Diluvial Houston

No other city, of similar size and scale, faces the kind of aqueous environmental threat that Houston has experienced as recently as September 2019 with Tropical Storm Imelda and as memorably as August 2017 with Hurricane Harvey. The environmental threat has only dramatically increased with the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and today, we face a critical moment in the history of this city, when flood control and public health infrastructures are either near catastrophic failure or are leaving swaths of the population unprotected. When the response to catastrophic flooding is not all that well articulated two years after the most severe tropical cyclone rainfall event in the history of the United States, we in the humanities must ask ourselves how our skills and expertise can intervene. Similarly, the humanities can reveal aspects of racial and socioeconomic inequities in access to healthcare and resources, as well as mortality rates during pandemics. What stories. therefore, can the humanities help remember, learn, invent, and tell? What ethics are involved in the weathering of such events? What happens to those who are displaced by flooding or confinement? How are archives and collections recuperated when damaged by water, and by whom? Are urban areas aware of their flooding and toxic histories? Can we imagine and document possible futures? Diluvial Houston: Rescued Histories, Engaged Humanities, and Imagined Futures proposes a new model for engaged humanities research and pedagogy focused on local partnerships that addresses the specific challenges Houston faces in times of environmental disaster.

This initiative is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


While the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey was exceptional in its degree, flooding and its consequences have increasingly become the norm in Houston. We are facing a critical moment in the history of our city, especially when we realize that it has been developed according to obsolete environmental standards and that its flood control infrastructures are near catastrophic failure. In the span of three recent years, Houston experienced three successive so-called “500 year” flooding events. The environmental threat to health has dramatically increased with the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the city is once again an epicenter of a crisis, one that this time threatens lives, economic stability, social programs, education, and as yet unforeseen urban conditions. While a diluvial rain in Houston can reveal systemic problems related to aging flood control infrastructure, a pandemic makes apparent the city’s ill preparedness in providing the public with timely updates on, for example, the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases and available hospital beds and ventilators.

As is the case in most metropolitan areas, the limited information as yet available on the pandemic has already indicated that African American and Latinx populations have more distant access to healthcare and testing sites, not to mention protective gear. Communities in eastern Houston that under “normal circumstances” already face three to five times the incidents of toxic exposure and cancer risks also happen to live in an area prone to the unregulated release and spillage of tons of liquid and airborne carcinogenic compounds during a storm. The same inequity is reflected in news coverage that focuses on tragic flooding circumstances in affluent parts of town (e.g., Meyerland) while ignoring the equal scale of flooding in less affluent areas (e.g., East Houston). Another illustration of such inequality occurs when assurances that air quality is safe, despite the fact that a chemical company in East Houston violated regulations eight times and emitted a toxic plume that hovered over the city for days and resulted in increased hospitalizations for East Houstonians. Every time a flood happens, toxic areas show up where they were not expected and histories gradually disappear as they get washed away from neighborhoods that are either ill-equipped or ignored. The same no doubt applies to the ongoing lockdown that only a small portion of the city's population can financially sustain for extended periods of time.

Be it because of a storm or a pandemic, we are reminded yet again that nothing else seems to matter unless we understand, denounce, and change the city’s urban development culture and its vulnerabilities. It is high time to have a new conversation about the future, one that focuses not only on immediate recovery but also on long-term resiliency and sustainability. Such a conversation will require a major rethinking of how Houston approaches its urban problems and will necessarily involve collaboration with institutions, neighborhoods, and populations that suffer disproportionately or are located in especially vulnerable zones. It may be reassuring that during Hurricane Harvey, Houston broke down its traditional barriers rather heroically and many segments of its population worked collaboratively. Two years later, however, the city has yet to release a climate action plan and it therefore seems vital to expand and deepen the solidarity that does exist at times of crisis while imagining a sustainable and inclusive post-Harvey, post-Imelda, or post-Coronavirus city.

