Unmaking Property: The River as Amniotechnics

Day four in the Disorder symposium on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River, where we are joined by Dr Ida Danewid, who has visited with us before.

Ida is Lecturer in Gender and Global Political Economy at the University of Sussex. Her first monograph, Resisting Racial Capitalism: An Antipolitical Theory of Refusal, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. Ida’s research interests are in anticolonial political thought, Marxism, and intellectual history. Her work has previously appeared in Third World Quarterly, Millennium, European Journal of International Relations, International Political Sociology, Security Dialogue and with the Black Mediterranean Collective.

Lake Kariba would soon become a river. The dam would become a waterfall. And miles away, the Lusaka plateau… would become an island.

In The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell writes about the history of colonialism in southern Africa and its global ripples in the present. Told as a story about three families (European, African, and Indian) and spanning three generations, the novel centers around the Zambezi river and the adjacent Kariba dam that transforms the currents of the river (its “drift”) into hydropower. Originally commissioned by the British controlled Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi) in the 1950s, the dam was built at a place well known to Dr. Livingstone and countless other colonial explorers. (As Serpell notes, “This is the story of a nation—not a kingdom or people—so it begins, of course, with a white man.”) Throughout the novel, Serpell cleverly uses the dam as a symbol of empire, enclosure, and extraction. When the book finally ends, the dam has burst and flooded its surroundings. As the great Zambezi flows freely again, Victoria Falls in more than one way. 

I was reminded of Serpell’s novel when I read Joanne Yao’s breathtaking new book The Ideal River: How Control of Nature Shaped International Order. Straddling historical sociology, international theory, and environmental politics, Yao explores the relationship between empire and the control of nature, or what some scholars have recently termed hydrocolonialism. Focusing on the 19th century projects to domesticate three different rivers—the Rhine, Danube, and Congo—Yao examines how the mastery of wilderness was central to the rise and development of the modern/colonial world system. The dream of the ideal river, it here turns out, drifts straight through the heart of empire.

Yao’s immediate focus is on how and why this desire to domesticate the wild became such a central tenet of the imperial standard of civilization. She frames this as a story about the Enlightenment and its commitment to ideas of linear progress, order, rationality, and science. By following the river upstream, she demonstrates how European empires saw the “failure” to conquer, improve, and control nature as a sign of “barbarism” and, thus, as “being too close to nature.” Colonialism, Yao explains, unfolded as a project of eliminating “the barbarity of swampy disuse.” Over time, this mission would come to engulf the globe, ranging from “the floodplains of the Arno River… to the wetlands of the Danube delta and the megadams of the Indian subcontinent and American West.” This desire to master nature has remained a central tenet of coloniality, despite the formal end of empire. In the mid mid-20th century, many newly independent states in the global South chose to showcase their rising power and status precisely through the control of rivers and construction of megadams. Today, the quest for green and renewable energy forms part of yet another attempt to plunder and domesticate the wild.

While The Ideal River is not a book about capitalism—the word is only mentioned a handful of times in the text—it can nonetheless be productively read alongside the growing black radical and anti-colonial Marxist literature on property and racial capitalism. Thinkers such as Brenna Bhandar, Rob Nichols, and Aileen Moreton-Robinson have shown how the rise and development of the capitalist world-system was premised on the racialized transformation of nature into inert objects that can be possessed, extracted, used, exploited, and sold for profit. The destruction of indigenous cosmologies and the violent imposition of private property relations were both central to this reorganization of land into extractable and tradeable objects. At the heart of this project was (and remains) a mode of possessive ownership—what Moreton-Robinson calls the “white possessive”—that renders both land and its inhabitants as disposable, extractable, and in need of improvement. Read alongside this body of scholarship, The Ideal River is perhaps first and foremost a story about how rivers were governed, enclosed, and turned into economic highways as part of the global extension of this “racial regime of ownership.” In the same way that “useless” deserts, savannahs, and forests were to be transformed into productive lands, so rivers were converted into frictionless highways that were to carry commerce, civilization, and Christianity to the world’s unpropertied peripheries. 

The most compelling aspect of Yao’s book is perhaps that, through its emphasis on the river as a lifeform (tellingly, the book is dedicated to the Rhine, Danube, and Congo), it offers an instructive framework for thinking beyond such modes of possessive ownership. As Yao and Serpell both remind us, enclosure (be it by prisons, borders, dams, pipelines, or other types of violent infrastructure) produces slow death. Like humans, the river cannot breathe when it is confined. By drifting with the river, in and out of capital’s desire to master and subjugate, Yao thus pushes us to imagine alternative ways of relating to the world around us, beyond enclosures, extraction, and bourgeois property relations: what some scholars and organisers increasingly refer to as abolition ecology. Mujeres Creando, a mestiza and Aymara anarcho-feminist group based in Bolivia, give voice to this worldmaking project on one of the many graffiti walls with which they’ve covered the urban landscape of La Paz:

the land is not the property of masters

the land is not individual property;

nor collective property;

the land is mother to all living creatures

Elsewhere, Glen Coulthard invites us to think about these antipropertarian dreams as a struggle that is “oriented around the question of land… not only for land, but also deeply informed by what the land as a mode of relationships… ought to teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and our surroundings in a respectful, nondominating and nonexploitative way.” Another way to put this is to ask: What might it mean to become unpropertied and unownable? Perhaps the river can guide us here, because as Yao reminds us by reference to the water protectors at Standing Rock, water is kin: “She is alive. Nothing owns her.”

In her essay “Amniotechnics”, feminist Marxist Sophie Lewis makes a similar observation: all humans in history have been manufactured under water, in amniotic fluid. Pregnancy typically ends with the draining of water; and yet, even as we enter the unwet world where drowning remains an ever-present danger, humans remain overwhelmingly water. Lewis writes: water “is by far the greater part of us, yet with just the slightest change of proportion it will drown us; it is entirely dead, yet teeming with the life that can’t exist without it; it is far bigger than us and it is utterly inhuman.” In the messiness of life, where water is bound to flood, spill, and drift, amniotechnics emerges as a vision of radical kinship and communized care, for human and non-human life alike. “It is”, Lewis writes, “protecting water and protecting people from water”: a practice of immersion rather than mastery, and what we may usefully think of as abolition ecology. Water—or should we say the river—is life. Let the dam burst.


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