Walking backwards as counter-ritual
by Rosalyn D`MelloJan 04, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Aastha D.Published on : Mar 11, 2023
'Land,' far from the image of a tabula rasa on earth it attempts to conjure, is, in fact, the substrate of so much more. ‘Land’ includes the air on it, water that flows through it, the plant and animal life it feeds, the subterranean ores and resources it holds, the indigenous populations it sustains and who sustain it. ‘Land’ is a world in itself, with its own context, language, story, history, people, and their freedoms. ‘Land’ can be divided (distributed) and controlled—by lines, fences, walls, laws, the military, what we call ‘borders’ and their many enforcements—but to deem its ownership permanent or accurate only excavates the terrible histories of settler colonialism.
The history of bordering in the Americas is the history of a colonial episteme. To divide ‘land’ is not a simple act of territorialisation. As a practice of seizing land from Indigenous peoples, colonisation parcels land into packages, treating it as ‘empty’ in need of being surveyed, depopulated, and resettled. With the colonial project’s obsessions with neat ownerships, gridding, separating land and water, and the delineation of property lines, only makes the border a colonial construct. This colonial construct, like all other constructs, is gloriously under siege. When traced back to its rudimentary and crude methodologies, its primitive laws that were bent this way and that, borders have become central to the discourse around and practice of decolonisation.
Organised as one of the Conversations on Architecture and Land in and out of the Americas, by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia GSAPP (Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation), ‘Land, Law, Labour’ is one such defiance. The conversation highlights new approaches to the history of the intertwining of law, visual culture, and land—and the benefits of cross-disciplinary, cross-geographic and cross-historical comparison and collaboration. Mabel Wilson (Columbia University) presented from her new project, Building Race and Nation, which examines how enslaved labour was employed to construct early government architecture and urbanism in the Middle Atlantic States on land dispossessed from Indigenous nations. This work intersects with narratives of racialisation in Brenna Bhandar’s (University of British Columbia) work, in particular with her critique of "the possession of the self and land" that is central to the settler colonial project.
Wilson begins by establishing context of her larger project, the book Building Race and Nation: Slavery Dispossession in Architecture from 1780 to 1860, which is a work of architectural and cultural history that places architecture, nationalism and racial difference at the central influence of civic buildings in the first 75 years of American history.
The question of property as the central formation of modernity and the modern subjects of race and citizenship becomes a critical theoretical thread. Wilson reveals how, in the process of engaging with archives, she realised that American whiteness was formed at fortified not only in relationship to Blackness and its captivity (her original conjecture), but also Indigeneity and its dispossession.
'The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorised by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.'
Northwest Ordinance or an Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North-West of the River Ohio,*
Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention (National Archives Building, 1787)
John Locke’s essay, On Property, a philosophical justification for colonialism, finds its ‘logic’ in the thesis of the likes of Thomas Jefferson: statesman, naturalist, architect, planter and slave owner, whose work (a singular book, and many land surveys) tries to establish a relationship between race, reason and architecture. For Jefferson, the Black mind was incapable of fathoming, imagining, appreciating architecture and its virtues of durability, utility, and beauty, while it would only elevate the taste and morality of the white man. Locke’s essay stands on this shaky foundation of racialised notions of morality, aptitude, character, and capacity. The idea that colonists are equipped (by virtue of their skin colour) to use land more productively than Indigenous people, becomes a material and legal justification for occupying lands by force, enforcing grids, and 'urban planning'.
Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught Black mathematician, astronomer, and a naturalist himself, protests the ‘mental inferior capacity’ of the Black person (antithetical to the naturalist thesis of all men being equal as per nature’s law), to which Jefferson responds by saying that Blackness is “a sublime monotony” and “immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race.” Furthering the contradiction, and to ‘simplify’ the undulations of natural topography, a trim and tidy 10 mile by 10 mile square, commonly referred to as the Jefferson grid, became a motif of 'planning.' This was established as the Land Ordinance of 1785 to set up a standardised system whereby settlers could purchase title to farmland in the ‘undeveloped’ west and extract resources, revenue, labour, and original inhabitants from it. Even today, the vast majority of America’s western land is divided into a lattice-work of farms, towns and forests.
In Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar establishes an analogous relationship between race and property that is produced by “complex relations between capital, science, and culture.” Bhandar shows how the colonial appropriation of indigenous lands depends upon ideologies of European racial superiority as well as upon legal narratives that equate civilised life with English concepts of property. In this way, property law legitimates and rationalises settler colonial practices while it racialises those deemed unfit to own property. Bhandar suggests that these histories—one of private property and the other of colonial land appropriation—are each histories of enclosure and the bordering instruments that advanced and authorised enclosure.
...trace three different economic, political-philosophical, and cultural rationales for specific legal modalities of ownership that appear at particular historical junctures in settler colonies: the ideology of use that casts both land and its native inhabitants as in need of improvement, the logical of abstraction that underlie increasingly commodified visions of land and human life from the seventeenth century onward, and the use of the juridical concept of status to bind together identity and property relations.(26)
Brenna Bhandar, The Colonial Lives of Property: Law; Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership
In 1891, the French economist Paul Leroy Beaulieu fiercely defended European colonialism in Africa, saying, "This state of the world implies for the civilised people a right of intervention … in the affairs of (barbarian tribes or savages).” The assertion and revolt prominently articulated by Ghanaian freedom fighter Kwame Nkrumah, that “European control of Africa’s destiny never ended with colonialism,” is only furthered by the truth resounded by journalist Dawn Paley, “far from preventing violence, the border is in fact the reason it occurs.”
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