University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Friday, April 3rd 2009
Speaker: Chandra Mukerji, Communication Studies, University of California, San Diego
Subject: Impersonal Rule: Logistical Power and the Canal du Midi
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

In 17th-century France during the reign of Louis XIV, a navigational canal was built across Languedoc to join the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean through the Garonne River. It was called the Canal du Midi. The project was massive and at its completion hailed as a wonder of the world. But its importance lay less in its splendor than in the kind of power that it embodied. This project was part of the effort by the king’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, to undercut the autonomy of the nobility and shore up the power of the state. He could not achieve this shift in power through traditional patrimonial politics, since nobles threatened the king’s reign precisely because of the autonomy they achieved through their tight patrimonial bonds. The alternative was to change the face of the French countryside to embody the authority of the monarch over his kingdom and to empower the state by giving it land over which to exercise authority. This was the switch to impersonal rule that I want to describe in this talk, a politics exercised through engineering. The engineering knowledge required for the work importantly did not come from the state even though it stood for its powers. It was a product of distributed cognition, the combined intelligence of different groups from Pyrenean women peasants to artisans to military engineers. Together they created an anonymous intelligence that represented the state at the local level and was used to change the conditions of possibility for local life. The Canal du Midi was a prime example of this infrastructural engineering and the politics of impersonal rule. Its history reveals tight connections between early technoscientific culture and state formation in 17th-century France.

Cosponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study and Theorizing Early Modern Studies.

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