The filter and the city: The spectacle of nature and the specters of contamination in New York City's water infrastructure
Liviu Chelcea (University of Bucharest)
Paper short abstract:
Water filters are widely used in New York City. Paradoxically, while the filters materialize the fears and specters of contamination, they simultaneously reassert the purity and 'natural morality' of water circulating through the vast watershed and infrastructure of the city.
Paper long abstract:
Water, Gaston Bachelard wrote, possesses a 'natural morality.' This is much more so the case for New York City's tap water infrastructure. The municipal body providing water (DEP) constantly (and rightly so) points out that, unlike other cities, the flow of water in New York is made possible by 'natural' elements and processes - rain accumulating in the upstate NY watershed and water flowing by gravity - instead of energy-intensive filtration and pumping processes. Yet, the 'natural morality' and purity of tap water face an array of specters of contamination before entering city residents' bodies. Such specters of contamination include symbolic and material choke points such as concerns about taste, panics, limits to sensemaking of technological systems, the general state of the sanitation of the city, and fears of old-age pipes and of lead poisoning in homes and schools. Drawing on ethnographic material gathered in 2018, I describe how the natural morality of water is disrupted during its circulation through New York City and how these disruptions, in turn, create new subjectivities, forms of agency and low tech decentralized technological assemblages. I focus in particular on the widespread use of water filters in homes, restaurants, as well as public spaces as a widespread solution to reduce health and environmental anxieties around contamination, and to reassert the natural morality of New York City's public water.
The spectres, spectacle and speculation of infrastructure - tracing the moralities of movement along energy corridors.