115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fictions of Urban Water: Literature, Geography, and the Problem of the Archive 

Richard Watts, University of Washington

First, this paper considers how geographer Matthew Gandy’s The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination deploys literature as an archive; second, it offers a few thoughts on how literary scholars in the environmental humanities can adapt some of Gandy’s insights regarding water and urban space to their practice.


Geographer Matthew Gandy’s celebrated book The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and the Urban Imagination makes important contributions to our understanding of how the management of water in contemporary urban centers is constitutive of modernity. Water, Gandy argues, shapes the human experience both materially and culturally, and whereas geographers have tended to be particularly attentive to the former and the work of, say, Gaston Bachelard to the latter, Gandy aims to keep the two poles of analysis in tension. If, as Gandy claims, Bachelard’s oft-cited Water and Dreams is fundamentally flawed because it is a “search for the universal, accessed through poetry and literature” and, as such, simply ends up revealing “a culturally distinct variant of humanism” (1), what means do we have for getting at what he calls the “imaginative engagements with urban technology” (17)? If, in other words, Bachelard’s highly influential model for thinking about the meaning of water constitutes a dead end, how do we document shifts in the cultural meaning of water? Surprisingly, a significant part of the answer to this implied question is literature. In nearly every chapter, but especially in the first on “The Paris Sewers and the Rationalization of Urban Space,” Gandy deploys literary texts as key elements of his archive for understanding how we come to imagine water in the urban metabolism in new and different ways.

What, then, are the differences between Gandy’s uses of literature and Bachelard’s? This paper aims to answer this question (in brief, Gandy presents the work of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and others as both products and producers of rapidly changing urban contexts and the role of water within them, whereas Bachelard decontextualizes literature in order to render what it says about water eternally true), but to reflect at the same time on how Gandy’s book can usefully disrupt certain habits of reading in the literary environmental humanities and free us up to make bolder claims regarding social and environmental change.