Fluvial Media: Longing for geos in Amazonia

“La Amazonía es aún tierra sin geografía y sin historia estables. Es un mundo de constante renovación, donde los ríos cambian todos los días de lecho, la inundación transforma incesantemente el perfil de las tierras y la huella del hombre desaparece ahogada por la maleza con más facilidad que mar borra las inscripciones de la arena…” (itálicas mías)

“The Amazon is still a land without a stable geography and history. It is a world of constant renovation, where rivers change their beds everyday, where flooding endlessly transforms the profile of lands and where the footprint of man disappears drowned by the bushes with greater ease than the sea which erases inscriptions in the sand…” (mis itálicas)

Porras Barrenechea, Raúl. Discurso de inauguración de la Exposición Amazónica en Lima, 1 de Junio de 1943

In June of 1942, Raúl Porras Barrenechea inaugurated with these words the Amazonian Exposition that the Peruvian state organized for commemorating the 400th anniversary of the imperial “discovery” of the Amazon river, in 1542. Barrenechea was an avid and militant historiographer and politician of the Peruvian Republic, -notably arguing that Peru, as a political entity, preexisted the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire-, and celebrated in his work the Amazon lowlands as a vital component of the soul of the Peruvian Republic. Contrary to this substantialist claim, however, Barrenechea also conveyed in his speech a mixture of irritation and awe with regards to the Amazon lowlands and their stubborn resistances to be appropriately known and governed by the Republic. In his words, Amazonia was still a land that lacked a stable geography and history. For the moment, let us focus on the geographical side of his concern. Taking it by itself, this phrasing reveals a curious and yet generative equivocation between technical forms of labor and their external objects of concern. At first sight, Barrenechea seems to refer to the absence of adequate technical institutions that could cope with the historical inscrutability of Amazonian landscapes. The phrase thus seems to point at the historical negligence of the Peruvian state in supporting scientific and technical institutions amenable to produce adequate geographic knowledge about Amazonia. The adverb still indexes here a Republican aspiration towards a desired and yet uncertain future where such technical practices could, indeed, exist in Amazonia.

Lower Tigre basin, 2018

Yet, the following sentences begin to blur any emphasis on Barrenechea’s technical aspirations in favor of an even more dramatic terrain: the possibility of an absence in Amazonia of an actual geos to be known and governed. As Philip Steinberg and Kimberley Peters have suggestively argued (2015: 247), it is not only that, as many writers have claimed, geography as a technical practice has been constituted across the world alongside modern imperial power formations (Akerman 2009; Burnett 2000; Edney 1997)but, more dramatically, that the practice of geography as a fundamental analytics and graphic regime of modern governance inherently incorporates a deeper ontological axiom at its core: the virtual fixity of the earth. For Barrenechea, as for many Peruvian and Peruvianist writers before him, the challenge posed by Amazonia is therefore not mainly the challenge posed by the sedimented lack of rigor or authoritative description in a localized practice of national geography. It is, rather, the impossibility of rendering an unstable space into a geos amenable to be fixed into graphic technical representations. Across the spectrum of various generations of geographers, historians and engineers writing about Amazonia over the last 150 years, the main source of this instability has been consistently the same: water. The Amazon basin, a vast territory traversed by an intractable and shifting network of streams and rivers of various sizes and shapes, contains at any single time around a fifth of the world’s total amount of fresh water (Roca Alcázar 2015). Originally emerging as a Mediterranean sea tens of thousands of years ago (Meggers 1996), today most of Amazonian lands are (relatively) drained, but continue to be hydrogeologically, climatologically and sociologically governed by the cycles and dynamics of water. In many of its subregions, hundreds of square kilometers of permanently and seasonally flooded rainforests extend in all directions, and yearly, river levels rise and descend an average of eight meters throughout the year, thus transforming the shapes of rainforests, the fragile boundaries of what is experienced as land and water, and the delineation of which areas can be navigable or walkable (and by whom and what.) In these dynamic geological processes, rivers continuously change their beds. Even the colossal ones. The city of Iquitos, the largest city in Peruvian Amazonia and the biggest in the world not connected to a highway system, suffered in the last decades the slow digress of the Amazon river away from the city (García & Bernex 1994), and most basins in the region are plagued by stories of water currents tragically eroding the ground beneath small towns, or rivers irretrievably abandoning the small ports built by villagers.

Given this shifting fluvial landscape, it is easy to see how even local forms of transportation in many parts of Peruvian Amazonia become, overwhelmingly, different modalities of fluvial navigation. The meandering courses and shifting liquid volumes of rivers are the material media that allow for the mobility of various kinds of bodies: the logger looking for valuable trees deep into the rainforest, the school teacher traveling from the city to work in a village, the cargo ships carrying fish and fruit across the region, the soil nutrients that wash and nurture the riverine shores. Thus, the human and nonhuman lives woven in various kinds of regional political economies and ecologies intermingle within the shifting hydrogeological dance of rivers and streams. Water, here, moves beyond being the molecular precondition for life in order to become a media for various kinds of political and ecological forms. But what kindof difference does water make for a geography of Amazonia? In a space within which the force of water becomes prevalent over the deemed solidity of the ground’s surface, it is not only that geography requires a greater sophistication in its analytic and graphic practice in order to succeed as a graphic representation. Rather, water amplifies the persisting phenomenological precariousness in many fundamental topographic and graphic conventions that lie at the core of geographic practice, such as boundary, surface, fixity and synopticity, and produces new existential dispositions at scales that move from the affects of the human body to the rhythms of extractive capitalism. In a word, water disturbs the geos that needs to emerge for the complicity between geography and modern imperial governance to take hold.

Rivers as surfaces. 1907. (Photo by author)

At this point, water in Amazonia disrupts the basis of what I would like to consider as a modern politics and poetics of the surface. Surfaces –their careful manufacture, maintenance and usage, as well as their inevitable breakdowns– are key terrains for unleashing the imaginative and pragmatic powers of modern modes of governance and capital accumulation. Surfaces are impossible artifacts created in the effort to render shifting volumetric realities into discrete bidimensional planes. They compel an experience of time and space marked by regularity, predictability, smoothness and acceleration that heavily contrasts with the rugged proclivities of the earth. For modern conceptions of property rights and territorial administration to operate in the world, surfaces are required in order to make possible an experience of the earth as a calculable plane defined by two discrete and fixed dimensions. Thus, at the same time that John Locke and other 17thand 18thcentury writers were setting the theoretical foundations for the privatization and discreteness of modern property rights, the earth itself became in need of being transformed in order to behave as political theory would command. Marshes, the quintessential confusion between water and land, were drained (Ash 2017), whereas the capriciousness of many rivers such as the Mississippi or the Seine was gradually controlled via canalization and dredging. The rise of modern technologies of governance and capital accumulation is therefore also the slow rise, in many parts of the world, of an artefactual geosamenable to modern forms of liberal productivity. The affects of surfaces were also intensified via the increasing construction of modern communication infrastructures, including highways, railways and roads, starting on the early 19thcentury (Guldi 2012). Thus, the material standardization and regular maintenance of railways and roads allowed not only for the deployment of large-scale investments schemes that were key to the rise of corporate forms of capital accumulation, but also for the cultivation of social affects of and bodily dispositions towards smoothness, regularity, homogeneity and predictability. As Rudolf Mrazek has compellingly argued for the case of Indonesia, the experienceof smoothness and velocity incarnated in railway and automobile trips metaphorized the main national dictums of modernity (2002). Conversely, such affects of smoothness and uninterrupted velocity coalesced against contrasting figures of backwardness and ruggedness, such as the dirty feet of the peasant crossing the road. Surfaces, therefore, are political technologies, but they are also political to the extent that they are forms of imagination, experience and affect that crystalize into specific poetics of modernity.

Given these transformative powers, surfaces can be taken to be mediatic forms that transfigure and articulate specific existential dispositions. For one, our post-Kantian conceptions of space as an infinite intuition of the mind (Casey 1997) presupposes a world that can be experienced asif it was an uninterrupted mathematical abstraction. This is also true of time. If Benedict Anderson premised the rise of modern nationalism on the collective experience brought about by the empty-homogenous time of print capitalism (2006), it can be said that the possibility of such experience is intimately imbricated with the construction of surfaces. In countries such as the United States, the regular national dissemination of newspapers, books and letters -curious bundles of paper surfaces themselves– was accelerated via the rapid expansion of the railroad system and its conflation with the telegraph and the mailing service (Chandler & Cortada 2000:68). The idea of universal time itself, as the regular and homogenous succession of hours, minutes and seconds which we now experience as a self-evident transcendental fact, is an historical side effect following the coordinating requirements of large-scale railway infrastructures (Edwards 2010). With surfaces, time becomes a registerable and calculable series, and Barrenechea’s anxieties regarding the loss of men’s footprints amidst the bushes of Amazonia loses all meaning.

The nexus between surfaces and modern dreams of productivity brings a new light to Barrenechea’s inclusion of the adverb still in his speech. If the force of water precludes the emergence of a proper geos in Amazonia, this is because the labor of water through rivers and rains produces a space marked by change, ruggedness, directionality, depth and confusion. Historically, surfaces such as railways and highways have been persistently imagined by politicians and engineers as ways to overcome the effects of this fluvial space and, in some places and times, they have, indeed, succeeded. Yet, in most extensions of Peruvian Amazonia the brutality of water in the form of vast marshes, intense rains and stubborn rivers continuously keeps the mediatic effects of concrete, iron and steel at bay. Barrenechea’s inclusion of stillpoints us in this interpretation to an enduring mediatic Republican frustration. Water in Amazonia continues to forbid (us) the articulation of times and spaces that the geographies of capital and governance would demand.

In this precise sense, surfaces can be said to exist in Amazonia, but mostly as phantasmatic entities impressed in media forms such as the bureaucratic documents, topographic maps, technical notebooks and other geo-graphics. Such phantasmatic ontology, which has undergirded the anxieties of generations of intellectuals and politicians such as Barrenechea, could easily lead us to define Amazonian geographies in the negative: the lack of clear boundaries between land and water, the nonfixity of the ground, the absence of regularity. Yet, a mediatic theory of rivers and rains allow us to experience water not as an interruption to the times and spaces of conventional geography, but as a specific kind of media generative of its own existential dispositions. John Durham Peters has been an intellectual pioneer in seeking to articulate a theoretical understanding of elementary forms such as water, air and fire as media. In TheMarvelousClouds, he invites readers to conceive of media not only in its artefactual technological sense, but as a general property of what it means to exist, in his words, “in the ablative case: ‘by means of which’” (2015:21). Just as clocks, railways or stock tickers mediate the affectual, cognitive and phenomenological apparition of chronological time, calculable space or objective price, rivers and rains mediate specific articulations of space, time and bodily affect that do not preexist the labor of water. Imagine two riverine villages located side by side in two parallel rivers flowing into the same basin. Even if these villages could constitute, in Euclidean space, two points just a few kilometers apart, they might in fact be separated by vast stretches of riverine pathways that demand exhaustingly long detours. Furthermore, distance in such a case would also be a function of the directionality of the river, that is, on whether one would need to surcar (sail upstream) or bajar (sail downstream) the river course. The yearly change in water levels would also impose volumetric considerations to such a voyage. Which size of boat and which kind of motor can go through this or that course? Contrary to the regularity of surfaces, rivers as volumes of water need to be thought of in terms of their depth, that is, of that which lies beneath what is visible. In such a space, bodies, human or otherwise, grow to develop affects that allow them to cope with water forms. Naturalists and explorers of various generations have left us with texts infused with their senses of awe and curiosity in the face of Amazonian peoples’ intimacies with water. Antonio Raimondi or Enrique Brünning, for instance, have poetically described the affects of rhythm, agility and equilibrium that are cultivated in the daily encounter between Amazonians and rivers. Thus, human and nonhuman bodies in Amazonia grow to take rivers and rains as their fundamental media of existence.

Finally, and fundamentally, the geological cultivation of such affects through water establishes a different ethical and epistemic relation with hesitation and doubt. In contrast to the affects of certainty and predictability grown from the synopticity and calculable geometry of surfaces, the confusions and transformations introduced by the temporal and spatial rhythms of water generate a looser nexus between certainty and everyday praxis. Thus, if doubt and hesitation are dimensions of knowledge that are endlessly suppressed and repressed by modern regimes of technical governance in  for discrete boundaries, smooth surfaces, and synoptic views – then water amplifies these forms of uncertainty and compels dispositions of spontaneity, speculation and risk. Will there be enough water in this or that stream to travel into the headwaters? Will it rain enough to move these logs through that dry stream? Will we be able to walk through that low stretch of land or will it be flooded? Once our sought-for geos is disturbed by water, the question therefore becomes, what do our modern certainty-looking selves can do in the face of doubt? Here I am not referring, clearly, to the doubt infused with the teleological hope that, eventually, we will arrive at full certainty (a premise that would follow from our first interpretation of Barrenechea’s words), but to the one that is immanently defined by conditions of confusion, mixture and unpredictability. To the one that cannot but keep uncertainty alive.

A question such as this is a reminder that more than interpretive certainty and conclusive thought, it is doubt and hesitation what makes us be alive, what unites us to a world generative of flow, transformation and creativity. In a subsequent text, I will seek to relate this point to contemporary debates on abductive reasoning, affect theory and more-than-human semiotics.

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