The Intimate Poetics of Large Dams and Settler Common Sense
(Mount Royal University)
Paper short abstract:
This paper is based on a forthcoming book from MIT Press, Infrastructural Brutalism. "Drowned town" fictions in American and Canadian literature often exhibit white settler nostalgia in the context of large dam construction, what Mark Rifkin calls nonnative quotidian "settler common sense."
Paper long abstract:
This paper is based on a chapter from a forthcoming book from MIT Press, Infrastructural Brutalism: Art and the Necropolitics of Infrastructure. "Drowned town" fictions, a literary subgenre that portrays the deliberate flooding of towns and landscapes for the construction of hydroelectricity assemblages, in American literature from the most active period of the Tennessee Valley Authority (1930s to the 1970s) often exhibit white settler nostalgia in the context of large dam construction, perpetuating the performance of what Mark Rifkin calls nonnative quotidian "settler common sense." As in Rifkin's theory, the nostalgia of these settlers for a mythical landscape or agrarian culture before the flooding performs the reproduction of naturalizing "settler jurisdiction" and other quotidian modes of occupation without explicitly engaging with the dispossession of indigenous peoples. The aesthetics of settler common sense are essential to the socio-material assemblage of large dam hydropolitics, as they create a public more amenable to profound industrial projects. Large dam assemblages are notable for their temporality: as Christopher Sneddon describes this phenomenon, "large dams generate and hold together assemblages of geopolitical and technological networks—among others—that linger." Literature provides an ideal discourse for the encounter with these lingering networks of parastatal organizations, capitalist industries, symbolic registers, and river basin ecologies, precisely because literature need not respond to contemporary political or economic demands; literature can reveal overlapping temporalities, imaginative discourses, and material impacts, from micropolitical to macropolitical, that would otherwise be invisible to nearsighted political entities, profit-driven capitalist industries, or racist colonial violence.
The art of infrastructure