rhizome, map, city, canal


lens-533(photo: Fred Conrad, NYC Water Tunnel #3, from the CityRoom blog)

A few disjointed thoughts on the week’s readings: Deleuze and Guattari call the rhizome “a map and not a tracing…what distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experiment in contact with the real.” (13)  Whereas tracing frames a portion of the rhizome, cuts it out of the surrounding fabric, a map, they suggest, remains “open and connectable”; immanent and constructive—one can trace a route onto it, but the map itself produces the world rather than representing it.  This cartography-as-method brings to mind the idea of the city as a rhizome, a step Deleuze and Guattari make a few pages later, in their discussion of Amsterdam: “a city entirely without roots, a rhizome-city with its stem-canals…” (17)

Why should a canal-city be rhizomatic?  Deleuze and Guattari’s opposition of the canal to the tree suggests water as an agent of that openness, a material force that spreads, opens, surrounds, and, to use one of their key words, “flows.”  Water-words and metaphors surface in Bennett’s work as well, for example in the discussion of intentionality and cascading effects (which I found to be a productive way of thinking about the agency of things): “An intention becomes like a pebble thrown in a pond, or an electrical current sent through a wire, or a neural network: it vibrates…the cascade of effects, precisely because it is a material process, tends to follow a habitual trajectory; action in a material world tends to form grooves and follow patterns” (Agency of Assemblages, 457).  Bennett uses a breakdown, a disruption of (human) expectations as her entry into a map of the assemblage (recalling Brown’s observation that things become visible to us as such in moments of breakage) and it struck me that this piece—from the fall 2005 issue of Public Culture—must have gone to the printers’ shortly before Hurricane Katrina, a “natural disaster” that vividly illustrated the assemblage of human, nonhuman, landscape, and atmospheric actants.

So on the subject of watery rhizomes and their trajectories, some excerpts from one of my favorite New Yorker articles of all time (also from 2005)—David Grann’s “City of Water,” which takes up the subject of

New York City’s invisible empire, an elaborate maze of tunnels that goes as deep as the Chrysler Building is high. Under construction in one form or another for more than a century, the system of waterways and pipelines spans thousands of miles and comprises nineteen reservoirs and three lakes…As an engineering feat, the water-tunnel system rivals the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. Yet it has the odd distinction that almost no one will ever see it, save for the sandhogs who are building it. Over the years, the men have constructed an entire city under the city, a subterranean world as cluttered as the Manhattan skyline: it includes four hundred and thirty-eight miles of subway lines, six thousand miles of sewers, and thousands of miles of gas mains.

And human intentionality collides with water’s own material effect-cascade:

The old tunnels, Ryan explained, were leaking “like a sieve”; some of the sections were built nearly a century ago and were in desperate need of repair. But until Tunnel No. 3 is virtually complete there will be no way to fix them. In part, this is because getting inside Tunnel No. 1 or No. 2 would require the city to shut the water off, and without a backup supply there would be serious water shortages. But it was more than that, and, as several sandhogs peered over his shoulder, Ryan started to draw a circle on the table with his muddy finger. “See this?” he asked me. “These are the valves that control the flow of water.”

“They’re hundreds of feet underground,” another sandhog said.

The valves were designed, Ryan said, to open and close guillotine-like gates inside the cylindrical tunnels, stopping the flow of water. But they had become so brittle with age that they were no longer operable. “They’re afraid if they try to shut the valves they won’t be able to turn ’em back on,” Ryan said.

One D.E.P. scientist told me, “Some of the aqueducts are already hemorrhaging water badly,” while a recent study by Riverkeeper, an environmental organization, concluded, “In some cases, this extraordinary infrastructure is literally crumbling.” Upstate, in the industrial town of Newburgh, for example, water has begun to pour out of cracks in the underground aqueduct that feeds into the city tunnels-so much that the leaks have created a giant sinkhole.

In 1954, unbeknownst to most residents of the city, several engineers went into a shaft to try to turn off the water supply in City Tunnel No. 1, to see if the tunnel needed repairs after being in operation for almost half a century. “Imagine your faucet after only ten years,” Christopher Ward, the D.E.P. commissioner, said. “These things had been pounded away at for decades.”

At the bottom of the shaft, sticking out of the tunnel, was a long bronze stem with a rotating wheel at the end. It was supposed to control the six-foot-diameter valve inside the pipeline. But when the engineers started to turn the handle, using all their might, it began to tremble and crack. “There was too much pressure on it,” Ward said.

“They were afraid if they turned it any more the whole fucking thing would break,” Richard Fitzsimmons, Jr., the business manager of the sandhogs’ union, said.

After decades of building the world’s greatest water system, the city had stumbled across its weak point, a single flaw that had rendered an otherwise invincible body mortal. “It scared the bejeezus out of people,” Doug Greeley, an engineer in charge of the city’s water distribution, said. There was no effective way to shut off the water, no way to get inside and weld a crack, no way to know if a tunnel was about to burst.


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