Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Mukerji to the Rescue

I stumbled on the work of Chandra Mukerji in an innocent manner. Her work on the Canal du Languedoc is quite interesting. In addition to here recent T&C article on hydraulic cement and tacit knowledge--you had to be there--she has an entry in Smith and Findlen's Merchants and Marvels. Entitled Cartography, Entrepreneurialism and Power, the chapter discusses the backstory of the Canal du Languedoc. She notes that the project had been proposed many times in the past (including a proposal by Leonardo) but it only became doable in the seventeenth century. Previously, the risk--or at least the perception of risk--was simply too great. Eventually, however, a combination of paper exemplars, military rationale, and economic justification finally convinced the powers that were.

The realization of the canal required a number of innovations. The first was the establishment of a consistent pattern of problem solving. This was accomplished through a diversity of means, including the creation of maps and representations, standardization of reports using academic techniques, and the capture of lore and narrative to establish key criteria such as the location of headwaters. These innovations enabled a pattern of distributed learning that carried throughout the project. A key to this success was the stability of the workforce which Riquet ensured through generous pay for workers and lucrative bonuses.

Despite the innovations, Riquet also depended on experts to identify best practice and to recruit additional resources for the project. Some of the limitations of the construction of the port at Sete occurred because there was no one individual with sufficient experience in the construction of such a facility.

While at the library reading Mukerji's work on the canal, I reviewed one of earlier articles: "Toward a sociology of material culture", which appeared in Sociology of Culture (pg. 143-163). In this chapter, Mukerji reacts against Foucault's omni-presence in the study of science and technology. She maintains that there is more than just language and discourse in the operation of science and technology:

"What if the power of science and technology is derived less from their status as knowledge systems than their role as systems of material practice." (pg. 144)

She uses the book as just one example of material practice:

"The book, for example, lies as much in the world of goods as it does in some abstract family of word-meanings, and its coordinating possibilities result in part from the symbols it carries and also in part from its physical reproducibility." (pg. 145)

Mukerji also points to weapons as an area where the word-intensive structure of science and technology crosses directly into the everyday world of consumers and material culture. She even makes a direct reference to an era that's of direct interest to me:

"In seventeenth century France, we can see one of the least obvious and most important sites where the resources of science and technology were mobilized to make nature service systems of culture and power." (pg. 158)

Update: Other sources on the Canal du Midi include an article by Ermenc who notes that Leonardo initially proposed a canal through Languedoc but that he was thwarted by technical and administrative challenges. One of the great innovations in canal design was the introduction of the lock gate rather than the portcullis gate. This innovation gets great coverage in Zonca's Nova teatro of 1656. The real precursor of the Languedoc canal was the Briare canal which linked the Seine and the Loire.

Mukerji also discussed the Languedoc canal in a different article. She discusses it in the context of its importance as place. She notes that:

"The physical world has been politically more than a repository of resources with politico-economic value. It has been a place to demonstrate intelligence, a collective cognitive capacity to dominate that has been a foundational and legitimating principle of power. Engineered locales--from cities to water supplies and military installations--are places where power is exercised and the technical capacity for it is palpably demonstrated. And so they are also places where power and its legitimacy can be questioned and undermined." pg. 656

She notes that the canal was less about personal brialliance than it was about the alignment of resources, an alignment that required Huguenot know-how and Occian orneriness.

Ermenc, Joseph J. 1961. The Great Longuedoc Canal. The French Review. 34.5: 454-460.
Mukerji. 2003. Intelligence Uses of Engineering and the Legitimacy of State Power. Technology and Culture. 44: 655-676


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