Kath Weston is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia. A Guggenheim Fellow and two-time winner of the Ruth Benedict Prize, Weston is the author of several books, including Traveling Light: On the Road with America's Poor; Gender in Real Time: Power and Transience in a Visual Age; and Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship.
A visceral approach that attends to intimate, playful engagements with a critical “resource” like water can have nontrivial implications for resource politics. The ethnographic focus here is on the Grand Venice, a water-themed shopping and business complex located in the semiarid scrublands outside New Delhi, which promised investors gondola rides, a mermaid show, and India’s first aquarium. Tucked into the confection of a building façade meant to conjure the Doge’s Palace, these enticements raise the question of whether there might be room for embodiment, play, and aesthetics in a sea of utilitarian treatments of water. As attention turns to the mounting problems associated with overuse, contamination, and inequitable distribution of water, water politics often appears to involve only logics of scarcity and need. Critics often depict waterworks that seek to escape this logic, including elaborate displays of fountains in the desert, as acts of hubris. Yet the appeal of such spectacles cannot be denied, as well as the social struggles embedded in them. This chapter uses Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque to explore the significance of sparkling displays of a life-giving substance in locations where clean water is rarely glimpsed. Might the carnivalesque connections to water staged in places like the Grand Venice have the potential to reanimate relationships with neglected or exploited surroundings that critics assume to be evacuated of care and meaning, even as developers of such spectacles put added pressures on workers and ecologies?