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Response to Review no. 858

It is a honor to receive such a favorable review of my new book, Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi, from Michel Cotte, who knows the history of the Canal du Midi so well. There are clearly some differences in historical perspective at stake, however, so let me address them.

I approached the study of the Canal du Midi with an interest in territoriality, posing for myself the sociological question of what kind of power states derived from infrastructural development. If France became one of the first modern states in the 17th century, as many have argued, then French infrastructure in that period mattered, and the canal was the most dramatic case with which to consider how it mattered. I spent 12 years in the archives and walking the Canal du Midi, looking not simply at a technological wonder, but also a political practice that enrolled the landscape in government in a new way. I looked at the uneasy relationship between the entrepreneur, Pierre-Paul Riquet, and the minister of the treasury who oversaw the project, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, using their correspondence to trace how political practices in France were intentionally and unintentionally altered by the enterprise. I also studied the collaborative practices of engineering to understand what kind of new intelligence was being cultivated on the project to serve the state.

The analysis in Impossible Engineering responds to the problem that I set for myself, and so it did not take as its first objective the celebration of the engineering itself. I took that for granted, and wanted to explain its roots and effects. I found the Canal du Midi to be a work of astonishing genius, but not the work of personal genius that historians like Rolt have held up for public view. The genius was more interesting and collective – reflecting the intelligence of a region rather than a man. Building the Canal du Midi required more than the gifts of a tax farmer, even surpassing the formal engineering knowledge of the period. It took tacit knowledge, too. There were local artisans who brought to the task knowledge of hydraulic cement – a material from the ancients that educated elites presumed was ‘lost’ to human knowledge. Women peasants from the Pyrenees who came to carry loads of earth up the mountains to the dam turned out to be the most sophisticated hydraulic engineers in France. In former Roman bath colonies and neighboring villages, they tended and extended waterworks to create domestic water supplies and public laundries. These were the unsung heroes of the Canal du Midi who were erased in histories of the Canal du Midi that attributed its innovations to Riquet’s genius.

Precisely the aspects of the book that Michel Cotte likes – the analysis of collaborative work and distributed cognition—are fundamentally connected to the aspect he dislikes most—my treatment of Pierre-Paul Riquet. It is true that I attack the story of his personal genius, but I do not disregard in any sense what Riquet was able to do. I see his genius as social more than technical, and his impact more political than personal. He saw what local people could construct and do with water sources, and knew intuitively that they could build a canal across Languedoc. He recognized in ordinary people qualities that many elites in the period did not. And he sought out skillful collaborators even when they had low social standing, imperiling his own authority but getting the work accomplished. He was brave in this regard, and could realize on the ground what was technically ‘impossible’ because of the strength of his character and his careful attention to material practices. The same qualities also made him recognize the power of infrastructural engineering – its capacity to transform political life by material means. He alienated Colbert with his hubris, seeing himself as a political asset – an undeserving one who was blessed by God but nonetheless important to the administration.

Colbert recoiled at these assertions. Still, Riquet was not wrong. His enterprise did indeed demonstrate the power of impersonal rule over the countryside. The Canal du Midi silently re-ordered the conditions of possibility for local life, and helped disempower the nobility of Languedoc vis à vis the state. Colbert was able to undermine their patrimonial powers with Riquet’s canal, changing the material conditions of local life that had previously served their interests. Riquet and Colbert discovered and exercised the power of infrastructure, and gave public administration a territorial trajectory. The French state in 17th-century France became modern not through a rationalization of the bureaucracy as Weber suggested or the impoverishment of the nobility at Versailles as Elias contended. The administration used infrastructural projects to reduce the local authority of the king’s adversaries and take land for public purposes, creating a territorial state. The modern territorial state was in part the work of a tax farmer in Languedoc who saw what impersonal rule could do, and even more, the work of the people of Languedoc who carried from ancient times the technical expertise to sculpt the landscape in politically consequential ways.