This is a new research project that has both scholarly and creative aspirations. It is inspired by a geological reckoning with the future of coastal cities given accelerating sea level rise. As anthropologist Caspar Bruun Jensen (2017) has written, coastal cities are being forced to adapt to the presence of water in new ways, “After a few Centuries where terrestrialization was in the ascendant, the amphibious is gaining new life. In many parts of the world, water now seems to be flowing back into land, submerging coastal areas on a semi-permanent basis or creating recurrent floods, making the insufficiency of terrestrial responses increasingly apparent.” Nonetheless, in many cities, amphibiousness is resisted by modernist technopolitical apparatuses that cling to the idea that it will be possible to securely engineer clear distinctions between “dry land” and “watercourse” even as new distributions and intensities of water appear.
I am particularly interested in the fate of Houston where four so-called “500-year” flood events have occurred since 2017. Houston has always struggled to extract a city from what architect Larry Albert calls the “undifferentiated muck” of its coastal prairies and massive bayou system. But what Elizabeth Povinelli might call the urban geontology of Houston is truly amphibious and becoming more so. Most of Houston’s inner loop ranges between 12 and 24 meters in elevation. The average annual sea level rise measured at Galveston Island over the past five years is already 1cm/year—over three times as fast as the average global rate—and appears to be accelerating. If this trend continues, each year the Houston area will face increasing coastal inundation and the threat of storm surges pressing more deeply into the city’s core. More water is coming to Houston both from the sky and from the sea; the question is whether Houston is ready to accept an amphibious future.
This is the research question that motivates me. How could we foster greater amphibious acceptance and amphibious urbanism? What might a Houston look and feel like that accepted its future as a “rain driven wetness” as Dilip da Cunha might say rather than a land drained by rivers. I am hoping to develop a conventional anthropological research program but also to augment it through collaborative public art projects.