Waterland: The importance of reflecting on water and land

Introducing Dr Luisa Cortesi
Running water over hands
Luisa Cortesi

Dr Luisa Cortesi has been working as an Assistant Professor at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) for two years. In this interview, part of our Assistant Professor Portrait series, we introduce you to her work.

Dr Luisa Cortesi has been working in the field of environmental change for many years, studying environmental knowledge, floods, rivers, toxicity, technologies, water disasters.

Her academic accomplishments are astonishing. Cortesi has degrees from acclaimed academic institutions such as the School of Oriental and African Studies and Yale University, and has taught at Cornell University. Moreover, she has won a dazzling number of prizes for her work.

It comes as no surprise that her academic publications can best be described by using lavish words. Illuminating, comprehensive, meticulous, philosophical, and at times even poetic are just a few that come to mind.

Cortesi weighs her words carefully, conscious of how language can offer the possibility to be inclusive and better understand something

As an author, Cortesi weighs her words carefully, conscious of how language can offer the possibility to be inclusive and better understand something. Seemingly effortlessly, Cortesi fuses philosophical and linguistic analyses of water, a recurring topic, with an analysis of fluvial ecology rooted in the natural sciences.

While weaving in personal experiences and observations as an ethnographer, her analyses seem to undulate, just like water’s tidal waves. With her eclectic approach, Cortesi demonstrates her giftedness as a multidisciplinary academic. 

You are trained in many disciplines; you first obtained a Master’s degree in diplomacy and international relations. Then you pursued your academic career in the field of cultural anthropology and ethnography, development studies and environmental studies. They all have an interest in ‘the other’ in common. What sparked your interest in studying ‘the other’?

‘I was born in North Italy, at a time and place where the right-wing political party ‘Lega Nord’ was gaining constituencies through opportunistically stressing the differences between Italians from the North and the South.

My kindergarten teachers, instead of calling me by my first name as they would my peers, used a pejorative and discriminatory term that technically referred to my mother’s Southern origins. The uneasiness of being 'othered' somehow made me stronger.

Bare feet in mud

'Personally and politically I refused the essentialization of identities and befriended people who were, like me, made to feel “less than”. Since then, I have lived in many different places and continents, always an outsider, an observer, interpreting what belonging means.’

A good example of Cortesi’ bounteous methodology is the article ‘The muddy semiotics of water’ in which she describes the ambiguous nature of mud in North-Bihar, India.

Mud is regarded as either clean or dirty, inhibiting both success and failure from a social point of view. Cortesi describes the tactical and sensory understanding of mud by local farmers, and the negative associations mud can evoke when seen on bodies of those considered 'lower' castes. With her analysis, Cortesi stimulates a dialogue between political ecology and semiotics, agrarian studies, and linguistic anthropology.

Bare tree with reflection in puddle

In the article 'Hydrotopias & waterland', Cortesi reflects on the intimate relationship between water and land. Often, they are regarded as clearly distinct from each other, which Cortesi disputes. A natural phenomenon such as the ‘hyporheic (zone)’ demonstrates it—a river is as much its surface waters and sediments and ecology as its hydro-eco-geology (how water and soil ecologically interact underground) and its watershed (the basin which feeds it). In this, you have many species, including ours, living amphibiously. 

Historically, many societies have [worked] hard to separate water and land through geomorphological interventions and cultural celebrations of dryness

Cortesi also investigates water in a semantic and semiotic sense. People, she finds, tend to use stereotypes while talking about water. She calls such generalizations ‘hydrotopias’, often referring to purity and laced with moral and political implications. Cortesi calls for an update of this vocabulary, which will lead to a better understanding of our environment. She proposes, for example, the word ‘waterland’, meant to capture not only the dynamic nature of deltas, lakes, fluvial lands and tidal areas, but of all lands that are recurrently wet. 

I really liked your (re)introduction of the rather poetic word ‘waterland’. Can you tell us more about this word?

‘Historically, many societies have been working hard to separate water and land through geomorphological interventions and cultural celebrations of dryness alike. In this process of distinction, we have alienated anything that does not fit into ontology, the way of dividing up the world in discrete categories. Think about the negative signification carried by words such as slime, stagnation, mud, wetland, swamp.

'In times of climate change, it has become more evident that such distinction does not help us to cope with the increased and often unexpected wetness in which we live. I propose to use ‘waterland’ to express the need to understand this matter. It is a rich and capacious word, able to encompass all the matter that is neither water nor land, but both.’

Do not magnify the voice of the ‘voicefull’, nor void the voice of the voiceless

In the article ‘An ontology of water and land in North Bihar, India’ Cortesi finds that at the origin of failed flood control is also the misunderstanding of the river as purely a matter of ‘water’. She observes how different communities may understand the word “water” differently, may see it and represent it differently. This can lead to semantic or semiotic conflicts, or situation of mismatch in the interpretation of, respectively, a word or a sign. The concept of semiotic conflicts can help us to interpret a variety of situations of cultural diversity, for example, technological interventions, development projects, and even research conversations.

The philosophical reflections in your work touch on ontology (or the study of being), semantics (or the meaning of language), semiotics (the meaning of signs) and epistemology (or the nature of knowledge). These concepts are complex and your interlocutors in the field may not always be familiar with them. How do you rope them in on philosophical conversations?

‘Jargon is common in all disciplines as a synthetic way to express a complex concept. I recognize, however, that it often functions as a form of gatekeeping. I want my work to be inclusive, therefore, I try to demystify those concepts for those who are not familiar with them. I start from the fact that they are not indispensable, either.

In India, most of the people I speak are from the most discriminated sectors of society, and many are formally illiterate. Yet, even illiterate people can be ‘barefoot philosophers’. My interlocutors are able to engage in any kind of conversation, are as knowledgeable as anyone can get about anything that matters, as soon as they are not entrapped with a specific vocabulary and epistemology.

Similarly, as a teacher, I teach my students that asking questions is never a straightforward practice and to reject research as extractivism. Conducting research is an enormous responsibility. It risks magnifying the voice of the ‘voicefull’, further voiding ‘the voice of the voiceless.’

It has been a pleasure reading your work and talking to you. Thank you for this interview. Looking forward to your new publications!

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