Liviu Chelcea (Bucharest)

When Waters Meet

Hydraulic Hospitality and the Limits of Water Commodification

A plurality of commodified waters is available for consumption in US restaurants, yet free tap water is abundantly given to patrons. This hydraulic hospitality sets them apart from restaurants in other countries, where tap is not as automatically, constantly, and unconditionally delivered to patrons. Drawing on fieldwork in New York restaurants and repeated conversations with waiters carried out in 2018, and taking the networked nature of hydraulic hospitality in restaurants as an ethnographic entry point, I foreground the figure of waiters as water laborers and agents of both unconditional hydraulic hospitality and water commodification. Waiters' hydraulic actions transform the perceptions of tap water, create alliances between patrons and various waters available in restaurants, and temporarily suspend diffuse, but widespread fears about water safety. By bringing the ethnographic gaze to bear on hydraulic actions of waiters and hydraulic hospitality, anthropologists can get a grounded understanding of the agents, progress and resistance to bottled water commodification, and reconfigure hospitality as a networked and distributed process. To understand ethnographically hydraulic hospitality carries two implications about ongoing anthropological conversations. One is about water commodification, particularly about bottled water. Bottled water is "the best example of complete commodification of water" (Bakker 2014:482) and a "pure" commodity (Wilk 2006). Yet, hydraulic hospitality and tap water are net winners in the competition with bottled water in restaurants. Thus, hydraulic hospitality raises interesting questions about the limits to water commodification. While we have a good understanding of the new forms and economic processes surrounding water commodification (Wilk 2006, Szasz 2007, Gleick 2010, Hawkins, Potter, and Race 2015; Kaplan 2007; 2011, Ballestero 2019), few studies have explored ethnographically the limits and resistance to bottled water commodification. If they did, research usually turned to institutional politics, community resistance, and campaigns promoted by municipalities, universities, NGOs, and anti-corporate coalitions (Jaffe and Newman 2013:11-13), but have less analyzed resistance to commodification in its diffuse and non-institutionalized forms, entangled in hospitality and infrastructural politics. Such studies have foregrounded the lack of trust in the government and branding and have focused on faceless actors with massive agency and power, such as the state or bottled water producers. By extending the ethnographic gaze to other hydrological actors who promote or resist water commodification, such as restaurant staff, I document how waiters' hydraulic actions are sites of agency in modest, yet important ways. Their practical sense creates alliances between clients and different water projects coexisting in restaurants, as waiters function as obligatory passage points of the water that people consume in restaurants. Second, I suggest that hospitality can be productively analyzed as a networked process. Many ethnographies have focused on the minutiae and generative analyses of hospitality in the making, but have attended less to the infrastructural elements that support the processes that come together in hospitality. Analyses of hospitality are devoid of pipes, cables, roads, energy, wires, waves, and other forms of networked infrastructures, which, arguably, co-constitute the sociality of guests and hosts. Candea and da Col (2012: S8) have urged ethnographers to pay increasing attention to the material dimension of hospitality, "to the substances and materialities involved, or to extensions of hospitality beyond the human." Along with food and drinks, order of seating at the table, and cooking and serving paraphernalia, infrastructures – understood as "matter that enable[s] the movement of other matter" (Larkin 2013:328) – may be a step in understanding the materiality of hospitality. I want to go a step further and extend the interest in materiality not just to the objects of exchange between persons, but to the urban flows, such as piped water, that participate in those relations. Waiters' hydraulic labor, the logistics of stockpiling pitchers and water vessels in restaurants, the imagined qualities of tap water, representations of the city's watershed, the perceptions of pipes and the logic of care and service expected from restaurant staff participate in the way hospitality plays out. Candea and Da Col (2012: S14) note that "the language of hospitality" connects different scales and spatial containers such as "houses, villages, nations or "homelands," indicating that understanding "how are such scale-shifts managed, and how are connections made between entities which have their own distinct materialities" is an emerging ethnographic location. One possible answer is that the connections between scales are sometimes materialized in circulatory infrastructures, as many studies of infrastructures have pointed out, which transport not only water, but also meaning, bucolic images of the watershed, risks and ways of inhabiting the city. In foregrounding the networked nature of hospitality, I point to an analytic venue that brings the ethnographic gaze to bear on the infrastructures and the matter that circulates through them, in order to assist and support the substances and processes of hospitality.