Carlota McAllister - The vital element: water as moral substance in Chilean Patagonia

Silverstein Forum, Stiteler Hall


The claim that “water is life” is a key rallying cry of contemporary anti-extractives politics in Latin America. This equivalence derives force from its self-evidence, in the sense that without water, all forms of life will perish. To say water is life is thus to suggest that capitalism is death, and that the stakes of anticapitalist politics are literally vital. And if water is life, this foregrounds the notion of life as a flow--what feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz calls “an open and generative force of self-organization and growing complexity” varying contingently over time (Grosz 19)—and frames a politics that defends life as a self-coordinating process of connection rather than a hierarchical structure.

Grosz traces the genealogy of this notion of “life itself “ to Darwin and to what she argues is his proto-posthumanism. But it also harkens to the Christian ontology of Jesus as the “living water” and of desire for salvation and eternal life as thirst, an ontology with strong political resonances in Latin America. Here water is the substance of God’s grace and thus a gift, which as anthropologists know, frames its movements as anything but open-ended and disruptive of hierarchies, human-non-human or otherwise. In this paper, I explore how actors in the HydroAysén dam conflict in Chilean Patagonia who are differently situated in relation to the river threatened with damming mobilize water as a substance, and how the different ethical affordances of this substance work both to unite and, sometimes, produce significant misrecognitions among them about the scope and stakes of this conflict. I use this ethnography to propose a framework for understanding contemporary Latin American anti-extractivism as a kind of moral hydraulics.

Carlota McAllister is Associate Professor of Anthropology and current director of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean at York University in Toronto, Canada. A political and historical anthropologist, she studies the formation of political and moral agency in situations of conflict or crisis in agrarian communities in Guatemala and Chile, using theoretical tools drawn from the anthropology of religion, actor-network theory, feminist anthropology, and political ecology. With Diane Nelson, she co-edited War by Other Means: Aftermath in Postgenocide Guatemala (Duke UP, 2013), and her monograph The Good Road: Conscience and Consciousness in a Post-Revolutionary Mayan Village in Guatemala is forthcoming with Duke University Press.