In this piece, bookending his exploration of Parisian modernity and subterranean engineering, he situates the contemporary imagination of ecological collapse with longstanding anxiety that the city was at the edge of inundation. Through examples of engineering and ecological restoration initiatives to mitigate the risks of rising flood levels, along with illustrating the widespread and longstanding cultural anxiety about the fragility of the city, Gandy pulls together the technocratic concerns of modernization with the cultural ambivalence of urban modernity. He sums up his considerable contribution to the urban political ecology of water in the book’s epilogue: “Water remains vital and elusive; in its oscillation between different cultural and material realms, it underpins both the limits and the possibilities of modernity” (224).
Like Gandy’s book, Swyngedouw’s Liquid Power: Contested Hydro-Modernities of Twentieth-Century Spain is a compendium of, and update to, more than a decade’s worth of research. In this case, Swyngedouw draws upon his considerable work on geographical political economy, the political ecology of water resources, and a recent expansion from the politics of nature to the nature of the political. Like The Fabric of Space, Liquid Power excavates the ways that water is implicated in the creative destruction of modernization and development. However, though Swyngedouw is associated with urban political ecology, the study of hydraulic metabolism does not lend itself to focusing on the scale of cities or regions. This is itself a reflection of the author’s longstanding interest in the politics of scale. In Liquid Power, Swyngedouw focuses on the nation-state, examining the role of hydraulic engineering and hydro-politics in the modernization and nation-building of Spain. In this painstaking and turbulent process of modernization—in some ways continuing to the present—the distribution of the provision of water became central to the creation of the modern nation-state. With that said, it would be overly simplistic to suggest that the focus of the book is on water or Spain; rather, it is an intervention into scholarship on the mutually constituted and dynamic relationships between nature, power, and social relations. In this sense, Liquid Power can be considered a piece of environmental-history scholarship and a work of political ecology.
As a prominent theorist within the world of geography, urban studies, and political ecology, Swyngedouw points out that Liquid Power is “not a theoretical book” (14), positioning much of the theoretical framework in chapter 2 and suggesting that this might be bypassed by the less theoretically inclined reader. Operating at the scale of the nation-state as a whole—in some senses sidestepping the limitations of urban political ecology for something potentially richer—this work offers a fascinating excavation of technological modernization and its role in nation-building. Swyngedouw offers a periodization that commences in a three-decade period following El Desastre of 1898: the year when Spain lost both the Philippines and Cuba as colonies. This serves as a fascinating case study: as Spain became the first European power to lose its grips on its colonial territories, the state had to look inward to seek opportunities for economic expansion—to establish an internal frontier. Central to this transition was inward geographical expansion: “A new scalar gestalt imposed itself, articulated around a new vision and a new practice, centered on the internal geographical condition and the remaking of the natural environment” (41). The imperative to produce geographical configurations to compete with Spain’s expansionist northern neighbors precipitated a national debate about the socio-physical reconfiguration of the nation: this gestalt instigated new forms of engineering and governance and transformed national identity, aesthetic ideals, and a hegemonic ideology of development through the mastery of an unforgiving landscape. As many authors of the time commented, nature seemed to taunt Spaniards with vastly varying amounts of available water for agriculture: God had made a mistake that humans would have to fix. In Spain, as Swyngedouw demonstrates, modernity was a geographical project in which the mastery and modification of “natural” water systems became paramount.
This became even more evident under the near-half-century (1939–75) regime of General Francisco Franco, who Swyngedouw playfully describes as having a “wet dream” for Spain. By this point, there was an elite consensus—or at least acquiescence—that Spain’s modernization was predicated on the control and management of its water resources. Franco was represented so frequently in newsreels inaugurating new dams and hydroelectric plants that he was nicknamed Paco El Rana—Frankie the Frog. Like Kaika’s work in Greece and David Nye’s in the United States (American Technological Sublime, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), Swyngedouw explores the centrality of sublime symbolism in hydraulic modernization schemes. Franco sought nothing less than the complete reengineering of the entire hydraulic landscape of the country, to the point that not a drop of water would reach the Atlantic or Mediterranean without having flowed through “a sociotechnically engineered hydro-social process” (100) in the form of pumping stations, dams, canals, irrigation networks, and other infrastructures. This served not only to demonstrate the country’s independent march toward progress, but also signified Franco’s desire to suppress regionalist and autonomist aspirations in the name of nationalist homogenization.
Later in the text, Swyngedouw demonstrates the extent to which Spain still wrestles with the control of water as a “hydro-social” and “hydro-scalar fix” through contemporary cases, the first of which is the emergence of desalination plants, where water from the Mediterranean is transformed to fresh water at great economic and ecological expense. He then explores how contemporary debates about the redistribution of water from water-rich to water-poor regions of the country have reignited latent regional rivalries and secessionist demands that remain mainstays of Spanish national politics. If Swyngedouw’s complex argument could be distilled into something easily digestible, it would be that water and its provision, like any other environmental question, is deeply political. This thesis is made quite forcefully in the fascinating case study of Spain, an exemplary spatial history that has largely eluded Anglophone scholars of socio-nature.
Two key themes are central to both Gandy’s and Swyngedouw’s understanding of socio-natural, bio-political, and political-economic assemblages: modernity and the social imagination/imaginary. Both of these terms intersect with—or dwell within—the realms of culture and symbolism as much as political economy, and both authors comprehensively link political-economic and socio-ecological shifts to their cultural representations and the persistent grand narrative of progress underpinning the modernist drive. However, modernity (or modernities) and modernization are terms that have been exhaustively covered, within and beyond geography, by the now-stale “cultural turn” in geography and the “spatial turn” in the social sciences and humanities. At the same time, the term “imaginary” is a more curious one, and a nebulous concept that increasingly appears in urban and environmental theory. Considering that the imaginary (in the case of Swyngedouw) and imagination (in the case of Gandy) are so central to both authors’ conceptualization of socio-ecological change, it is curious that neither seeks to define this concept thoroughly. Swyngedouw’s first endnote, referenced on the first page, defines imaginaries as “the combination of particular imaginations, dreams, fantasies, and images” (231). Beyond that, he quickly refers to the work of Kaika, drawing on Cornelius Castoriadis (The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), emphasizing the “importance of the imaginary in shaping the performative powers of a politics that envisages a transformation of socio-spatial configurations” (15). Likewise, Gandy, who instead mobilizes the term “imagination,” takes up little of his introduction addressing the concept, despite it being incorporated into the title of the book itself.
Both The Fabric of Space and Liquid Power are to be applauded for expanding the scope and depth of contemporary research into the society-nature nexus, political ecology, and environmental history. Nevertheless, the treatment of the concept of the “imaginary” in geographical and urban studies scholarship continues to remain somewhat under-theorized. While the term’s flexibility is one its greatest assets (and is one that I use myself), if it is to retain its analytical heft—and its proliferation suggests that it forms part of the contemporary zeitgeist (or imaginary?)—it needs to be more fully parsed and interrogated. While consensus should not be the goal, the lack of collective conceptualization and debate could find “the imaginary” as an empty signifier.
Assistant Professor of Urban Studies (Queens College) and Earth and Environmental Sciences (The Graduate Center), City University of New York