Two ways of being water
From the viewpoint of submerged worlds
For some urban and rural Black communities, the question of what water is has no simple answer.
“It is urgent to consider other development patterns, other ways of living well in society [political motto of the Black Women’s March], which reconnect human relationships and their constitution as part of nature.” After denouncing the environmental racism produced by violations of laws and codes perpetrated by the Brazilian State and the mining industry, the Black Coalition for Rights wound up the collective’s participation at the COP 26 summit in Glasgow in December 2021 with a historic declaration and call to action. They placed water at the center of the climate crisis debates and in the wake of antiracist protests championed by Black Lives Matter movements. In addition, the Coalition vocalized other claims made by rural, urban, poor, landless, and Black communities.
Cases of environmental racism in Brazil highlight the rise in migration toward the centers of the old colonial empires. What environmental effects impel waves of deterritorialized African and Middle Eastern citizens onto and across the watery borders of Europe? What sort of environmental justice do they deserve? How do we ensure they are treated as legitimate protagonists in discussions on climate change? What kind of water is at stake in these demands – or, more precisely, to what extent is access by all human beings conceived as an essential component of any progressive environmental agenda? A drinkable, human-controlled substance identified by a chemical code (H2O) and vital to human and non-human life? The product of geological landscapes, a unique element of Planet Earth? A liquid, vaporizable fluid, condensed and unstable, an ocean surface that enables the communication paths of huge ships, a home to countless life forms and unknown deep mineral substances? A salty, ‘dead’ or freshwater that gushes out of the ground in pools or in geysers of hot water? Or, finally, an ‘infinitely transmutable’ object, since, thanks to its ‘extractive’ quality, as Linton points out, water is whatever we ‘make of it.’ Following Helmreich, we can consider, for instance, the work of creating “analogies and disanalogies conjured across such zones as the watery.” Here knowledge of flooding and tides as the ways of being water mobilize understandings about the often unstable forms taken by humanity and infrahumanity.
“‘Water’ constitutes one of the so-called Anthropocene’s most urgent, visceral, and ethically fraught sites of political praxis and theoretical inquiry,” noted the feminist critic Astrid Neimanis. The earth as a site of experience and the reproduction of life is made possible by the fluidity of water. Another image of the planet takes shape and gender. The oceans’ waters can be seen from above, in space capsules, and from below, in underwater navigation vehicles exploring the oceans’ deepest trenches, places where the seas are home to volcanic vents and strange beings. The analogy of the planet as a womb and a placenta, a safe environment for myriad particles, microorganisms, and other life forms in a liquid state that mix and mingle as different bodies, brings into play modern certainties and knowledge about the beginnings of the earth and its oceans, their chemical composition, geological ages, hydric systems, about what they contain and where they are contained.
From the viewpoint of biological science, for example, humans can be conceived as mobile water containers. This scientific ‘evaluation’ converges with a similar understanding among the traditional peoples of North Queensland who see water as an intrinsic part of their existential composition. As we shall see in the following paragraphs, for some urban and rural Black communities, the definition of what water is complicates other meanings of notions of place, space, and body. What water is depends on the practical engagements and ‘perceptions’ of environmental relations; the “ways that the experiences, images, and metaphors that arise from these interactions flow in ‘fluidscapes’ of social connection and difference.”
In July 2020, the Quilombola community of Rio dos Macacos, in the municipality of Simões Filho (Bahia), was threatened by a request for repossession of an area located close to the territory occupied by about 110 families. In dispute was the Macacos River, the only source of drinking water for the Quilombolas, claimed by the Brazilian Navy. It was there that the federal government had built a dam (1961) and, during the subsequent military dictatorship, the Aratu Naval Base (1971). The Quilombolas questioned not only access but also the use of the waters. “They [the military] don’t provide us with anything. The only thing they do is pour sewage from the naval village into the river. There is no way to separate us from the water. All we have here, apart from our family, are the land and the water. If we are separated [from them], what will happen to us?”
A few months later, in September of the same year, the federal government issued a veto against 22 points of Law Bill 1142/20, which had established some measures to protect traditional peoples and Indigenous and Quilombola communities. Access to water, which guarantees State protection in the case of a sanitary emergency by sending drinking water to the affected population, was one such vetoed point. The control and management of the ‘hydrocommons’ – supplies of drinking water that interconnect rivers, basins and diverse aquifers – implies the governance of certain forms of existence considered infrahuman. Water from repositories controlled by gigantic assemblages and profitable hydraulic structures, transformed into commodities by the State or local companies and transnational corporations through the addition of substances that ensure potability criteria, differs from other ways of living and being water.
The dry and the wet translate beginnings and endings, the time-spaces of life in the cyclical movements of the tides.