Rather than reflect on the city, the humanities must now reflect through it, working textually and contextually to develop collaborative projects that address issues of courage, creativity, and cohesion on the one hand, and displacement, dispossession, and divisions on the other. Civil engineers, architects, social scientists, and environmentalists are already approaching questions of crisis, rescue, recovery, and rebuilding in tangible ways, while we in the humanities can question the history, culture, and politics behind Houston’s infrastructures—its reliance on non-renewable energy, car-based planning, practices of physical segregation, placement of health facilities in wealthier areas of town, etc.—and their immediate effects on the city’s diverse populations.

In collaboration with other academic institutions in town, we therefore hope to expand on our Mellon-supported Public Humanities/Post Harvey initiative in order to deepen and expand relationships with a wide array of local institutions such as public utility and energy companies, news and activist organizations, charities and churches, schools and libraries, city governance and public boards, and vulnerable populations, all of which are precariously positioned in the longue durée. While Houston may well now be post-Harvey, it is now and forever pre- the next aqueous or pandemic disaster. In that sense, the activities produced by this grant may well serve as a model for other communities that are affected by rising sea levels, climate change, and viruses.

Farès el-Dahdah and Melissa Bailar

Farès el-Dahdah, Lead Principal Investigator

Farès el-Dahdah received his undergraduate degrees in fine arts and in architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design and went on to pursue his graduate studies in urbanism and architectural theory at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. Following a two decade long professorial track at Rice University's School of Architecture, he was appointed director of the Humanities Research Center (HRC) in 2012 and Professor of the Humanities in 2014. El-Dahdah was a visiting fellow at the Canadian Center for Architecture and is currently a Faculty Scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. He has written extensively on Brazil's modern architecture and has been involved in a number of collaborative projects with Casa de Lucio Costa and Fundação Oscar Niemeyer, two Brazilian cultural foundations on the boards of which he serves. In 2015-16, el-Dahdah co-led a John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures Cultures, titled, Platforms of Knowledge in a Wide Web of Worlds: Production, Participation, and Politics, and, is currently co-leading a Digital Art History Grant, titled Situated Views of Rio de Janeiro: 19th and Early 20th-Century Photography, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon and Getty Foundations, respectively. His current research interests explore and critique how digital platforms uphold the mission of disseminating knowledge while developing online geospatial platforms that describe cities over time, as they existed and as they have come to be imagined. At Rice, el-Dahdah's activities extend across the university in his capacity as co-chair of the University Committee on Information Technology as well as a member of the university's Digital Education Committee and the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences. As director of the HRC, el-Dahdah is involved in identifying, encouraging, and funding the research projects of faculty, visiting scholars, graduate, and undergraduate students as well as spearheading new ventures in the humanities and beyond.

Kathleen Canning, Co-Principal Investigator

Kathleen Canning assumed the position of Dean of the School of Humanities and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of History at Rice University in January 2018. She was previously Sonya O. Rose Collegiate Professor of History and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History, Women's Studies and German at the University of Michigan. She chaired the UM History Department from 2013 to 2017 and was founding director of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies.

She is the author of Languages of Labor and Gender (Cornell 1996) and Gender History in Practice (Cornell 2006) and co-editor of Weimar Publics/Weimar Subjects: Rethinking the Political Culture of Germany in the 1920s (Berghahn 2010). Her current book project is entitled Citizenship Effects: Gender and Sexual Crisis in the Aftermath of War and Revolution in Germany.

Since 2011 she has been the editor of the University of Michigan Press series on Social History, Popular Culture and Politics in Germany. At Michigan she received the John D’Arms Award for Distinguished Graduate Mentoring in the Humanities and the Matthews Underclass Teaching Award for her contributions to undergraduate education.

Melissa Bailar, Co-Principal Investigator

Melissa Bailar is Professor in the Practice of Humanities and the Associate Director of the Humanities Research Center at Rice University. Bailar’s background is in French studies, and she has published articles on the actress Sarah Bernhardt, the feminist poet Nicole Brossard, digital archives, and trends in higher education and is the editor of the collection Emerging Disciplines (Rice University Press, 2010). She has served as a co-principal investigator on three grants supported by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation: a John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures titled “Platforms of Knowledge in a Wide Web of Worlds: Production, Participation, Politics,” a Public Humanities Initiative with a focus on Medical Humanities and Cultural Heritage, and a multi-institutional digital humanities network. She also serves as a co-principal investigator on an American Council of Learned Societies humanities postdoctoral fellowship initiative and a National Endowment for the Humanities award for a workshop in digital textual analysis. She teaches courses on critical humanities of health, French film, and nineteenth-century French literature.

Joseph Campana, Co-Principal Investigator

Joseph Campana is a poet, arts writer and scholar of Renaissance literature, with essays on Spenser, Shakespeare, Nashe, Defoe, Middleton, poetry and poetics, and the history of sexuality in PMLA, Modern Philology, ELH, Shakespeare, and elsewhere. He is the author of The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham UP, 2012), the co-editor of Renaissance Posthumanism (Fordham, 2016), and the author of three collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005), Natural Selections (2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize, and The Book of Life (Tupelo, 2019). His poems appear in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, and many other venues. Individual poems have garnered prizes from Prairie Schooner and The Southwest Review. He has received the Isabel MacCaffrey Essay Prize, the MLA’s Crompton-Noll Award for LGB studies, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Houston Arts Alliance.

Campana serves as editor of 1500-1659 of Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, for which he has also edited a series of special issues: “Staging Allegory” (Spring 2015), “After Sovereignty” (Winter 2018), and Shakespeare’s Waters” (Spring 2019).

Recently published essays treat a range of figurations of creaturely life in early modern England--busy bees, bleeding trees, and crocodile tears. Current projects include a study of children, futurity, and sovereignty in the works of Shakespeare entitled The Child’s Two Bodies, a two-volume edited collection on Renaissance insect life called Lesser Living Creatures, and a collection of poems entitled Live Oak. His reviews of theater, dance, books, television, and the arts appear in The Kenyon Review, The Houston Chronicle, and other venues.

Sophie Sapp Moore, Postdoctoral Fellow

Sophie Sapp Moore is a broadly-trained political ecologist with a background in critical geography, comparative literature, and postcolonial theory. Moore holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from UC Davis, with a Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory. She is currently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2018-2020) and will be joining Diluvial Houston in January 2021. Her interdisciplinary research uses ethnographic and historical methods to understand intersecting processes of socio-ecological and political change in the Afro-Caribbean. Moore has conducted ethnographic research in rural Haiti since 2012, working with peasants, social movement leaders, organizers, and trainers, as well as international aid and local grassroots organizations. She writes and teaches on a diverse array of subjects that bridge critical geography, postcolonial theory, and the environmental humanities, including rural development, agrarian social movements, Black political thought, and race and space in the Americas.

Moore serves as a member of the editorial collective of ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, a member of the Governing Board of the Cultural Studies Association, and a co-founder of the Left Coast Political Ecology Network. Her current research combines ethnographic and historical approaches to agrarian transformation in Haiti, looking at formations of race, power, knowledge, and capital in Hispaniola's hinterlands. In her book manuscript, Freedom's Ground, Moore examines the political ecology of agrarian life in Haiti’s central borderlands. The book draws primarily from ethnographic fieldwork conducted with the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP, or Peasants’ Movement of Papaye) in central Haiti between 2013 and 2017 to analyze the political life and histories of militants in the movement.

Sean Morey Smith, Postdoctoral Project Manager

Sean Morey Smith received his PhD in History in 2020 from Rice University. His dissertation, “Race and Abolition in the Anglophone Atlantic, c. 1730 – 1840,” argues that racialized ideas of health and climate became increasingly entrenched as Britons and Americans publicly debated whether to ban the African slave trade and racial slavery. In particular, the belief that people of African descent were more able to work in warm climates than those descended from Europe contributed to locating racial difference in heritable bodily characteristics. By emphasizing the ways that climatic-racial arguments for and against slavery complemented the more commonly studied cultural and religious ones, Smith shows that essentialist understandings of bodily difference between white and black people gained power around the turn of the nineteenth century as slavery increasingly became an contested political issue. Alternatively, African-descended activists combatted these climatic-racial interpretations in order to buttress their goals of inclusion and citizenship. These activists realized as early as the 1820s that racial justice was intimately tied to the environment and narratives of development. While their arguments went largely unheeded at the time, this research attempts to bring new attention to their perspectives.