GW Bridge at Sunset

GW bridge at sunset_tif309
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One Essay Response

  1. lcarminati says:

    “There is the great, brown, slow­moving strandless river of Everything, and then there is its tiny flotsam that has ended up in the record office you are at work in” (C. Steedman 2002). Social scientists work with the notes, the words, the traces people leave behind. Theirs is a huge responsibility, simultaneously heavy as the books they carry around and microscopic when transformed in words on a white page. Their fieldwork is a daily exercise in balance: bearing the weight of huge amounts of data, juggling different types of sources, reaching out to find irretrievable information, struggling not to drown in the whirlpools of Everything. And yet, the flotsam still begs for the attention it duly deserves.

    The juxtaposition of infrastructure and nature captured by Rachel Tanur’s lens evokes two different thoughts. First, it symbolizes the challenges faced by social scientists in their fieldwork that I have just described. Secondly, it sets up the same contrast that runs through my own work on the history of the Suez Canal and of the urban projects that rose along its course. In the mid-19th century, narratives emphasizing the isthmus of Suez as inhospitable and gloomy, as a desert inhabited only by pelicans and devoid of drinking water, grass, or even wood, were rife. Such narratives came to attribute to the Canal’s venture nothing short of miraculous characteristics. However, these narratives had other, perhaps unintended, consequences. When cities are described as if rising by magic from arid and swampy sites, in fact, the public is persuaded to no longer doubt the success of the urban planners that conceived them. It becomes arduous to criticize an enterprise when its realization is endowed with noble intents and useful purposes. In the Suez case, European men, goods, and technology thus appear as the sole agents for the prodigious realization of the dream of the French “father” of the Canal, De Lesseps. The migrants and laborers who actually performed the hard toil are left out of the picture.