In the latter, water is much more than a vital substance, or what Linton has called ‘modern water.’ It is the water needed for the subsistence of Black, Indigenous and traditional populations who live by fishing in rivers and seas, and who remain deprived of basic sanitation infrastructures. Non-modern ways of living/being water through which humans and non-humans cohabit temporally submerged worlds, the abode of amphibious and aquatic living, ‘watery’ ontologies, ‘bodies of water’ condemned to disappearance by the Anthropocene. In the words of the Vazanteiras Quilombolas, women who populate fluid places, where earth and water shape the mud, a ‘place,’ a physical state, an ontological condition: “Not only of the water, but of the mud. The river flows and whatever it leaves, we collect. Until it comes back and eats the land again.” The dry and the wet translate beginnings and endings, the time-spaces of life in the cyclical movements of the tides that cover and reveal the Ilha da Ressaca on the São Francisco River (Minas Gerais), near the Xacriabá Indigenous territory.
“Now they want to take our father, Chico […] The river is me, the river is inside me and I am inside him. We are one.” The flood transforms the river into a living creature that devours the earth, leaving fish in abundance within reach of the drag nets; when the flood recedes, it is the earth that springs forth with the food that has created its own roots. It is impossible to understand the itinerancy of the Vazanteiras, or indeed the ‘occupation’ of Black movements in environmental discussions on a global scale, unless we recover for the waters those spaces taken from them by the ‘geontologies’ that have granted land the lead role in debates on climate change. The fact that people and rivers are the interior and exterior of the same mode of existence makes the critique of the omission of ‘environmental racism,’ as proposed by the Black Coalition, reverberate in another way. But it also highlights the limits of a certain humanism that turns the debate on the climate crisis into a modern knowledge about the relationship between ‘humans’ and the ‘planet,’ the ‘earth’ and ‘nature.’ As Silvia Wynter has shown, a knowledge coetaneous with the end of traditional worlds in the American and African continents, thanks to colonization and slavery.
Neither critiques of the Anthropocene, nor the policies for mitigating environmental impacts that have allowed some nation-states to grant legal rights to rivers, landscapes, and mountains located in traditional territories, extend to forms of infrahumanity. When a river has its flow conditioned by the tides, when an island is only visible during the low tide, when agricultural and fishing cultures isolated by agribusiness exploitations and state environmental conservation parks transform the Vazenteiros Quilombolas into a dispossessed and destitute labor force, such populations become riverine, fluid, landless, inaccessible by environmental policies that take the Planet and the Earth, and not the waters, as their centers of gravity. Deterritorialized, the Quilombolas embody the signs of infrahumanity and scarcity, as detailed in the manifesto: “as a result, we have a lack of environmental security in urban and rural territories with a majority of the Black population, impacted by expropriation, water, and air pollution, extreme weather events, dwelling in risky areas, due to the illegal dumping of waste, lack of access to basic sanitation services, impacted by floods, landslides, waterborne diseases, among others.”
Beyond highlighting the lack of access to water, the absence of basic sanitation, and the pollution of water sources by mining and deforestation as examples of environmental racism, the manifesto also places side-by-side the relational constitution of nature and human beings. Or, we may say, other human beings, if we recall the centrality of water as a ‘way of life,’ as defined by the Black Coalition for Rights. In this way, the fluid present of the Vazanteiras could be seen to recover certain ‘liquid pasts’ in which black subjects figured as ‘aquatic bodies’ connected to the ocean, a vital space for the implementation of colonial projects, the plantation, and other capitalist structures. The ocean, the sea, and the frightening waters that connected the old and new ‘worlds’ were also home to transitory forms of existence.
Being ‘liquid’ or immersed in water was not a metaphor or even an attempt to highlight the fragile existence of Black bodies conceived as forms of infrahumanity. ‘Being water’ – or what we might coin a ‘water-being’ in an analogy to the Andean ‘earth-beings’ studied by de la Cadena – meant being subject to the consumption of other bodies and, in this way, being connected to other existents and their histories contained in submerged worlds. This connection cuts across human body tissues and the composition of saltwater.
Studies in different disciplines have explored the connection between Black experiences and water in contexts of deprivation, consumption, control, and debasement. In these experiences, the environment is a mediator that renders problematic any attempt to see the fabrication of nature apart from the radicalized production of bodies. The levees breached by the devastating force of Hurricane Katrina brought to the surface a myriad of actants – including families and populations sheltered and protected from racial violence in the bayous and flooded banks of the Mississippi Delta. The levees released the force of the waters and the beings that found shelter in them. The Mississippi, the “father of waters,” carries natural, geological sediments, chemical aggregations, and the remains of building structures that can both collapse or rechannel the waters to generate other forces.
Like the movement of floods, tides ignore the static, making water a space of contact with winds, coastal shores, navigation capsules, human and non-human others struggling against the currents.
The flood resulted from the displacement of bioenergies and the exploitation of Black bodies; an entangling of multiple histories suddenly uprooted as Katrina moved toward the levees. Roots and rhizomes create multiplicities and space-time connections. The displacement of thousands of African migrants in the 21st century, the Middle Passage, the horrors of ocean crossing experienced by more than five million enslaved Africans brought into captivity on American plantations. This is not, in fact, a metaphor for a kind of fluid thread connecting different generations to their pasts. Rather, as Helmreich asks, “what kind of ocean ontology can be detected in this nexus of the transatlantic slave trade, the long summers of Mediterranean migration in the 2000s, and the representation in paint and digital forensics of the seaborne nightmares of the dispossessed of world capitalism?”
