The (under)ground or (sub)terranean environment is a thick, complex, three-dimensional space of ‘nothing but change’ whose utility is essential to sustaining urban life above it. Living with these grounds is living in conditions of unstable hydrogeological emergence. This thesis looks at the multiple, specific, and contradictory ways in which the materiality of groundwater is understood and intervened in: different knowledges and knowledge practices as ways of knowing groundwater in Chennai, South India.
First, I ask what groundwater is, and how I might approach it. Through a series of case studies, I develop a methodology for researching groundwater, confronting the problem of how to research and write something that I cannot access. This means talking to different people who access groundwater in different ways, assembling multiple and contradictory accounts in a way that acknowledges and keeps hold of the intra-active tension between materiality and representation. My means of access are the multiple ways that different people, professions, and institutions get at groundwater, as well my own representational practices as further means of grasping at something always at a distance.
Through this I ask, what knowledges exist? How are these different knowledges coproduced, and how are they enacted or re-inscribed through scientific, professional, and everyday practices? How, therefore, can thinking with groundwater from Chennai help to read changing city and changing climate together? The format is processual and iterative: I do not set out to clean up the steps by which research methods, analysis, and theory coevolve. Each chapter is an experiment with ways of knowing groundwater.
Throughout these different points of view, it is impossible to say quite what groundwater is, other than a set of relations that move in and between the urban climate. These relations appear and are drawn into focus as registers through which to bring together accounts of diverse phenomena. Instead of as a discernible object, I begin to make sense of groundwater as a relational substance, one which is not background to the city’s ongoing reproduction, but is both substantially altered by and co-constitutive of lively urban assemblages.