Joanne Yao
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Taming the international highway
Constructing the Rhine
in The ideal river
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Chapter 2 examines the taming of the Rhine in the European geographical imaginary and contends that the early nineteenth-century ambition to transform the Rhine into a frictionless commercial highway reveals the double moral and economic logics behind the political project to tame nature. Controlling the river’s unruly flows would bring both economic and moral gains – a straightened and disciplined river would minimize economic loss from flooding, reclaim swamps for agricultural production, and create the ideal highway for local and international trade – but it also represented a moral conquest from the barbarity of swampy disuse. This double economic and moral logic not only informed the development of legitimate state authority along the Rhine; due to its position as an important transnational geography, this double logic extended to international politics. Here, taming the Rhine created both a reliable economic highway for European commerce while eliminating the fractious ‘Teutonic insanity’ that had hindered Rhine prosperity for centuries. The chapter also explores the Romantic counterpoint to this framing of the Rhine, and how the river as high Romantic fantasy only amplified the need to tame it as steamboats of tourists flooded the river and the Rhine became a different kind of economic commodity.

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The ideal river

How control of nature shaped the international order


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