Martha Kaplan (Poughkeepsie)

Insouciant Water?

Enlivened Water in Fiji, New York and especially Singapore

All humans need water. But water is more than good to drink, it is good to think with. Inspired by corporate imagery of nature, New Yorkers' love for bottled Fijian Water, but not for Fijians, seems a classic instance of commodity fetishism – endowing things with life and denying social relations with producers. In this sense fetishism is powerful deceit, with dire environmental consequences. But there's more to consider about water fetishism. In New York some people have a caring relationship with their water coolers, endowing water with humanity. And what about the state? In water scarce postcolonial Singapore, when the state began to add NEWater (high quality recycled waste water) to the public drinking water supply, water also became a living state symbol, the Public Utilities Board's "mascot," Water Wally, an insouciant anthropomorphized water drop. When people, corporations and states engage water they engage both human necessities and powerful meanings. What meanings are made, necessities managed and powers awakened by invocation of water care? What meanings – this is cultural anthropology's specialty: seeking to understand the very real, very consequential imaginative worlds different groups and their agents create. In this case, create around water. And in this paper we consider a highly consequential problem in the analysis of meaning-making: fetishism, here water fetishism. Endowing an inanimate thing with life. Marx showed how to see through fetishes, making social science a demystifying practice, anti-fetishism. Latour advised "anti-anti-fetishism" asking us to track actual histories and interpret situations without resorting to reduction. Most water scholars are suspicious of corporate, calculated fetishism – though supportive of public enlivenings of water and water worlds, attentive for example to water deities or legally empowered rivers. State water care in Singapore raises another dimension, at once disciplinary and surprisingly playful, explored ethnographically in this paper.