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While Faust dreamt of damming Nature's "raging tide," Caterpillar does it. The story opens with an authoritative male voiceover narrating: "December 1994, work begins on China's Three Gorges Dam. The largest flood control and electrical power project in history." This bold narration is set against an equally decisive montage of trucks, cranes, and other oversized earthmoving equipment fabricating a wall of rock edging out into a river. The enormity and scale of this project is cast by comparing it to scenes of other monumental engineering projects of the 20th century. They are labeled for us in case we don't recognize them -- Hoover Dam 1935, Golden Gate Bridge 1937, Trans-Siberian Railway 1952, and Euro-Tunnel 1993. Each of these was an epic adventure in materially imposing human will on the forces of nature -- for the sake of generating electrical power and more efficient transportation systems. Here is the full Caterpillar narrative:

Like similar projects of other times it will become a focus of world attention.
Inspire far more than the usual effort.
And change the lives of millions of people forever.
Projects of this magnitude tend to do that.
We know we've been present at most of them.

World history in the making. This is grand stuff indeed. The commercial concludes with another montage of 20th century signifiers of modernity -- the globe of the 1939 World's Fair, a series of bridges, airports, dams, and even the Sidney Opera House. While Caterpillar only claims to have been "present at most of them," it associates itself with what these images signify -- Capitalist Modernity as developmental monumentalism, the construction of massive interventions into nature for the sake of controlling it. While flexibility, lightness, and speed may be characteristics of the new economy, it is still the concerted effort of men directing heavy machines that gives weight, substance, and durability to the old economy. These engineering and architectural feats represent the modern world coming into being. They are colossal achievements etched in rock and stone. Most have been State projects associated with nation-building. It is curious then that the role of the State disappears from view in the Caterpillar narrative.

To underscore the epic nature of such projects, it is essential that the images of the Chinese project be intercut with other masterpiece projects. This permits the narrative of progress to include all of humanity -- "And change the lives of millions of people forever." Modernity's reach is global and universal. It is Caterpillar's logo that overlays the last montage of modern projects. The miracles of modernity are made possible by corporations of vision. In this narrative the State has been displaced by global Capital as the mover of the world.

Millions of lives will in fact change (and already have) because of the Three Gorges Dam, though not all will be in a positive fashion. Think of the hundreds of thousands of poor peasants whose communities and towns and dwellings and livelihoods and traditions have been, or will be, destroyed or dislocated as a consequence of damming this river.


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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey