Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The City Made of Words: Text mining the spaces of subaltern agency in Britain, 1848-1919

[abstract for a talk to be delivered at the University of Virginia Scholars' Lab, Thursday Sep. 23]

Can digital methods resolve major debates in the historiography of political agency? In recent decades, historical scholarship in British politics has identified an era of expert rule at the cost of seemingly losing the thread of successful movements from below after 1815. The talk will outline the failures of the linguistic turn and the subsequent return of British social history back to the state. An emerging consensus now describes an era of modern expert rule characterized by the state's presence in every domain of everyday life, including infrastructure, public health, crime, poverty, and housing. Historians in this tradition (I have been one myself) routinely describe Britain 1848 as a nation where the subaltern features chiefly as the subject of surveillance, management, and repression. Much more rarely to these stories successfully describe subalterns after 1848 as political actors in their own right. Political historians are thus challenged by question first raised by Karl Polanyi, Michel Foucault, and Jurgen Habermas. Is the hegemonic power of the state in the modern world complete? Where can one find evidence of structural or continuous resistance?

Successfully identifying agency from below demands a redefinition of political agency and new methodologies for sorting the masses of texts opened up for mining by the digital era. The rest of the talk will therefore excavate methodologies from late nineteenth-century philosophers of language like Ernst Cassirer, mid-century geographers like Peter Gould, scholars of mobile culture like E. J. Hobsbawm, and anarchist writers like Colin Ward. These methods, I shall argue, foreground the potential of language mining for identifying spaces of emergent publics where agency from below has been expressed over the long duree.

Applied to digital texts, landscape methods can enhance the depth and breadth of research on alternative agency. A program for digital research is presented, together with a database on the heterotopias of late nineteenth-century London, designed to highlight the spatiality of coexisting political movements already identified in the secondary literature: the settlement houses, landscape of state surveillance, the land reform movement, theosophists, slumming, sexual and ethnic subcultures, bohemia, and hobohemia. Preliminary maps of places named in the database will be presented in conjunction with a discussion of how such a method might address larger historiographical concerns.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Modernity as a Land Crisis

Land is unlike any other form of commodity. In R. H. Tawney's words, it was "orgies of land speculation" that resulted in the displacement of peasants and the linking of capital to real estate. Land trade, rather than capitalism itself, has been behind some of the most lasting and damaging aspects of advanced capitalism: the clearance of black neighborhoods, the creation of segregated cities in South Africa, India, and the United States where property ownership was backed up by law; and the economic isolation of the poor.

Some of the reasons land ownership has been so linked to power in the modern era is the legal restrictions that accompany real estate but not other forms of property. As Avner Offer pointed out in his history of nineteenth-century land movements, land is slower to trade than other commodities; it is more hampered with legal restrictions and covenants. Many of these -- duties of road maintenance, the law of lights, restrictions on entail -- went back to medieval and Roman times. But even if we imagined away the laws of trade in land, the ownership of land still gives rise to other powers that other capitalists don't have. Land ownership means buying into the right to engineer the experience of other individuals. Even the mere owner of a shopfront in a city has purchased the right to interfere with the perceptions, rights, and choices of his fellows, through how he organizes that space, through accoutrements like benches or air conditioning or street trees with which he amends his property, through what he displays and refuses to display -- powers that the owner of a yacht or the mere dealer in corn at the market has not purchased. Land ownership is implicitly linked to the governance of others' experience, and so removing land ownership from the feudal system to the capitalist system created after effects too broad to be summed up by a study of abstract capital markets themselves.

I draw here on the writing of Elizabethan historian R. H. Tawney and his reflections on the massive turnover of land that transpired in Europe between roughly 1500 and 1700 with the draining of northern Europe and enclosure of its forest frontier. Everywhere, land exchange resulted in the rapid escalation of prices, with the result of new political relationships with the peasantry characterized by enclosure, depopulation, riot, and suppression. In England, these patterns were intensified by an added factor: the breakup of monastic lands, which were turned over first to the crown and then to agents who sold them to the highest bidder. For these reasons, the turnover was greater, the gentry turned over more rapidly, their hold and rights to land were preserved more tenuously, and they had more to fear from an outright peasant rebellion of the kind embodied by the Levellers.

Based on his study of the English Civil War, Tawney reached the conclusion that land politics, rather than democratic ideas, were at the heart of the age of revolutions that created modern nations and the system of classes. Ownership in land, he reminded his readers, meant more than ownership in other forms of property. It presented political status -- the right to vote, the right to a title -- for the vote was linked to land ownership in England until 1867. It also gave social status. Land owners built country houses and began to participate in a world of political influence based on hospitality given to royalty and political office holders. Finally, ownership in alienable land meant unprecedented powers of social engineering rarely seen in Feudal systems. Land owners cleared villages and built new ones; they *had* to, in order to keep up with the increasingly extensive use of agriculture by their competitors. The regime of alienable property in land that emerged from the Civil War, buoyed by the theory of Thomas Hobbes, was in almost every sense -- the sense of creating a power elite, the sense of depriving the working class of economic and political access -- based on how it preserved the rights to property in land.

According to the subdiscipline of moral geography, this centrality of land ownership to modern liberalism in fact masks many of the most urgent issues of class, race, and gender participation in the modern era. We accept the built environment -- the separation of mother's house from father's work, the segregation of black and white neighborhoods -- as entirely natural. Looking backwards from the postwar twentieth century, the reform movements that receive the most press have been those dealing in abstract rights involving court and market. Yet the spatial structuration of our cities, farms, and nations conceals within it boundaries that demarcate access and inclusion. They are invisible to all except a radical tradition that has stressed the significance of land to the experience of contemporary governance.

Twenty-first century events threaten to again put the land at the center of analysis. Rapid turnovers in the foreclosure crisis, the devolution of state infrastructure, the spiraling cost of real estate, reverse white flight, and new back-to-the-land and utopian movements taking over the abandoned cities of Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, mean that land ownership issues have captured attention. In addition, new methodologies like collaborative mapping and GIS have offered the infrastructure for participatory efforts to make sense of these new forces that determine so much of contemporary inclusion in market and politics. Finally, the fabrication of the digital commons creates a plane of virtual real estate where the same issues of participation, visibility, social engineering, alienability and exclusion apply as with land. The enclosure of this virtual commons and its contestation through the Net Neutrality movement are among the most important political crises of our day. We could even point, with Eleanor Ostrom, to connections between death of the commons in traditional cultures and the increasing likelihood of exhausting natural resources linked to land -- which after all can be turned over at rapid rates.

So here is the hypothesis I draw: the problem with modernity isn't capitalism or government per se; the problem is land and the way capital and government have been tied to it. The land reform movement of the nineteenth century was the most courageous attempt to reform those dealings, and the crises of not having reformed them linger with us to this day.