“But the oceans are far from passive. They are one of the main actors of the active system which allows life to prosper on Earth,” contends Latour. At the same time, they figure among the most eloquent signals of the effect of the Anthropocene. As DeLoughrey pointed out, “sea-level rise is perhaps our greatest sign of planetary change, connecting the activity of the earth’s poles with the rest of the terrestrial world, producing a new sense of planetary scale and interconnectedness through the rising of a world ocean.” Let us look at the Capitalocene’s inception and its direct connection with the transatlantic slave trade. From modern narratives of conquest to scientific ontologies, the ocean is an immersed territory that challenges our understandings of how, where, and when ‘life’ is made possible. In Helmreich’s terms, the ocean is an ‘alien frontier’ where the deep sea meets signals of the unfathomable and the speculative that mark outer space.
We can prospect the salty waters, the Atlantic Sea, the oceanic worlds of the modern Black Atlantic – a ‘system’ of cultural and political ideas on what it meant to humans – for instance, remaining attentive to what the Barbadian poet and essayist Edward Kamau Brathwaite has coined tideletics. Like the movement of floods, tides ignore the static, making water a space of contact with winds, coastal shores, navigation capsules, human and non-human others struggling against the currents. The Middle Passage created new ontologies on the seashores and in the sea’s depths through tidal movements. The waters and their distinct currents created a disposable infrahuman form of existence during the crossing. The control of freshwater on the ship, the rehydration of the ‘pieces’ after the shore landing and before their sale in the slave markets, punctuate the healing properties of water in the Plantationocene machine. As aquatic travelers sharing their infrahuman condition in the slave trade cargos, and as subjected bodies to be utilized as fuel for the energy supply needed within plantation structures, the African enslaved experienced ‘patchy’ new forms of existence. Tideletics is a conceptual device to explore the ‘alter/native’ histories of what were then called ‘New World’ societies, along with the ways in which the earth, water, land, and sea compose a unique entangled territory made of waves and tides of forced migration of human and non-human bodies, micro-substances, technologies, structures, and knowledge.
Should we listen to the Coalition’s plea as a situated political demand, a reminder that we are not all “in the same boat”? If we draw on Brathwaite’s inspiring dictum, “unity is a submarine,” rather than a unified standpoint, we can imagine the structure of an underwater navigator producing movement and communication. The submarine does not contain only humans; instead, it is a device that guarantees some form of life and existence under certain conditions. These include the place occupied by ‘humans’ and ‘non-humans’ as ‘subjects’ or ‘pieces of cargo’ in inescapable relations and conditions of existence during the period when modern ontologies emerged. Brathwaite does not specify who or what participates in this underwater movement. It seems implicit that, as a human-made technology, the submarine may carry different existents: those who perished during the Middle Passage, those people whose infrahuman conditions forced them to forget what was being left behind, those who were transformed by the crossing.
Instead of a ‘model’ of a ‘society,’ the submarine is an analogy, an ‘example,’ in the sense developed by Viveiros de Castro, of “inspiring inventions and subversions” for translating the Modern Natural landscapes into the troubled worlds of Others created out of the Plantationocene machines. Seen from the viewpoint of the underwater navigator, what is visible is a world composed of water, sea creatures, microorganisms: small and monstrous varieties of life. The submarine functions as a transduction device by transforming the signals of the submersed, invisible lives, voiceless infrahumans – suppressed and rendered impossible in the modern constitution of the ‘World’ – into existences created in and on waters. Brathwaite’s submarine is a transducer because it enables us to listen to the waves, water, land, and rocks as noisy sound frequencies, disturbing echoes of submersed ontologies – alternative voices about flooding and tides, the sounds of the water-beings.
Nevertheless, Brathwaite stresses the power of some form of covenant in the face of an adversity that affects everyone. The earth is just a place for landing. As a construct highlighting repetition, difference and movement, therefore, tideletics prefigures what Glissant would later define as the “poetics of relation,” an encounter that cannot be anticipated. Tideletics is the making of sea routes and the territorialization of the unknown – both will create roots and crops like uncontrollable rhizomes. So, against the Hegelian dialectic, tideletics captures other movements, which, although repetitive, always differ in their poetics: “coming from one continent / continuum, touching another, and then receding… from the island[s] into the perhaps creative chaos of the[ir] future.” The tide not only makes possible navigation and the connecting of continents, but it also churns the inexpungable, the lands that lie below the waters in the depth of the sublime and strange seas. It is precisely in this ambivalent underwater world as the condition of possibility of the Plantationocene that we find the “submarine roots,” as Glissant defines them, “floating free, not fixed in one position in some primordial spot, but extending in all directions in our world through its networks and branches.”