The empty place: Legal formalities and the cultural state

Annelise Riles*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

    3 Scopus citations


    This essay concerns the uses of technical legal rules concerning property ownership in creating what I call an empty place. From the point of view of contemporary cultural theory, the notion of an empty place is a contradiction in terms. In the early 1990s, anthropologists, literary theorists, cultural geographers, and like-minded legal scholars argued for an understanding of space and place as constructed and constructive in nature.1 These scholars emphasized the role of conceptions of place- Aesthetic, geographic, political-in the construction of personal, group, and national identities.2 Ideological constructions of space and place were shown to play important roles in, for example, regimes of racial exclusion.3 Likewise, displacement was taken to have consequences for a loss of personal or group identity.4 And yet the socially constitutive character of space also suggested that place remained available as a resource of resistance and empowerment.5 Of particular interest, from the point of view of the theme of this collection, was the role of law in the construction of place and vice versa.6 David Campbell, for example, has described how what he terms a "political anthropology" of group identities informed the cartographic orientation of international lawyers working in Bosnia, and how as a result the solutions to the conflict there inscribed and enshrined nationalist ideologies within the geography of legally defined boundaries.7 This understanding of the mutually constitutive nature of law and space was also taken as a source of hope: If law was constitutive of spatial arrangements and vice versa, and spatial arrangements in turn inscribed important notions of identity and politics, it followed that as a socially constituted practice, law must be available for groups to reinterpret as an instrument of social change. For example, Nicholas Blomley has described how notions of landscape at work in conceptions of property become available as a resource for disempowered groups in conflict with developers over urban development.8 These scholars definitively demolished the notion that there could ever be such a thing as "empty" space and emphasized the ideological uses of the notion in the European colonial project, or global capitalism. 9 Lefebvre describes the concept of abstract space as "the locus and environment of Reason,"10 characterized by a will to authoritarian domination, an emptying out of the "natural," and a "flattening" of "social and 'cultural' spheres": This modern state promotes and imposes itself as the stable center- definitively-of (national) societies and spaces. As both the end and the meaning of history . . . it flattens the social and "cultural" spheres. It enforces a logic that puts an end to conflicts and contradictions.11 Against this ideological notion of the emptiness of space, these scholars proposed the concept of "place": They sought to reimagine the passive, neutral space that is the "raw material" of capitalist philosophical tracts as a receptacle for meaningful objects, actions, agents, or ideologies12 and also to demonstrate how local communities opposed the forces of global capitalism by deploying ideas of place. This work demonstrated that spaces gained psychological and symbolic resonance13 by the way they are experienced14 and "eulogized" as they are imbued through memory with imaginative qualities.15 From this point of view, the purposefully "cartographic" orientation of the laws I will describe, and my own insistence on the possibility of an empty place in this essay, will seem naive and politically troubling in the way they fail to appreciate that people always imbue spaces with political meaning (to deny this fact seems to give renewed voice to an old ideological position that had taken much hard work to deconstruct). 16 For now, I simply want to note that in this literature place is imagined as the product, and hence the cultural property of persons by virtue of their capacity for meaning-making. What is given primacy in this response to the "cartographic" obsession with space that character izes the tradition of property as economic means, is persons and their creative propensity for knowledge/ownership. In this essay, instead, I want to suggest that the very possibility of a debate about the expressive qualities of a legally constituted place is dependent on a particular notion of government and social life that I will call the cultural state. I intend the term in two senses: First, I refer to government organized according to theories of culture and cultural difference and devoted in ostensibly benevolent ways to the preservation and elaboration of this difference. Nearly all states are to some degree cultural states today. But second, I refer to a phenomenon that transcends and encapsulates the character of government. Our "cultural state" is a discursive state or condition in which the hegemony of culture, and of the kinds of arguments, assumptions, and aspirations that produced the culture concept, is nearly absolute. I want to trace out the consequences of the culturalist foundations of the state practices with respect to an admittedly exotic and unique case, the legal and political treatment of mixed-race peoples in the colonial and precolonial state of Fiji. What makes Fiji interesting as a case of colonial governmentality is that it represents the apotheosis of the vision of cultural government I have described. Fiji was ceded to the British Crown in 1874, at the moment at which theories of "culture" in the modern sense were first appearing on the academic stage. Fiji's first governor, Arthur Gordon, the son of a prime minister, was deeply influenced by the anthropology he had learned at Cambridge, and his project in Fiji was to be an experiment in cultural rule. His native policies bear the strong imprint of the evolutionary theories of Sir Henry Maine championed. 17 In Fiji, the cultural state extended to the form of governance itself: Gordon presented himself to his native subjects as a high chief among chiefs and even accepted sevusevu (presentation of kava root as an expression of chiefly respect) according to what he took to be Fijian custom. Successive governors took the matter even further by writing scholarly articles for anthropological journals and engaging in learned arguments about the extent to which Gordon's policies, as a scientific matter, had gotten the "facts" of Fijian culture right. Generations of critiques of colonialism in Fiji have largely continued this tradition, albeit to opposite ends, by asking to what extent Gordon's policies were built upon "essentialist" notions of Fijian culture- "invented traditions"-and what effects these essentialisms have had on those subjected to colonial rule. The Fiji case brings into relief the less benevolent side of culturalism as it is deployed in academic and popular debate, as in governmental action. I focus on what happens to those people defined as "without culture"-here, the so-called half-castes, or part-Europeans, or today, just simply, but officially, "Others"-descendants of sexual unions between foreigners and the indigenous population, many of whom today live on small plots of land obtained by their ancestors.19 Since the colonial era, these people have been defined through a discourse of "illegitimacy": They were, in the government's eyes, the products of illegitimate marriages and hence could claim neither European nor Fijian citizenship. They were also culturally illegitimate-to a colonial government devoted to good anthropological theories of culture, halfcastes represented, quite literally, the bastardization of Fijian culture. For many of these "others," land has physically defined their space in the polity. In each generation, the plots acquired by ancestors have been further divided, and land is rarely sold outside the clan.20 Even within this legally and spatially circumscribed sphere, however, Part- Europeans confront the legal effects of their illegitimacy. For example, until recently, most half-castes could not count on the rules of inheritance that provided for land to pass to one's heirs in the absence of a will because as "illegitimates"-children born out of wedlock-those heirs would not be recognized. My hope is that this example will enable a conversation about some of the consequences of the hegemony of culture outlined above. The second part of the essay turns to the uses Part- European's made of a particular kind of legal institution, the land title registration system. I argue that in Fiji, legal formalities created a set of actual places shielded from the reach of the cultural state and also a set of antihegemonic possibilities for living in the shadow of the hegemony of identity and cultural politics.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationThe Place of Law
    PublisherUniversity of Michigan Press
    Number of pages31
    ISBN (Print)9780472031580
    StatePublished - Dec 1 2003

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Social Sciences(all)


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