David Biggs – Quagmire

21 August, 2021 - examPrep

David Biggs’s Quagmire is a politico-environmental history of nation-building in the Mekong delta of southern Vietnam from the precolonial Nguyen incursions into what was then Khmer land to post-colonial state-socialist Vietnamese, through the French conquest and colonization, Vichy-Imperial Japanese occupation, French reconquista, Geneva two state solution, and American occupation. Since David Halberstam’s Pulitzer prize winning coverage of American involvement in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, Americans have understood Vietnam as a political and military quagmire, and since our 2001 invasion of Afghanistan we have come to relearn the full meaning of these political and military kinds of quagmire, but Biggs, through a locally-attuned environmental and infrastructural history of the Mekong delta, allows us to see this region as a very literal material quagmire and allows us to understand the political/military quagmire of French/American involvement in Vietnam as being directly related to its being an ecological/topographical quagmire — that is, the material wetness, bogginess, messiness, viscosity, muddiness of the quagmire ecosystem is historically salient to Vietnam’s status as a politico-military quagmire.

First things first, is nation-building just another word for “development,” that is, can we place Biggs’s work in a larger conversation about the colonial and post-colonial histories of development? Biggs describes nation-building as “state-centered development,” and I think it is historiographically valuable to think of technological or infrastructure projects aimed toward the increase of tax revenue, security, or legibility (i.e. serving the interests of the state) or toward public health outcomes, farmer/laborer incomes, food supply, electrification, etc. (i.e. serving the interests of denizens) as all being under the aegis of development. I think it is an especially useful taxonomic consolidation in the context of environmental history or the history of technology because, regardless of the intended interests served, these interventions manifest in similar kinds of environmental transformations through similar kinds of infrastructural/technological means. As an example, whether the French colonial government is dredging such and such canal for the nominal purpose of extending colonial military authority into the hinterlands in order to increase security and its sphere of taxation (nation-building) or instead to increase locals’ access to medical, educational, and commercial opportunities (“development”), the environmental transformations and technological means involved are often the same.

If we can think about statist nation-building and humanitarian development under the same umbrella, we can begin to think about the technologically-mediated environmental transformations of the Mekong delta as part of a historiographic continuum that ties pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial agricultural and transportation infrastructure in Vietnam together. Biggs does this by contextualizing his narrative in precolonial Nguyen attempts to terraform the Mekong delta (although, depending on one’s perspective, this “precolonial” period can be viewed as simply another era of colonization (of the Khmer and ethnic Chinese inhabitants of the Mekong by a southwardly-expanding Nguyen state)). Like Moon and Tilley, who historicize Cold War postcolonial development projects by looking back to their earlier manifestations under colonial rule, one of Biggs’ historiographic accomplishments is to historicize colonial development projects with precolonial schemes in the Delta. The constancy (at least on the human temporal scale) of the delta’s flatness, its freshwater moving in one direction while the moon pulls the ocean in an opposing direction of saline pulses, creates a consistent environmental and topographic material reality that people have to contend with across political eras operative at smaller time scales, resulting in a material substrate that connects precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial activity.

Speaking of a material substrate, I want to talk about infranature. This may not be the best term for what I am trying to describe, and there may already be an alternative term in use, but by infranature I mean stuff that performs like infrastructure but whose creation is more attributable to non-human activity than to human activity. One good example of what I would consider infranature from Biggs’s story is the road in the hinterlands of the Mekong delta through the cajeput forests that were formed by roaming elephant herds. These herds defoliate the canopy along their path, uproot underbrush, and compact the soil underfoot into a hardpan good at running water off instead of absorbing it and turning to mud (maybe these elephants even preferentially travel along relatively high ground, who knows, not me). French colonial engineers would use these elephantine road systems and then expand upon them to enable resettled farmers to penetrate and clear the forest for agriculture. I see infranature, therefore, as an extension of, or, when elaborated with -structure, a subclass of, envirotechnical systems. Perhaps the most significant kind of infranature in Biggs’s story are the dos d’âne or giáp nước, the sandbars that form amid canals when silt-laden outflow freshwater is stymied or slowed by countervailing salt water rising from a waxing tide. In the balance of forces from countervailing flows, the water is stilled and the silt in solution in the river water deposits to the floor of the canal, eventually accreting into sandbars. For the French who sought to unimpededly travel the canals in heavy wood and then metal boats, these dos d’âne were a constant source of frustration and reengineering, forcing them to develop and construct flushing basins along the canals that could discharge deluges at high tide to unbalance the forces in the slow moving bends by forcing water down them toward to ocean, thus preventing siltation. For the Vietnamese, typically traveling by lightweight canoes and dugouts, and who could with relative ease portage their boats over the giáp nước, the sandbars functioned as meeting places where goods, news, and conversation could be exchanged, rest could be taken, or camp could be made for the night. What, for the French, then, was a man-vs.-nature source of friction in their system of water infrastructure was for the Vietnamese a kind of infranature —  a naturally occurring information/goods terminus/junction. This is something I would like to elaborate further because I think it could be analytically useful in understanding indigenous/subaltern technoscience which Westerns often romanticize as “being in tune with nature” or “harmonic with natural rhythms” or whatever, but I think the idea of infranature might allow me to accord some explanatory and technoscientific status to such envirotechnical systems.


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