Mud for the Land
Quieting the Land
Besides the conventional financial and technical requirements, the typical property leasing agreement often includes the provision that a tenant be assured of the “quiet enjoyment of the land.” The term quiet, apparently, refers not to protection from excess noise but an assurance that the tenant can enjoy his or her possession without interference and interruption, free from disturbance and dissension.1 But quiet also has a more active sense in the language of law, as settlements of ambiguous or disputed property relations speak of “quieting title.” It’s a rather archaic phrase but an evocative and suggestive one for my purposes.
What it tells us is that property doesn’t just happen. Just as quiet can be a verb, so property is an enactment (Rose 1994; Seed 1995). In this sense, a property regime is never complete and self-evident but requires a continual doing. The doing of real property happens not only in courtrooms and the law schools. Property must also be put to work on material spaces and real people, including owners and those who are to be excluded from that which is owned. In this grounding of property, ideological enactments are also required, including those that relate to certain notions of land. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, land in its legal sense is a “ground or territory . . . owned by a person or viewed as public or private property.” Property is enacted on law’s land—and, indeed, helps to produce the land—in diverse ways. Maps must be drawn, surveys prepared, developments realized, fences built. And in these enactments a very particular and contingent vision of property is produced, one that Joseph Singer (2000a: 3) terms the ownership model: a notion of property premised on a consolidated bundle of rights (use, exclusion, alienation) and vested in a single, determinate owner who exercises absolute control. And thus it is that law’s lands appear to be quiet lands. They are not only lands that are securely possessed, for which title is determinate. The land itself appears inert and quiescent.2 The doing of property disappears.
But the law does not exhaust the various meanings and possibilities communicated by the term land. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word can also be used to refer to a site of occupation and cultural use (such as the land of a nation or people), unoccupied nature (such as a heath or steppe), or a natural “resource” that can be harnessed for human ends. Similarly, property is not contained by the ownership model, despite the endless policing of its boundaries (MacPherson 1987). Property can additionally accommodate notions of common or public property (Singer 2000b). Moreover, the “right to exclude” has as its necessary concomitant the “right not to be excluded” (MacPherson 1987: 77). These ambivalences of property, what Julie Katherine Gibson-Graham (1996: ix) might term its “loose ends,” are evident in its enactments. Property is not a fact but an aspiration. To frame a prevailing property regime as an enactment is to recognize the massive, continuing mobilizations of social networks of power, aided by discourses and technologies, that sustain it. Property must be quieted, the land settled. But networks unravel. Technologies fail. Discourses misspeak. And networks can nevertheless be rerouted, technologies rewired, and discourses reframed. And the land can become loud and unsettled.
The Graffiti of the Everyday
When a parcel of land is to be rezoned or a major development is planned, the applicant is usually required to set up a notice on the site that informs the public of the proposal. In Vancouver, the city where I live, these notices are conventionally headed with the phrase development application. We are told of the name of the developer (who may not be the owner of the land, whose name is often excluded) and their proposal for a named location. A map bounds the site (see fig. 1).
Joe Hermer and Alan Hunt (1996) characterize such signs as a form of “official graffiti.” Pervasive and apparently trivial, official graffiti are deeply implicated in the government of everyday life. Along with traffic signals, “no smoking” signs, advisory notices on consumer goods, and warnings for “block watch” programs, the development application sign is part of an ensemble that prohibits, cautions, directs, advises, and watches. Official graffiti translates things into “forms that can be managed and governed,” thus making possible “action at a distance” (Hermer and Hunt 1996: 475). Thus, the development application participates in the enactment of property, mobilizing and regulating spatially farflung social objects and relations.
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I would like to acknowledge the anonymous creator(s) of the supplication that is at the center of this article, versions of which were presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Chicago, November 1999, and at the Socio-Legal Studies Association conference in Bristol, April 2001. Adrienne Burk provided useful insights and did all she could to explain public art to me. Eric Clark also helped with the derivation of highest and best use. I thank the Public Culture editorial committee for their useful suggestions. My thanks also to Aurian Haller, Damian Collins, Jennifer Hyndman, and Peter Fitzpatrick.
- Stroud and James 1971: 2230–31, s.v. “quiet enjoyment.”
- Quiet, meaning “undisturbed, not interfered with or interrupted,” and quiescent, meaning “motionless, silent, dormant,” share a common etymological root.