Land as situated spatio-histories: A dialogue with global urbanism

Wing-Shing Tang and Solomon Benjamin

Questioning a singular global narrative

We question if global urbanism, even when conceived relationally as a bridge across contexts, can be a viable operative concept posing a singular explanatory logic? This particular theoretical anxiety has emerged over the past decade from international relations countering ideas of a dominant ‘Westphalian world’ (Kayaoglu, 2010) and corresponding ideas of‘southern urbanism’ (Roy, 2009). We seek power-laden spatial frames reflecting ahierarchical relationships to reject those that are sequential or temporal and thus project a binary between the ‘north and south’. For instance our two cases, Kowloon and East Delhi, which illustrate the ‘complexity of situated histories’ rather than adhering to a method exploring diversity via a ‘Chinese and Indian comparison’ framed under a tacit assumption of both being influenced by global capital. Our approach invokes the tongbian philosophy (Tang, 2019;Tian, 2005) and considers the complexly embedded, sedimented and different logics concerning the occupancy of land (Benjamin 2017).

Complicating land is central, as it remains at the nexus of varied forces with relational specificities across time-space contexts. Invoking Li (2014), land cannot be rolled up and taken away but also evolves to be a deeply material space whose worn textures reflect hauntings of earlier occupancies with diverse logics, where an intensity of bodies who have sat and slept on, used it as a site of prayer, to sell stuff from and when set on a pole, protect against a harsh sun or heavy rain. Land tenures move beyond cartographic imprisoning to reflect accumulative practices, memories, values and meanings and thus are central to our framing of‘situated histories’. In this operative frame, we look beyond the visible to dig deep into the ground to unravel diverse materiality and relationalism developed from the deep soil up: layer by layer, temporally and in spatial relation with many other events that open different logics and forces of transformation, both locally and far distant apart. Such centring of land as an analytic rejects its relegation as implicit in both postcolonial and planetary urbanization thinking, one of the ‘lower elements’ constituting diversity under an overarching frame of global capital.

While we recognize the importance of the philosophy of internal relations in itself, the tcmg- bian philosophy is central to emphasize spatial complementaries and problematize contradictions in land transformation. In doing so, it overcomes one of the shortcomings of dialectics informed by the philosophy of internal relations (Oilman, 2015): a determinism effected by ideas of the global expansion of capital from ‘the north to the south’ as a unilateral trajectory into neoliberalism. Mumbai posed as an emblematic ‘southern financial centre’, Delhi as a national capital of policy directives and Hong Kong and Shanghai as financial outposts now incorporated into the global circuits; they all reflect a postcolonial contemporary within a unilateral trajectory into neoliberalism. In this the logic, land transformation gets clouded under clear and easy narratives of‘global gentrification’ and urban renewal (Tang, 2017).

For instance, the framing of'southern urbans’ poses urbans as a diversity of‘landing sites’ constituted around ‘local’ political economies, under capital’s planetary condition. However, tongbian philosophy connects to the complexity of land tenure beyond such implied colonial cartography. As a way to differentiate between diversity and ‘maximal difference’ via spatial analysis, between symbolic spaces versus substantive ones, it allows us to consider colonial and postcolonial reads of the urban. For instance, colonial urban history reveals how land tenurial under colonial administrations remained unsettled and politicized sites: in Bombay (Chhabria, 2018); urban sites across Canada, such as ‘Turtle Island’; and Palestine (Bhandar, 2016); Australia (Verran, 1998); Niger, among other sites in Africa (Lund, 1998); and Indonesia (Li, 2014). Land tenurial practices preceded and persisted through colonialization (albeit in a changed form in contemporary cities). In bridging simplistic binaries of‘use and exchange value’, they disrupt assumptions of trajectory from common tenures to the absolute individual titles. However, much of the postcolonial writings miss such complexity: set into ‘passivity’ in a neat trajectory from a ‘mystical commons’ to disciplined territorial formations of neoliberal‘speculative urbanism’, tenure lies on a ladder that has been mobilized by followers of Desoto to propagate the Torrens titling responsible for ethnic cleansing in Australia. Land turned into singular meaning remains not only a problematic analytical frame (speculative urbanism, frontier urbanism, gentrification, southern urbanism and planetary urbanization) but also risks reinforcing a real politics of violence and erasure.This implicates ‘policy-oriented’ elite researchers who naively frame narratives of‘citizenship rights’ linked to access to water, corruption of proper policy by touts, brokers to routinely conflate these as ‘land mafia’with criminal groups. In effect, this reinforces powerful land developers by de-legitimizing and criminalizing competing claimants to land and infrastructure.

A political shift implies moving beyond just diversity: Mere identifying and labelling more modes of ownership, tenure and usage and, accordingly, elaborating the usually neglected ones, such as those in ‘the south’, is only the first step. Once this is done, the political space around an interrogation of ownership, tenure-fixes and usage diachronically enables us to make sense of its present from its past and connected rather than independent of others. Thus it is equally imperative to comprehend synchronically the relationships between one and another. The diachronic and synchronic relationships to pose understandings of ‘maximal difference’ resulting from varied forces interacting in mutually embedded ways. Such sharpened analysis is used when we move into the postcolonial analysis of land tenurial practices. Here criticality via the tongbian philosophy is possible via nuanced work. For instance, Bhandar’s (2016) analytic of planning in Palestine usefully mobilizes law in recombinant ways that rework linear views of land transformation. The attention to societal dynamics is emphasized by legal pluralism theorists (Benda-Beckmann et al. 2006; Webber, 2009). Such complexity concerning different histories of land tenures and occupancies is discernible in three realms: (1) ‘everyday’ bureaucratic politics that include spaces of planning departments, such as in a Taiwanese municipality (Bernstein, 2008); (2) judicial spaces mediated varied property-territorial logic, as witnessed in Taiwan’s urban sacred ground (Lin and Tsai, 2014) in India (Balachandran,2018) and in Toronto spaces of planning regulations (Valverde, 2008); c) land as situated history gets ‘peopled’ where tenures, claims and meanings shape occupancies to be ‘layered over time’, as reflected in Simone’s (2015) mobilization of‘indeterminate’ space where ambiguity opens up such potentiality, where land in these conceptions remains inherently ‘unsettled’ and capable of reflecting but also generating new power structures.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >