In Praise of Undisciplined Knowledge: The Epistemic Entanglements of the River

The third post in our series on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River, today brought to you by Dr Kiran Phull. Kiran is a Lecturer in International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research centres on the politics of global knowledge production and the rise of opinion polling. She takes a critical and interdisciplinary approach to the study of public opinion, focusing on the ways that epistemic technologies (polls, surveys, population data) create and shape the conditions for governing social and political life. Previously, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics, where she received her PhD in IR exploring the history of scientific inquiry into Middle Eastern publics and the emergence of local emancipatory methods practices. 

What does it mean to know a river? In its investigation of the taming of nature in the service of the modern international order, Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River reveals how international history is coursed by rivers. Yao’s meticulous weaving of institutional and imperial histories of the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo offers a view of global governance that is both novel and necessary. By underscoring the co-conspiratorial relationship between science and empire, we learn how the construction of the ideal river was sustained by imperial infrastructures acting in concert with western scientific knowledge and practices. In exploring the development and institutionalization of these complex European river commissions as the first international organizations, The Ideal River asks us to contend with the centrality of scientific knowledge in configuring modern hydrological power relations. With a focus on cartographic representations, investigative commissions, scientific measurements, and industrial techniques of control, Yao deftly traces the epistemic drive that propelled empire ever-further downstream.

A core tension explored in the book is the unsettled dualism between science and nature. Here, Yao shows how the disciplining of nature’s waterways was implicated in the architecting of a global standard of sovereign rule and political legitimacy from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the context of Europe’s colonial ambitions, to know the river was to tame and lay claim to it. This reductionist view of progress through conquest was rooted in a Baconian scientific understanding of the world that sanctioned domination over nature in the service of human development. The discursive moves that allowed for modern scientific techniques and practices “to ‘force’, ‘compel’, ‘shackle’, and ‘tame’ the river” in pursuit of civilizational superiority reshaped these waterways into conduits for political power. Through Yao’s careful study of the disciplining of the “disorderly” Rhine and civilizing of the “mighty” Danube, it becomes clear how the construction of “the ideal river” was anchored in forms of knowledge that drained the river of its agentic lifeforce.

But how can we know a river if a river is never one thing?

The hypnotic image of the meandering ancient courses of the Lower Mississippi River defies the civilizational ethos that seeks to claim, pacify, and control the river through history. Mapped and visualized by the American cartographer Harold Fisk (1944), it depicts the many lives of the Mississippi over the course of thousands of years; its changing banks, altered paths, and iterative engravings marked across the landscape. “If a map is a projection of the world”, writes Tori Bush, “Fisk acknowledged the totality of the river in time and space and the absurdity of man’s attempt to control it”. Fisk’s rendering shows the folly in claiming to know the river as a singular, essential thing. 

In a similar way, The Ideal River lays bare the absurdity of Europe’s efforts to civilize the Congo basin. Tracing colonial visions of the Congo as an empty cartographic space to be filled with European practices, institutions, commerce, and values, Yao simultaneously shows that it was the unknown Congo—i.e., what could not be mapped with western epistemic authority—that remained a source of fear for Europe. At the same time, the spurious assumptions that underpinned the construction of the colonial Congo constrained the possibilities for constructing what Yao sees as a more holistic understanding of the river.

For Yao, the holistic river acknowledges its inextricable natural and social entanglements, along with the indivisibility of the human and more-than-human. In this way, the ideal river becomes more than a geographic and political imaginary. We might think of it as a hydro-assemblage of human and nonhuman actants: water, colonial governance, energy, techniques of measurement, diplomatic meetings, cartographic innovations, vessels, rationality, commercial cargo, pollution, official treaties, dams, trade routes, floods and falls, engineers and explorers, kinetic force, myths and frontiers, bound together in a complex configuration of animate power. Their fluid dynamics compel us to think of the river as multiple and ever-changing. 

Reflecting on the changing nature of the river coursing through history, I was reminded of the river of my hometown. A particular viaduct that passes over the urban Don River in Toronto reads: “This river I step in is not the river I stand in”. This idea is attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 500 BCE), who tells us that everything in its essence is change, and that change is the only constant. The same river cannot be stepped in twice, for it is always organically in motion. Knowledge of the river is never guaranteed. The unfortunate story of the Don River, like so many others, is indeed one of change. 

Once home to the Indigenous Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Huron Wendat communities, the Wonscotanach was captured by British settlers in a colonial landgrab that saw the river and its dependents suffer the afflictions of settler modernity. Castigated by its industrial proprietors, the river was branded both defiant and unimpressive, lacking the power-generating capacities that would render it profitable, and thus useful. As the city grew, its river died. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, the river was repeatedly reimagined as a better one by way of reengineering plans to straighten, reroute, fill, bury, or otherwise change its nature. Indeed, it was believed that the river’s true potential could only be unlocked when “the right men appeared, possessed of the intelligence, the vigour and the wealth equal to the task of bettering nature by art on a considerable scale”. In return for its perceived disobedience, the river and its accompanying valley became a site of refuse; home to pollutants, vagrants, wartime labour camps, disease, prisoners, and social outcasts. In the 1960s, the river was eclipsed by the construction of an adjacent superhighway—an arterial stretch of asphalt, concrete, industrial lighting, and the incessant din of ultra-fast traffic skirting the edge of the Don. In this way, the highway became a better river—one that serviced the urban heartspace with more speed, efficiency, and power. 

Contemporary ambitions to re-vitalize and re-naturalize the ecology of the Don—to return to it the life that was taken—are again changing its shape and trajectory. But Heraclitus’ river motif bears revisiting: it is the pristine image of a river’s natural and organic flowing waters, securing everything in a state of change, that conceals the tireless pulse of human intervention driving and disturbing this flow. 

Can we know a river in new ways? There’s a kind of river termed a braided river, where currents course through channels layered upon channels, creating fluvial networks of entwined waterways that form and flow independently yet as one. This energetic weaving of streams and brooks takes shape instinctively over time, inscribing the earth’s surface with the best possible combination of vectors towards a lower elevation. En route, they split, stray, and merge in ever-shifting ways, creating impermanent islands of sediment, leaving behind an ephemeral plaited pattern. The metaphor of the braided river complements Yao’s vision of a world that one day embraces the multiple ontologies of the river. Untethered from “the spell of European Enlightenment thinking” and its associated values of scientific rationality and civilizational standards, multiple forms of knowledge might coexist, converge, and diverge with an awareness of the oneness of their collective motions. Amidst the looming ecological and governance challenges of the Anthropocene, this braiding of knowledge and experience becomes a crucial step toward any possibility of collective living. This calls to mind Robin Wall Kimmerer’s poignant Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), where the possibilities of deep reciprocity between indigenous ways of knowing and scientific knowledge raise hopes for a better world, one less intent on claiming to know the world objectively, and more on relational knowing in and with the world. In challenging the epistemic disciplining of the river in modernity, The Ideal River restores an untold history to the study of global governance and international organizations, opening space for a more relational and compassionate politics. Ultimately, Yao entreats us to dim the relentless beat of modern progress “that drives us to derangement”, and to instead listen for the latent polyrhythms, contingent histories, and kaleidoscopic changes that constitute a river in motion.


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