Trickle and Flow: Chapters in the History and Culture of Water


Roth, Marty


Ph.D, University of Chicago

For what is water, children, which seeks to make all things level, which has no taste or color of its own, but a liquid form of Nothing?
Graham Swift, Waterland

I am writing to you from a far-off country.
Here I should explain this
business of waves. It is insanely
complicated, and the sea . . .
I beg you, trust me. Would I want
to mislead you? She, the sea, is
not only a word. She is not only a
fear. She exists, I swear it to you
Henri Michaux

In Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the narrator, a Professor Aronnax, asks the enigmatic Captain Nemo if he likes the sea. And he replies:

"Yes; I love it! The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides. The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the `Living Infinite,' as one of your poets has said . . . . The globe began with sea, so to speak; and who knows if it will not end with it?"

The easiest part of this project has been gathering statements about how wonderful water is--and the next easiest part, about how quickly and totally the world's water has turned toxic. This ethnography of water participates in both of those moments but also pays attention to what lies between them.

This is a book about water in as many of its declensions as I have been able to bring together, its life and its death (chapters 1 and 11), it's role in human life and human civilization (chapters 2 and 3), the place of the oceans in the scroll of history and water in warfare (chapters 5, 6 and 7), and the hold of water on the human imagination (chapter 10).

Steven Mentz has this to say about water's tantalizing centrality to human thought and experience:

"In the modern West, the ocean is everywhere and nowhere, at once the most meaningful and most overlooked feature of our cultural imagination. The sea is a physical object of almost inconceivable weight–the largest thing on the planet–and a vessel of inchoate symbolic meanings. The white noise of the surf represents the ultimate blank, a song beyond history and perhaps beyond meaning itself (2009a:2)."

Philip Ball reminds us that water is a profoundly strange and anomalous liquid, unlike any other: "Queer as it may seem, the Earth would have no oceans if water molecules, those invisible little trios of oxygen and hydrogen atoms, did not have the shape and properties that they do." Scientists who study liquids, Ball goes on to say, tend to shun water because it breaks all the rules; it certainly doesn't act according to the theory of liquids developed since the nineteenth century: when other liquids freeze they shrink and grow denser, but water does just the opposite–it expands (2002).

Conceptually unique as well, water dissolves many of the binaries we impose upon life and thought, as Terje Tvedt points out: both "nature and a social factor at the same time and in the same form . . . . its character and substance do not change by becoming socialized" (I:4). And, as Leonardo noted long ago it is inherently self-contradictory:

"Water is sometimes sharp and sometimes strong, sometimes acid and sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and sometimes thick or thin . . . sometimes health-giving, sometimes poisonous. It suffers change into as many natures as are the different places through which it passes. And as the mirror changes with the color of its subject, so it alters with the nature of the place, becoming noisome, laxative, astringent, sulfurous, salty, incarnadined, mournful, raging, angry, red, yellow, green, black, blue, greasy, fat or slim. Sometimes it starts a conflagration, sometimes it extinguishes one; is warm and is cold, carries away or sets down, hollows out or builds up, tears or establishes, fills or empties, raises itself or burrows down, speeds or is still (Witcombe)."

The title for the chapters on the body, civilization and warfare is the perfunctory "and water"–not the sarcastic diminutive that, for example, sees Washington Irving as Samuel Rogers and water, but, to invert the trope, the chemistry of dyeing that has one drop of Lady Macbeth's blood color the global ocean. There are chapters on water itself (its problematic nature, forms and distribution, the hydrologic system, the great division between fresh and salt, the global ocean, the poles, etc.); the management of water (delivery and sewage systems, pumping and damming, privatization, etc.); and two on the oceans–the first on the great binary between land and water, the various paradigm shifts that transformed the oceans from a terrible to a pleasant or awesome place and from a mysterious to a commodifiable one; the second on the oceanic turn in cultural and historical studies thresholded by Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic. A later chapter on the imaginary of water surveys how that substance agitates the archives of language and images--although imaginary activity haunts almost every move in the book. The chapters on water, the oceans and war cover the three perspectives that Philip Steinberg claims form the basis for most studies of human-marine interactions: the ocean as resource provider, the ocean as transport surface, and the ocean as battleground or "force-field"

Hydraulics, Aquaculture, Marine Life, Environmental History, Dams and irrigation, Water in Literature, Oceanography, Geo-politics, Riverine cultures, Cultural studies
Release Date: 
March 17th, 2015
Cloth: 978-1-936320-99-8
Trim Size: 

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