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  Water, Infrastructure, and the Americas Fall 2019 banner

Our conference addresses water infrastructure as what the scholar Bonnie Honig has called a “public thing,” as a matter of political struggle in multiple manners, modes, and media across the various political landscapes of the Americas. Water infrastructure engages vital questions of management, conservation, and access rights and entitlements. How, we ask, are water infrastructures contested in politics and represented in culture?

Our panelists address these question s from many angles: dam construction and its consequences; riparian rights; drinking water contamination; sea-level rise and global warming; literary representations of water, and more

This event is made possible by support from the Faculty in the Arts, Humanities and lettered Social Sciences (FAHSS) Fund, the English Department, the Hispanic Languages and Literature Department, the Latin American and Caribbean Center, and HISB.

To download a pdf of the event poster, click here.

Event Schedule


1:30 pm Welcome, Refreshments and Introduction

SESSION 1:   2:30 pm – 3:50 pm

Sarah Jo Townsend, Penn State University

“Opera and Infrastructure on the Amazon River”

Opera is often imagined as the epitome of excess and superfluity, particularly in Latin America where it is viewed as a European art with few connections to local realities. Yet the elegant opera houses erected in many of Brazil’s principal cities during the export boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were major construction projects. Building an opera house involved importing vast quantities of manufactured furnishings and European artists while also tapping into—and often establishing—more local sources of manual and handicraft labor. Contributing to this was opera’s status as a “total” art that integrated instrumental music, singing, dance, and complex stage machinery, which often incorporated new technological advances.
This presentation focuses on the Teatro Amazonas, an opera house inaugurated in Manaus at the height of the Amazonian rubber boom. For nearly two decades after its inauguration in 1896, this opulent edifice drew opera and theater companies from Europe (and less often the US and Japan) nearly one thousand miles up the Amazon River—a massive movement of people and things that contributed to integrating this waterway into international circuits of commodities and exchange. Drawing on recent theoretical work on infrastructure and urbanization, I focus on the construction of the Teatro Amazonas and its subsequent performance history to show how the theater helped mobilize new networks of labor, transportation, and finance. In doing so, the presentation suggests that the Teatro Amazonas can contribute to a more far-reaching reconceptualization of the role of culture as a catalyst of infrastructural expansion.

Johnny Lorenz, Montclair State University

“Nothing Was Happening: Infrastructure in the Work of Clarice Lispector”

This talk will give special attention to Lispector's The Besieged City (1948), a Brazilian novel I translated.  Chapter 6 offers rhetorical clues that something significant is about to occur ("What happened that afternoon..."); a few pages into this short chapter, the narrative voice asserts:  "nothing was happening though." What we find in this chapter is our protagonist, Lucrécia, doing the dishes and vacantly scanning the city's landscape, spying on deserted streets and exposed pipes. Nothing happens, and yet something (or "some thing") must be happening. This paradox is familiar to readers of Lispector's work: a scene that depicts the tedium of modernity but is almost unbearably intense. Lucrécia is working like a "small gear" within "the larger one," and she "no longer knew who was washing and what was being washed." Lispector's novel provides a provocative representation of an individual's interaction with urban infrastructure (in this case, waterworks) because something, something very powerful, in fact, is happening: water is traveling enormous distances to reach a young woman's sink. Is it her not-thinking about running water that allows her to commune more fully in the elaborate system of the city's waterworks? This chapter is an experiment in story-telling, for how does one fashion a story out of the banal, modern experience of turning on the tap? Lispector's representation of infrastructure works within her larger project of writing beyond personal feeling and subjective meaning; Lucrécia's dream is to become an object of the city.

SESSION 2:   4:00 pm – 5:20 pm

Charlotte Rogers, University of Virginia

“Crumbling Coasts: Infrastructure, Art, and Environment in Contemporary Puerto Rico”

Abstract TBA

Nicolas Mirzoeff, New York University

“Below the Water: Hierarchies of Life and Revolutionary Time.”

