Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: The Political
Secondary Theme: Environment and Environmental Inequality
Water has recently reemerged at the center of several important anthropological discussions. One of the most well-defined literatures within the anthropology of water, new and old, assesses the substance’s relationship to political power, especially as it is wielded by the state. Classic work has theorized the control of water, largely through large-scale irrigation works, to effectively concentrate state authority and often to the increasing subjugation of citizens. Close attention to the novel materialities of water and the social-material-ecological assemblages that constitute water infrastructures, however, has productively begun unraveling many previous assumptions about state power as forged through water. Ongoing discussions within archaeology, for instance, have questioned the role of centrally controlled irrigation in early state formation in light of water’s contributions to sedentary human settlement as it falls (more democratically? more randomly?) as rain. Christine Folch (2013) has shown how a hydroelectric dam can be utilized in the production of despotic state power not on the basis of centralized control over water itself but rather as a thoroughly bureaucratized structure through which political dissidents can be tracked and contained. Nikhil Anand’s work (2017) has shown that the multiplicity of state bureaucracy, urban conglomeration, and the tricky materialities of water and infrastructure hardly make it possible for the state to fully control water, let alone people’s access to it. State power, as reflected in water distribution, is thus often much more flexible, tenuous, and conditional than classic theories of the “hydraulic society” would suggest.
Despite these recent and productive disruptions, discussions about power and water continue to be dominated by considerations of how the state controls, or attempts to control, the substance. Power, though, remains an important and timely theoretical frame by which we can better understand ecology, politics, and the possibilities for life in the Anthropocene – water crises abound and are often the under-recognized root of social and ecological instabilities in the world today. This panel thus seeks to step away from state-based theories of hydraulic power and control, which have polarized anthropological debate about water for decades, to take stock of the relationship of water to power elsewhere. We therefore present papers which respond to the broad purview of articulating what kinds of power are produced (pursued, sinewed, lost, etc.) by distinctly non-state entities through water and how.
Questions we consider include: How has the 21st century corporation forged itself (as an institution, as a set of interests and sensibilities) on the basis of water? In areas where regimes of state authority are weak, have receded, or even have overtly relinquished jurisdiction, how is water used or managed and to what political effects? What “off-the-grid” lifeways or worlds come into being upon relationships to water? If we were to step aside from focusing on water as it flows in customary channels of distribution to humanly ends – rivers, canals, pipes, taps, bottles, reservoirs – and consider its other, sometimes tricky material forms – as mist, ice, rain, groundwater, springs, waves, currents – what other politics might we find?