Are H20 and Water the Same?

The following is a response to Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw’s “Fetishizing the Modern City: The Phantasmagoria of Urban Technological Networks”.

Kaika and Swyngedouw’s article, “Fetishizing the Modern City: The Phantasmagoria of Urban Technological Networks” is one that explores the city as the center of flows and networks; one that is transforming through constant flux and never fixed. The city is a rhizomatic structure, a hybrid construction of technological and urban networks that transform the process of commodification through a collision of the natural, the cultural, environmental and the social.

Before diving into the article, I’d like to unpack the title and the two words that stood out to me: fetishizing and phantasmagoria. Both can relate to Marxist theory involving the life of the commodity and how relationships between the subject and object can be transformed by the power of the commodity. “Fetishizing”, or commodity fetishism, is the process of mystifying human ideologies. Commodities are the building block for capital, functioning through exchange value and use value. “Phantasmagoria” represents this commodity culture, where the commodity can transform this experience with our material products.

Kaika and Swyngedouw begin the article with a description of the city by post-structuralists, Deleuze and Guattari. The city is a representation of “a threshold of deterritorialization because whatever the material involved, it must be deterritorialized enough to enter the network, to submit to polarization, to follow the circuit of urban and road recoding” (Kaika101). Exposing the city as a rhizomatic structure sparked my interest, as the foundational idea of the rhizome is a structure that replaces this archetypal power model.

Deleuze and Gauttari seek to shift the “traditional model for knowledge […] from plants with “roots” […] and draw their metaphor from fungal “rhizomes” – a network of threads that can send up new growths anywhere along their length, not subject to centralized control or structure” (Deleuze 1448) It is through this metaphor they replace the traditional arbitrariness of a tree structured power model, where the power begins in the centre, or the trunk, and branches outwards. A rhizomatic model does not have a singular base or power structure, and has the ability to synthesize networks which do not appear to have direct links.  Deleuze and Gauttari predict the alliance of these networks will begin to dominate within our society, as the rhizomes “know how to move between things, establish the logic of the AND, overthrow ontology, do away with foundations, mollify ending and beginnings” (Deleuze 1462).

Their post-structuralist theories suggest that nothing has an essence; rather everything is a construction through a continuous assembling and disassembling of signifiers to create meaning. There are exterior relationships between things which are determined by subject-object relationships. In this case of the city and nature divide, nature is represented as a rhizome, where it has multiple entities. It is a part of a structureless connected center that does not have a single starting point. It develops the ability to transform; it is not the being that matters but how it comes to be. Meaning happens through the participation of actors, the social organization and discourse that has the ability to produce these intended affects. Kaika and Swyngedouw ironically use the example of the rhizome to explain the urban city, originating as a counter argument to the traditional model of knowledge. In the rhizomatic model, these structureless paths can be represented through blades of grass, constantly connected and intertwined.  It is precisely these examples of rhiozomes occurring in nature that the urban network has lost.

Conceptualizing the city through these hidden urban networks creates a hybrid, a city that is blurred and confused. These networks are hidden within the natural, internalized, so we lose sight of the impacts of modernizations. The visual cityscape has transformed our relationship to water, burying and internalizing water networks, creating a subterranean world of water absent from our everyday lives. This has transformed the process of commodification, where water has been reinvented in an urban form, becoming a part of the commodity market.

The article argues that water has become a fetishized commodity, one that has literally come alive and transformed through social organization. It has been anthropomorphized from the natural world and become a product of the market. To understand the phantasmagoria and commodity fetishism, I turned to Marx’s The German Ideology. Marx speaks about commodity fetishism as the act of transforming our products so commodities come alive through reification. We anthropomorphize these objects and fill them with a mystical kind of power, and we are able to do so because of the disconnection from the production process. Marx gives the example of a table which “steps forth as a commodity [where] it is changed into something transcendent” (664). These commodities have intrinsic value as they hold ideas the product it will be, before being made into this material object in the manufacturing process.  There is a certain kind of cause and effect relationship of the labour that gives the commodity the ability to be as such.

The naturalization of the urban network has become a part of commodity ideology. Internalized water systems have created abstractions where H20 is subjected to a chemical and social transformation and becomes how we view it, as potable drinking water. We continue to develop these built environments in the search to dominate and master nature. Nature has been transformed into the urban; water has been muted and turned into a commodity.

Water has become a part of the market, infused with exchange and use value that completely disrupts our relationship to this natural world. This article raised many concerns I have regarding the future of water, and how our relationship to water will continue to develop or deteriorate. As we become more disconnected to the natural and more focused on capital markets and commodities to maintain our lifestyles, these relationships to the natural world will be monitored, defined and less rhizomatic. Urban spaces will increasingly become more complex and interconnected, and natural environments will be limited and found only in spaces that can be profited from in some way. Our present systems of thought will only create prosperous markets out of water, some which already exist through privatization and bottled water. These sign systems used in the rhizome will continue to shift, creating a world where water is a part of the market. The ideologies we hold will limit water to specific external forms, losing the symbolism and awe of this sublime entity.

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