For the Indigenous gathered at Standing Rock to say “water is life” is old and sacred knowledge. It was put to new ends as they became water protectors, together with non-Indigenous supporters. The North Dakota State Police armed with sticks revived the oldest figure of settler colonialism in defense of its prime directive: “conquer nature, occupy land.” Under racial capitalism, “water is life” has become a revolutionary statement, a different perspective on what life actually is, not measured as a span but as a set of relations. It upends the hierarchy of life by which those designated as white are given the capacity to order and govern all other life by right of conquest. It measures time cosmologically with the (dangerous) supplement of revolutionary time. From below the water, there is a different perspective. The designation of the recent past as the Anthropocene seems to have exhausted one phase of activism that has reconfigured around the hard time limit of extinction. Extinction was always part of racial capital’s hierarchy of life. Migrant labor luxury hotel capitalism thinks no further forward than 25 years. What does it now mean to take the time to think about what it is to say “water is life,” whether from the water-borne forced migrations of the 20th and 21st centuries?





9:30 am   Coffee

SESSION 3:   10:00 am – 11:20 am

Mark Healey, University of Connecticut

“Undercurrents of Power: Groundwater, Development, and Ecological Collapse in the Argentine Wine Belt, 1950-1990.”

This paper examines the relationship between water, politics, and technology in western Argentina from 1960 to 1990, exploring how a modernization project driven by local winegrowers and powerfully shaped by the state first expanded and then unraveled a century-old model of irrigated agriculture.
  Since the 1880s, the backbone of growth in the arid lands of western Argentina was an expanding irrigation system fed by snowmelt from the Andes. Drawing water by an increasingly dense network of canals, landowners planted nearly 300,000 hectares of vineyards, making the region of Cuyo into the wine powerhouse of Latin America. But by 1960, nearly all surface water had been appropriated and the costs of regional dependence on wine were becoming clear.
Healey explores how an attempted techno-political fix for these problems led to early success, then deepening crisis, and finally an unravelling of the regional development model itself.  This account focuses on three moments. First, inexpensive new pumps and government credits aiming to promote alternatives to grape-growing produced the rapid spread of thousands of wells on newly irrigated lands. But this expansion took place just as the region suffered one of the deepest droughts on record (1968), leading to an overuse of underground water. Soon enough, the wells undermined maintenance on the canal system while encouraging an expansion of familiar production rather than novel crops, producing a crisis of grape overproduction.  Second, broader state efforts to measure and govern irrigation were implemented just as the grape market was peaking and water supplies were crashing, turning optimistic developmental initiatives into scattered and desperate attempts at rescue. Third, during the 1980s, as regional agricultural prices crashed, annual waterflows peaked, yielding overabundant water, a brief burst of overproduction, and then the final collapse of large areas of productive land due to salinization. Throughout the three moments, the failure to maintain infrastructure or to fully consider how to maintain productive land and water sources undermined the state’s long-term hydraulic mission and the regional agro-industrial model.

Karina Yager, Stony Brook University

“Who's watching the water tower? Shifting hydroscapes in the Andes.”

Abstract TBA

SESSION 4:   11:30 am – 12:50 pm

Betsy Damon, Artist

“Infrastructure for Living Waters”

Since life itself is impossible without water, I propose certain maxims about humankind’s relationship to water. Chief among these is that water must be the foundation of planning and design. I spell out the practical implementations of centering society around water, invoking previous projects such as the Living Water Garden in Chengdu, China, as well the Living Waters of Larimer, a project in Pittsburgh that demonstrates how green infrastructure can be artfully integrated into the urban spaces.

Michael Rubenstein, Stony Brook University

“‘Nothing Beyond Itself’: The End of Infrastructure”

Abstract TBA


Closing remarks


  Alberica Bazzoni is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Warwick and Visiting Fellow at the Alberto Institute at Seton Hall University. Her first monograph, Writing for Freedom: Body, Identity and Power in Goliarda Sapienza’s Narrative, won the “2015 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Women’s Studies”.She co-edited the volume Goliarda Sapienza in Context and is currently co-editing a volume on the notion of authority from a gender perspective entitled, Gender and Authority Across Disciplines, Space and Time, and on a project on the Italian literary canon entitled ‘The Gender of Literature’.
  Serena Bassi is Postdoctoral Associate at the Yale Translation Initiative at Yale University. She obtained her PhD in Italian Studies from the University of Warwick (2014). She was research fellow at the Warwick Institute for Advanced Studies and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Cardiff University. Her research focuses on contemporary Italian literature and cultural studies, translation theory, translation history, LGBTQ history and queer studies. Her first book, Mistranslating Minority: Queer World-Making in Italy after 1968, traces the travel from the United States into Italy of theories of “sexual identity politics” at the end of the social movement era.