Fetishizing the modern city: the phantasmagoria of urban technological networks


Technological networks (water, gas, electricity, information etc.) are constitutive parts of the urban. They are the mediators through which the perpetual process of transformation of nature into city takes place. In this article, we take water and water networks as an emblematic example to excavate the shifting meanings of urban technological networks during modernity. Indeed, as water becomes commodified and fetishized, nature itself becomes re‐invented in its urban form (aesthetic, moral, cultural codings of hygiene, purity, cleanliness etc.) and severed from the grey, ‘muddy’, kaleidoscopic meanings and uses of water as a mere use‐value. Burying the flow of water via subterranean and often distant pinpointed technological mediations (dams, purification plants, pumping stations) facilitates and contributes to masking the social relations through which the metabolic urbanization of water takes place. The veiled subterranean networking of water facilitates the severing of the intimate bond between use value, exchange value and social power. We argue that during early modernity, technologies themselves became enshrined as the sources of all the wonders of the city’s water. Dams, water towers, sewage systems and the like were celebrated as glorious icons, carefully designed, ornamented and prominently located in the city, celebrating the modern promise of progress. During twentieth‐century high‐modernity, the symbolic and material shrines of progress started to lose their mobilizing powers and began to disappear from the cityscape. Water towers, dams and plants became mere engineering constructs, often abandoned and dilapidated, while the water flows disappeared underground and in‐house. They also disappeared from the urban imagination. Urban networks became ‘urban fetishes’ during early modernity, ‘compulsively’ admired and marvelled at, materially and culturally supporting and enacting an ideology of progress. The subsequent failure of this ‘ideology of progress’ is paralleled by their underground disappearance during high‐modernity, while the abandonment of their ‘urban dowry’ announced a recasting of modernity in new ways. We conclude that the dystopian underbelly of the city that at times springs up in the form of accumulated waste, dirty water, pollution, or social disintegration, produces a sharp contrast when set against the increasingly managed clarity of the urban environment. These contradictions are becoming difficult to be contained or displaced.